By Marc Weber
Before Monday, the Team Owners Association (TOA) was a relatively-unknown entity.
That changed when the group fired a salvo expressing "extreme disappointment" in Nike's decision to sell the United Soccer Leagues to NuRock Soccer Holdings last week, and made public its desire to pursue "all league options for the 2010 season and beyond."
The TOA consists of current USL-1 team owners in Carolina, Miami, Minnesota, Montreal and Vancouver, as well as the on-hiatus Atlanta Silverbacks, 2010 expansion franchise Tampa Bay and prospective owner St. Louis Soccer United.
"It's about the professionalizing of USL-1," said Whitecaps president Bob Lenarduzzi. "There's been discussion for a year-and-a-half now with regards to the team owners having more of a stake — and say — in how the league is run."
The Whitecaps men's team is leaving for Major League Soccer in 2011, but they have squads throughout the 700-team USL pyramid — PDL, W-League and Super Y — and could look to retain a USL-1 team in another market.
Umbro used to own USL, but when Nike bought Umbro in 2007, the apparel giant also took ownership of the league which has an annual revenue of around $5 million US.
Among other bids in competition with the NuRock offer was one from a group of current team owners, led by Traffic Sports, which runs Miami FC. Lenarduzzi wouldn't confirm if Vancouver was part of that group, but Carolina and Minnesota were reportedly in the mix and Lenarduzzi said there were more.
NuRock is led by Atlanta-based real estate mogul Rob Hoskins and former North American Soccer League player Alec Papadakis, a franchise attorney. Hoskins will serve as chairman of USL, while Papadakis is the CEO. Nike remains involved as a major league sponsor.
"We have seen the announcement from the TOA, which contains several incorrect statements, but have no further comment at this time," said Tim Holt, league president.
One of the biggest concerns of the TOA, according to Lenarduzzi, is the history of franchises coming and going from USL-1. The California Victory folded in 2007 after one season. The Virginia Beach Mariners fielded a team for a decade but failed after 2006. And the Atlanta Silverbacks backed out of the '09 campaign in order to "reassess the landscape."
The TOA feels the league's ownership structure has stunted its growth and recognition. They refer to NuRock as another "third-party" owner, although NuRock does own a Premier Development League team in Atlanta, and has rights to acquire USL-1 teams in Atlanta and Birmingham, Ala.
"We have a very sincere interest in the USL," said Lenarduzzi. "It goes beyond the senior men's team."
The TOA represents just under half of USL-1 — a league that is set to expand to 13 teams next season with the addition of Tampa Bay and New York, though reports out of Miami suggest that franchise could be done with the failed Traffic Sports bid.
"We're committed to playing in 2010, but at the same time we're continuing to explore options." said Lenarduzzi. "The objective right now is to sit down with the new ownership group and see if there's a willingness to discuss what was discussed with Nike."
One would assume that sit-down was going to happen regardless, so the objective seems to also be a ratcheting up of what could be a noisy public relations battle over the league's future.
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