"We are confident that our differences will help our league become a model in the
US Soccer market."
Today's interview is brought to you by SoccerElf.com. SoccerElf.com is a brand new website dedicated to helping people all across the United States find the nearest pick up soccer game. If you can't find one near you, guess what? You can create one. Right now, it's still in the early stages, so AP has partnered with them to help get the word out, get more people on the site, and get more games going everywhere! The more chances to play, the more people will play. And the more people who play, the more the game grows.
Hello again AP readers, it's Thursday! That means it's time for a new interview. More stories, more strategies, and more plans to change the US soccer landscape.
Kevin was gracious enough to take some time and go over several details of the new era for the CSL. He covers the leagues plans for marketing, expansion, instituting promotion and relegation in 2018, and lots of other details. Check it out.
Well let's start really simple. Tell me a little bit about yourself. Who you are, where you're from, and what your role is with CSL USA.
My name is Kevin Hickling, and I am the President of the CSLUSA, based in Tampa, FL. I am originally from Canada and have lived in the United States for 13 years now and received my citizenship 2 years ago.
How did you come to be a fan of soccer?
I have been a player and fan all my life. Growing up in Canada I was exposed to the game and became an instant fan. I don't need high scoring games, but I love the tactics and strategy that sets up great chances (and goals are nice too).
Goals are always nice. What's the story and the history behind the CSL? How and why did the league come into being?
The league was formed in 2014. I had created a new team in the NPSL several years ago, and quickly felt that it was not a good fit for what I saw as the direction soccer needed to go. After that, I explored other leagues before quickly seeing that none offered what I felt owners should be entitled to receive and decided to create a league that truly helped grow the game of soccer in the United States by removing barriers to entry, giving owners a chance to offer players unique development opportunities and create a player-centered league that would give players a chance to make the jump to the next level. Finally, a league based on promotion-relegation that would help to equalize play and allow teams to re-build into winning form after having difficult years, which also keeps fans involved.
We truly want a league that embraces the game and is designed to grow interest from fans and players alike. It is truly disappointing to see how many youth players give up the game after playing for so many years simply because of the lack of opportunity. We want to remove the barriers to entry and allow more teams to provide such opportunities for players.
For those who don't know, where are the teams in your league currently located, and where are you looking to expand to? And I should say, congratulations on the new team in Bristol, RI.
Thank you! We have teams under contract throughout Florida, Massachusetts, now Rhode Island. (with teams in six more states being considered)
We are looking across the US but specifically in the NE, SE and west coast, mid-west and NW likely in 2018 unless we get several more teams wanting in this year.
Makes sense. If I'm a guy looking to start a team, and I'm talking to you about joining the CSL, what would be your 'sales pitch' and some of thr benefits and advantages your league has that I can't get anywhere else?
The biggest difference, I believe, is the honest and true desire to help owners succeed and help players reach their ultimate potential. We keep overhead low and have a lot of 'added value' elements for our ownership that puts money in the hands of teams and helps them out with aspects of ownership that others struggle with. Our league also provides a lot of equipment that helps player performance so that we know exactly how players perform and the aspects of their game in need of improvement. Our new owners will soon experience the difference of playing in our league compared to others and we are confident that our differences will help our league become a model in the US Soccer market.
I saw earlier this week that you have a 'lease to own' option for people looking to have a club in the league. What does that mean exactly, and what would it look like for the person doing it?
The lease to own model is an unique ownership method we developed that helps to remove the barriers to entry. We talk to each owner and customize what they need in terms of support and then we provide it. The exact details behind the model we only share with potential owners after they sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement. I hope you understand. About 2/3 of our clubs use the Lease-to-own model currently.
For sure, not everything can be shared, and I didn't figure you could divulge everything about it. The league has also said it plans to implement promotion and relegation. What convinced you to use that element, and how do you plan to implement that from region to region?
Yes, we will be using promotion and relegation. Obviously unlike the EPL we don't have teams that have been stable for 100 years. Our thoughts on using a regional model are simple. For example, all North East teams starting this year will enter Tier 1. All new teams in year 2 will enter Tier 2. If Tier 1 and 2 have 10 or more teams the bottom 2 and top two respectively will be relegated and promoted. Less than 10 and one will be involved. This will be repeated with the desire to have each region at 3 tiers. At that point we would re-evaluate having additional tiers if popularity warrants it.
Sounds like you are taking a solid, measured approach. That's the kind of thinking it will take to make an idea like this work out on a larger scale, like the North East region, rather than just at the city or state level. A few of the teams that will be playing in the upcoming season are extensions of youth teams. Have you been getting a lot of interest from those kind of teams in particular? I've noticed more and more youth teams are adding adult teams and joining larger leagues.
We have pushed for youth clubs to add teams as it is a logical approach since they already have infrastructure in place. 90% of interested teams have youth clubs in place already.
Is there a specific strategy you have for growing the league via expansion? Like, are you targeting one area at a time to slowly grow and keep travel down, or looking to grow however and wherever you can?
We are looking for expansion across the country. However, we are looking for pockets of teams to, like you said, limit travel and also to help increase stability of teams. So unlike other leagues, teams stay for many years. We want strong teams that will be competitive and that's another great reason for promotion and relegation. If teams don't perform than they will go down levels and have a chance to rebuild and one day regain their top tier place.
Promotion and relegation on a regional scale will certainly be interesting to watch. What are you going to do as a league to help these teams promote themselves and drum up interest? Doesn't seem like enough amateur leagues are doing a good job of marketing.
In my opinion, most leagues are either leaving marketing to individual teams (which you can get all ends of the spectrum with) or they do it as a league. We see often that league marketing tends to focus on people (players, clubs, some fans) that are already involved and therefore are not growing the game.
Without going into specifics, we work with local newspapers to report standings, upcoming games, etc. in a consistent format; promoting through major league teams that have a different fan base and with other minor league teams in different sports that already have a fan base supporting them. Also, streaming games will help to grow fans everywhere and make it easier for them to watch games they can't make it to. Finally, embracing online media and social media requests for information. Those sources help spread the word about the league, teams, and action. By embracing requests for information, this helps to grow interest instead of hiding everything behind a curtain.
I'm intrigued by your idea to work with other minor league to promote your league. Is that something you've started doing and these teams are really interested in, or are you still ironing out the details on how that might work?
We have already had individual teams work with some minor league baseball teams. We are working on other sports and entire leagues (hockey, lax, baseball, etc.) using promotions (just like advertising contracts), co-promoting with mailing lists, and involvement in co-events are aspects that we are working on.
So your teams started doing that on their own? That's pretty cool, seizing the initiative like that. And then for you to see that's a good idea and start doing it on a larger scale. Pretty impressive. Ideally, before the upcoming season takes off, how many teams do you hope to have in your new North East conference?
I had started it with my club when it played in another league and brought that forward with the CSL USA as a league initiative. Most likely the northeast should have 12-15 teams for this upcoming season.
Do you expect any new teams in Florida this year, or is it all about the North East for right now?
We have multiple new teams in Florida looking to join and we will be reviewing their applications soon. We have other markets, too, but we want to ensure there is enough competition this year before we unveil them.
For sure. Expanding without enough competition in the area is a disaster waiting to happen. Does the Florida conference already have promotion and relegation, or will that happen in 2018 too?
It will happen in 2018 as well.
You ready to move into some more short form questions to start wrapping this up?
What is your favorite league and or team to watch for fun?
I am an EPL fan, Liverpool is my club.
Favorite players, one past, one present?
Pelé for sure. Modern. Who can argue with Ronaldo and Messi as being extremely talented, but you can also look at someone like my Liverpool's James Milner that never stops working. But to choose one, I will go with Ronaldo.
Do you have any books or podcasts, soccer related or otherwise, that you would recommend?
Obviously we are a fan of promotion and relegation so there are several bloggers that are big on that, so we would recommend them but nothing specific comes to mind.
That's cool. You get to meet one person from soccer history. Who is it, and why?
A few modern ones, like Eric Wynalda and Alexi Lalas, but not for historical significance. Met them through soccer meetings and events. I would like to sit down with someone like Steven Gerrard as I think it would be a good conversation.
Especially for a Liverpool fan. Would you rather attend the Euro's, AFC Nations Cup, or World Cup?
The World Cup, but I wish their qualifying would change to allow more teams in to create more Cinderella opportunities.
Where can people find out more about yourself and about the league?
www.thecslusa.com, or on Twitter at CSL_USA
Last question to wrap this up. What would you say to someone asking who's asking you why they should get out there and support their local team in your league?
The sport of soccer (football) is amazingly beautiful. Seeing plays set up opportunities and the skills shown on the pitch are second to none. Supporting local clubs is important to grow the game and create opportunities for players to develop. Soccer is the most widely-played game among youth in America, yet most give up the game due to lack of opportunities. Also, some players are not going to University, but are talented players and need a place to hone their skills. Sometimes players only need a year or two to get to the professional ranks, and this is a chance to see them in action and support their development.
Kevin, thanks again for taking the time to help make this happen. Remember, if you are enjoying the weekly content coming out on AP you can Follow AP on Twitter, or Like AP on Facebook. And if you want make sure you never miss an interview, and want to read articles before everyone else, click here and sign up for the Newsletter. You'll be the first to know when articles are released and learn about other exciting content down the road.
Make sure to spread the word by sharing these interviews, telling friends about the blog, those kind of things. AP can't accomplish the goal of maximum exposure for all levels of the American Soccer Pyramid without YOU. Until next time, Stay Loyal, Support Local.