Ricketts’ deal latest win for USL
Tom Ricketts may have raised eyebrows around the sports industry when news broke that the Chicago Cubs owner will pay $3.5 million for a controlling stake in a second-tier soccer expansion team in the Windy City that is aiming to play in a new 20,000-seat stadium. But for the United Soccer League, it’s just another sign of continued growth.
“It speaks to the ambition of the USL to really get quality organizations and quality ownership groups like this driving all of our clubs forward,” said President Jake Edwards. “This is sort of an evolution of the USL, and a reflection of the quality of owners and the size of scale of the clubs that we have now.”
Roughly two months into its 2018 season, the USL is already setting high-water marks. The first week of May saw it draw more than 100,000 fans for a week’s worth of games for the first time. It is on track to draw more than 3 million fans this year, up from just over 2 million last year. While much of that has been driven by the league’s expansion — six new teams joined the USL this season, giving it 33 overall — nearly every team has had year-over-year attendance increases thus far.
League revenue is also rising. Edwards said that clubs have seen a 34 percent increase in revenue over last year, on average, with a leaguewide increase of 60 percent in total revenue and a 72 percent rise in sponsorship revenue.
Much of that has been driven by the increased exposure of the USL through its new two-year deal with ESPN, which has all of the league’s games on ESPN+ and also will have six league games appear on that network’s linear networks. Edwards declined to comment on the financial impact of the deal, saying the league is not at “rights fee territory yet,” before adding, “We’re investing in the growth.”
Expansion is also on the horizon for the USL, with the league finalizing plans to add clubs in Albuquerque, N.M., and Hartford, Conn., for next season, as well as launching a third-division league that could swell the teams under the USL umbrella to more than 50 by 2020.
There is also a new brand relaunch, while the USL is speaking with several corporate partners for league-level partnerships, including a potential naming-rights partner for an intraleague cup competition it is considering launching.
While the Ricketts-led Chicago USL team will not debut until 2020 at the earliest and play on the North Side, it represents the first time that the league is entering a market that already has a separately owned MLS club — a moment that Edwards said the league has been building toward.
“Going back a few years, the city and the fandom of soccer was perhaps not well enough to support two teams,” he said. “I think you’ve seen a shift and a change now in the nature and intensity of the support our teams are getting. In certain cities, Chicago being one, I think there is room for another team given the right location and positioning of it — it’s an evolution perhaps of where our sport is, and where the league is.”