USL unveils plan to launch Division III league in the US for 2019

By Paul Nicholson

March 31 – The United Soccer League (USL) is expanding again, this time with the launch of a Third Division men’s professional national league that will start play in 2019.

The USL has grown rapidly in the past two season to 30 teams that kicked off to record league attendances two weeks ago.

The league was granted official second division status by the US Soccer Federation earlier this year in time for the start of the 2017 season, sharing that status with the struggling North American Soccer League (NASL). Both leagues now sit below the MLS in the hierarchy.

Having moved from being regarded as the third division in the US, the USL is now set to create an actual third division, plans its says have been in development for 18 months with discussions with “numerous” potential owners well under way.

“Official branding for the new Division III league, as well as inaugural teams and preliminary competition format will be announced in the summer of 2017,” said the USL in a press release.

The USL franchise system is proving attractive to club owners who pay about $5 million as a one-time buy-in fee. Unlike an MLS franchise, a USL investor owns his franchise (rather than licenses the right to play in the league) and the USL protects that franchise in its local catchment area – it will not licenses a second team in the same space.

Franchises are also tradeable and already ownership groups are selling on and, more often, bringing in new investors. Sacramento, one of the USL’s higher profile franchises and aiming to graduate upwards with the acquisition of an MLS franchise (a much chunkier $100-120 million buy-in), recently had its USL franchise valued at $78 million.

The cost of a franchise for the Division III league has not been released, though it will certainly be less than that for the USL second division. It is also unclear what movement, if any, there could be between the divisions, and what the financial basis for this would be.

As its business case for a Division III league, the USL paoints to and is “targeting communities ranging in population from 150,000 to one million. More than 75 million people in these U.S. markets do not have access to a local professional soccer club…

“The league will focus on launching new third-division clubs in markets that possess strong local ownership groups, populations with broad-based diversity, a vibrant millennial and strong family base, established corporate support, and stadiums to properly showcase the sport for fans, partners and the public.”

USL CEO Alec Papadakis said: “We are in a unique position to lead the sport’s next phase of growth with a proven and exciting competition model, the same which has made the USL the top Division II league in North America. With elite competition and strong ownership groups providing unrivaled fan experiences, the USL will continue shaping the future of professional soccer through a third-division league, cultivating and bonding local supporters through the ‘beautiful game’ for generations to come.”

The USL has built an infrastructure that it says will immediately service the needs of a new challenger league brand. At the head of this infrastructure is USL Productions, the league’s broadcast and content arm that has its production facility in South Florida.

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