USL Championship 2021 season still on hold

As we enter 2021, so much of what will happen in the coming months for USL Championship and USL League One will be outside the control of league owners and management—but long-term planning still goes on.

As we enter 2021, so much of what will happen in the coming months for USL Championship and USL League One will be outside the control of league owners and management—but long-term planning still goes on.

Right now the 2021 season is on hold in USL Championship and USL League One, with no schedules released and no firm launch date set. The feeling is that when Minor League Baseball launches, so will USL Championship and USL League One—but that date may not come until Memorial Day, due to reorganization and COVID-19 challenges.

In the long term, there’s plenty of optimism surrounding USL Championship, with new-stadium projects moving forward in Pawtucket and Raleigh. In Pawtucket, RI, state funding for brownfield mitigation at a proposed stadium site was approved in December, moving the Tidewater Landing project moving forward. The proposed $400-million downtown Pawtucket development project led by Brett Johnson of Fortuitous Partners—who is also an owner of Phoenix Risingincludes a new 7,500-seat soccer stadium, retail, residential and office space. In Raleigh, the City Council approved a key rezoning, paving the way for a $2.2-billion new Raleigh stadium development plan for the Downtown South area that will include a 10,000-seat USL Championship stadium, 1.6 million square feet of office space, 1,200 hotel rooms, 1,750 apartments and 125,000 square feet of retail. The plan was rejected by the Raleigh Planning Commission, only to be revived and approved by the City Council. 

Both projects fit squarely in the USL Championship business plan, which calls for soccer-specific venues potentially anchoring larger developments. We’ve seen similar plans floated in Des Moines and Albuquerque.

Short term, however, there are some big issues facing USL Championship and USL League One teams. Like the rest of professional sports, both leagues are essentially on deep hold, with no 2021 schedules released and many teams operating with skeleton staffs. Neither USL league can count on much, if anything, in terms of broadcast revenues, which means teams must live on gate and sponsorship receipts—and with COVID-19 positives trending up, not down, much of the optimism surrounding a return to normalcy in 2021 is dissipating. Vaccination numbers have fallen far short of estimates, and local health officials are still imposing limits on crowd sizes. While MLS and NWSL plans to ease into the 2021 season with late January/early February reporting dates and an MLS regular season beginning in March, we probably won’t see a start to the USL Championship and USL League One seasons until May—at the earliest.

Typifying the situation in USL Championship is the state of affairs for the Las Vegas Lights. One of USL Championship’s more successful teams, drawing 7,711 fans per game in 2019, the Lights suffered through a terrible 2020, as did almost every other USL Championship and USL League One team. Multiple USL Championship teams have folded, including Reno 1868 FC, regarded as one of the better-run teams in the circuit. With no clear plans for 2021, Lights owner Brent Lashbrook has laid off or furloughed most of his staff:

“I think we’ll follow the lead of minor league baseball — about a third of the (USL) owners are minor league baseball owners,” Lashbrook told the Las Vegas Review-Journal. “My guess is that we will all be starting about the same time, but who knows when that is.”

That’s the issue: with such uncertainty, it may better for USL Championship and USL League One to suspend operations rather than to play at a loss. But marketing league memberships to new investors will be a hard sell with the leagues in a suspended situation—and expansion fees are a key part of the financial equation for the league ownership, but a relatively meaningless one for team owners. How and if these leagues return to play in 2021 will be a major storyline in the soccer world in coming months.

Image of Pawtucket’s Tidewater Landing courtesy Pawtucket.

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August Publications