Can MLS and USL Compete in Same Market? We’ll See

Austin FC stadium rendering June 2019

While it’s not unusual to see MLS and USL teams in the same market, the MLS parent always controls both teams, and the situation isn’t a competitive one. In Austin, we’re heading toward a situation where the MLS and USL teams are in competition.

Austin has been the Holy Grail for professional soccer, but a prior USL team, the Austin Aztex, faced several facility issues, with one iteration moving to Orlando and another folding. In addition, the market was on MLS’s radar for several years before Anthony Precourt pulled the trigger on a new team, setting up lots of drama while working with the league to set up a new team in Columbus. (MLS is a membership league, not a franchise league; Precourt and MLS arranged a new ownership group to take over the Columbus territory, leaving behind the Crew assets while moving on to a new Austin team and stadium.)

In the meantime, USL finally achieved a longtime goal in finding an established business owner to set up a USL Championship team, Austin Bold. That team began play this season, but after a season-opening sellout, Austin Bold has ended up averaging 2,693 fans a game, good for 24th in the 36-team circuit. Meanwhile, Austin FC has moved forward with city approval for a privately financed stadium at McKalla Place while also notching over 30,000 season-ticket seat deposits.

The apparent success of Austin FC came after lots of wrangling and politicking between the Precourt group and a coalition of Austin Bold ownership and anti-stadium activists that opposed the McKalla Place deal. They ended up gathering enough signatures to force a referendum that would prevent similar deals in the future, though their original goal was to strike the McKalla Place deal. And it’s gotten personal: personality clashes have punctuated the debate, leading many to wonder whether Austin FC and Austin Bold can exist in the same market. The early answer is maybe, according to the Austin Chronicle:

[Austin FC President Andy] Loughnane, like [Austin Bold owner Bobby] Epstein, insists that he hopes the Bold succeeds, and that he doesn’t hold a grudge against the team or its majority owner for trying to foil MLS’s Austin efforts. “We are supportive of soccer at all levels,” Loughnane told us, “but we are focused on what we control, and what we control is the opportunity to create a successful Major League Soccer team in Austin.”

As of now, the two teams won’t have the formal developmental relationship that other MLS teams have with nearby USL sides. As of February 2018, 19 MLS teams had announced they would either own or officially affiliate with a USL club; 10 of those pairs operate in the same market or a neighboring one. However, there are also successful pairings of MLS and USL teams in distant markets – such as USL’s San Antonio FC and MLS’s New York City FC – that help build fan support for the growing sport.

Both Epstein and Loughnane told us they would be open to a bit of fence-mending, but neither would say what that might look like or who would initiate it; it would seem that the Bold have more to gain from a partnership, but Epstein isn’t there yet. But fans don’t seem to care: An informal survey of a dozen spectators at the June 8 Bold match revealed that none were even familiar with the conflict between the two team owners. All said they would be open to attending matches at both stadiums.

As noted, there are several markets with both MLS and USL (either USL Championship or USL League One) teams, including Atlanta, Salt Lake City, Washington, Kansas City, New York, Los Angeles, Orlando and Portland. Other MLS teams are looking at setting up USL teams in their market, we’re told. In Seattle, the Sounders shed the business side of its USL team to a Tacoma group, but retained control of the player side. But these are all situations where the USL teams are clearly run as development squads and not necessarily as money-making enterprises, and there’s no competitive situation between the two squads. Nashville SC CEO Ian Ayre doesn’t foresee a USL team playing in the market after SC moves us to MLS.

Rendering courtesy Gensler.

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