Not only is the USL is the largest Division 2 league in the world, it’s also the fastest growing league in the world. When Sacramento Republic FC joined the USL in 2014 there were only 14 clubs. Fast forward to 2017 and there are 30 clubs participating in the league with more to come.
However, size doesn’t make a league Division 2 and the growth of the league doesn’t end with the number of clubs in play. USL is investing heavily to raise the standard and image of both the league and the clubs that compete within.
Last season, USL made headlines with a $10 Million investment into USL Productions. That investment appears to have already paid off for the league heading into 2017.
With the implementation of USL Productions, we saw a standardized broadcast across all matches in Week 1. With all video being handled in a single location, many clubs have been able to sign television deals to have their matches, both home and away, broadcast with various local affiliates. More than a third of the league now have local TV deals; Richmond, Reno, Cincinnati, to name a few.
Beyond local television deals, the league have a new partnership with ESPN to have more games broadcast on ESPN3 as well as ESPNU. The ESPN deal builds on last season, which saw the USL Cup broadcast on ESPNU.
SiriusXM FC will also broadcast select matches throughout the 2017 season.
In a move to improve infrastructure and create a lively atmosphere for fans and broadcast viewers, the league announced a partnership with HOK, a design and architecture firm, to help get all USL clubs in a Soccer Specific Stadium by 2020.
Since that partnership, Louisville City FC have hired HOK to design a new stadium for the club. Highlighting the push for more Soccer Specific Stadiums in the league are the Rio Grande Valley FC Toros, who opened their 9,700 seat HEB Park in Week 1. Phoenix Rising FC also opened a new Soccer Specific Stadium for the 2017 season.
So far, filing those newly opened stadiums does not seem to be a problem. In Week 1, the league saw a 38 percent rise in opening day attendance with 58,145 fans attending. Four clubs also set club attendance records in Week 1; Richmond welcomed 8,021, Tampa Bay 7,710, Rio Grande Valley 6,000+, and Phoenix sold out its new stadium with 6,890.
The growth and expansion of the league has brought in world-class players this season with Omar Bravo, Joe Cole, Marcel Schafer, and Shaun Wright-Phillips all set to compete this season. Sacramento made news in 2016 with the signing of West Ham legend Carlton Cole. This year Phoenix are making headlines with the possibility of signing Didier Drogba, who spent last season with the Montreal Impact in MLS.
Furthermore, in late 2016 the league partnered with Opta to bring a new dimension into the game, with live statistical analysis of every movement of every regular- and post-season match. The addition of live stat keeping means each club will be able to evaluate their performance with depth not available to the league before. It also allows for a more informative broadcast as commentators will have instant access to on-field statistics of the match they are calling.
No single thing I have mentioned has made the league more legitimate in terms of its new Division 2 title. Every league has some high-level broadcasting, gorgeous stadiums, and can see a bump in competing clubs and attendance. However, each of these steps the league has made is a step in the right direction. Each individual partnership and investment the league has made is a tiny piece that builds a very large and impressive puzzle, and showcases the United Soccer League as truly deserving of their Division 2 sanctioning.
What are your thoughts about USL’s off-season improvements? Let us know in the comments below!