"It was a strange time to be involved in the game, especially when you look at it 20 years later."
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Welcome to American Pyramid everyone! Today's interview is a bit of a departure from the norm. I first encountered Kenn Tomasch on the forums over at Big Soccer, occasionally agreeing, occasionally sparring. He was gracious enough to take the time to do this interview, and before I let you get into I'll warn you up front: He's a very logical guy and makes a living as writer, so his answers are thorough, well thought, and might not make you happy. But it's going to be worth the time to read all the way through. Check it out.
Lets start simple. Who you are, where you're from, what you do kind of thing.
I'm Kenn Tomasch, I am a writer, editor and multimedia content producer for a large communications company and I live in Phoenix, Arizona. (Though I am originally from Tampa, Florida, which is where I first fell for soccer through the original NASL's Rowdies.) I used to work as a soccer broadcaster and front-office type, but now I'm more of a historian of the game.
The original Rowdies? What was it about them that you got you interested in working in soccer?
Oh, the two aren't related. I fell in love with THE GAME because of them.
When I became aware of sports in a real sense about age 11, we only had two teams in Tampa: the Bucs, who were terrible, and the Rowdies, who were terrific. It was all very intoxicating in those days. They were winners and they were stylish and flamboyant and hip. Easy to fall in love with. Working in soccer didn't happen until much, much later.
Alright. Where all have you wound up working in soccer? I've heard some whispers here and there, but Bigsoccer whispers aren't always the most reliable.
Well, I was a local TV sportscaster in Indianapolis from 1992-1996. One day in February 1996, the Continental Indoor Soccer League announced they were putting a team in Indianapolis. I met the owner, put a tape of some of the hockey work I had done (I hadn't done any soccer broadcasting, but had called many other sports) in his hand and said I wanted to do play-by-play work for the team.
I ended up as the team's radio play-by-play announcer. Later that fall, the (then) USISL announced THEY were putting a team in Indianapolis, too. I became that team's media relations person and, eventually, was working for both teams doing media relations and broadcasting.
The indoor team only lasted one more year (ditto for the CISL) and I wound up working full-time for the outdoor team in communications, operations, sales, strategy, a number of things.
That team was affiliated with the Chicago Fire of MLS, and through that connection, I met Peter Wilt. When I moved to Chicago for family reasons in 2001, I worked that connection and eventually started doing public address work for them when they played in Naperville. Which led to doing radio and webcast game play-by-play and, eventually, to the gig as the team's television announcer from 2005-2007. And in the middle of that, the second MISL put (yet) another team in Chicago and I did their radio and TV for two seasons, too. For a time, I was the only guy regularly calling indoor soccer and outdoor soccer simultaneously. For what THAT's worth.
Wow. That sounds like the wild west. You mentioned teams from four different leagues, which is a crazy amount. How would you describe the soccer scene in the US in the 90's? What all was even going on then?
When I started actually working in the game, it was way different from today's landscape. MLS was just starting, most thought it would fail. What was then the A-League was in the process of merging with what was then the USISL to create a big second-division league. There was a third division league that was even bigger and even more chaotic and then we had indoor. There was the winter NPSL and the summer CISL (and, for a time, the lower-level EISL).
The US women had become darlings after the Atlanta Olympics (though they had won a largely ignored Women's World Cup in 1991 and finished third in 1995). The men had surprised at the 1994 World Cup as hosts, but this new system of CONCACAF qualifying (the Hex, which we recognize today) was just beginning. Expectations were not high for much surrounding soccer in America in the 1996-97 time frame, as I recall.
It was a strange time to be involved in the game, especially when you look at it 20 years later. At the time, I had been away from actively following the game after the NASL died when I was a sophomore in college, so I didn't even know what I didn't know. I was just happy to have a gig at that point. I wasn't thinking too deeply about how it would all play out.
That's still 5 leagues. Would you say it was more chaotic in the mid 90's then it is now, even with all of these regional leagues going on now like the UPSL, PLA, ASL and APSL?
I think the lessons learned in that period - and the overall rise in interest in the game, thanks to A LOT of factors - have helped stabilize this era and made it possible for those other leagues to get off the ground at all.
We have a lot of kind of off-the-wall leagues now. (I am definitely not sold on the ASL or UPSL, the PLA seems intriguing, though. And I had no idea someone was using the APSL name again.) But our main leagues are more stable now, thanks in part to the USSF standards. Which was the idea. (These proposed things like the US-AFL and Futbol USA have no chance.)
The others are kind of fly-by-night, but half or more of the second and third divisions were fly-by-night then.
What is the US-AFL and Futbol USA? I haven't heard of these leagues before.
With good reason.
The USAFL is a supposed attempt to create a pro/rel system. They have, like, one team someplace and raised a few hundred bucks in crowdsourcing. (us-afl.com). There's a thread in it, I think it's titled "The Countdown Reached Zero And..." https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/united-states-association-football-leagues#/
Crowdsourcing. Most of the $405 came from the league's organizer himself.
Futbol USA is apparently an attempt at the same kind of deal, but predominantly for the Hispanic population. There is a thread on it, I think it's titled "(Sigh) Another New League."
Crowd sourcing for a league? That is sure fire stretch. And would explain why I haven't heard more about them. Now, I do know from your posts on BigSoccer that you are not behind pro/rel, at least in the states. Do you think that pro/rel, in general, is a good idea or not? I've been reading the Economics of Soccer, and it's really got me thinking about this question.
My position has been misinterpreted.
I have no problem with the concept. It is not difficult to understand, it creates more of a meritocracy and would be fun and interesting.
It is simply not workable here because of the gap in operational wherewithal between our three professional divisions. (And the massive investment that MLS I/Os have made.)
And my major issue has been with the people who shout that pro/rel:
A) Is possible here
B) Is mission-critical here
C) Would solve all of our problems
Because B and C are absolutely untrue and A is untrue now and for the foreseeable future.
Most of these people just want an American landscape that LOOKS like Europe's, whether or not it is workable, and don't stop to think about it for more than 60 seconds. And they think all of our ills would just magically go away if it were somehow instituted tomorrow, and that all the reasons it can't be would just cease to be an issue if they just did it.
Also see an article I wrote a couple years back for Stadium Journey magazine. (Copy Available by Request. Email me, American Pyramid, or give me a shout on Twitter and I'll get it to you)
Misrepresentation? On BigSoccer? Not possible! Total sarcasm. Serious question though. Since you were involved with soccer in, lets call it the 'Paleocene Era' of American soccer, what would be a solid, logical step for American Soccer to take the next leap forward?
I think we have taken it. I think the USSF standards - which I was calling for (at a league level) as far back as 1998) have stabilized things and created an environment where we don't have used car salesmen and phantom investors owning teams (both of which happened in Virginia Beach).
The rest will just take time. Academies that can produce pro-quality players at a young age who can skip college soccer will be the next thing that spurs us upward. Many are in place and will sprout plants soon. (Some have already.)
That sounds pretty logical, maybe not as sexy as some of the other options, but a sound step for sure. Now, Virginia Beach. What exactly happened there?
Google "Mike Sidebottom + Mariners"
I think that name might tell me everything I need to know. Now, since you run a blog that's very much focused on stats, what role do you think statistics will play in soccer moving forward?
Oh, analytics are being integrated into every sport. Things like Opta are giving clubs more information about their players' actions and abilities than ever before.
Having lived through that once with baseball, I figure it will follow the same arc: if there is enough interest in the numbers to generate money, people will work to come up with all sorts of numbers. They will be mis-used or misunderstood, but eventually the ones that are simple and elegant and tell us something we didn't know before will survive.
Eventually, we will know everything about everybody. But analytics don't appeal to everyone and anyone over forty is more likely to be dismissive of them because (as you always hear), they believe their eyes tell them everything they need to know.
Like in Moneyball, where the scouts just like how the player looks kind of deal? Such an odd way to approach the game. Now, one of the things I've been reading about that I'd be interested to get your take on is stadiums. Personally, I believe a good step forward for any team is to get there own stadium, whether that's building new or getting control of an existing one. Do you think stadiums are important to growth and survival of these lower level teams?
I am on record with this one. Stadiums - and the scheduling and revenue capture opportunities they provide, as well as the ability to present the game in a proper way - have been critical to MLS' growth and sustainability. Now the lower levels need to follow suit.
USL has a(n aggressive) goal of getting all their teams in purpose-built stadiums by 2020. For these clubs to put down roots and be able to thrive financially (especially since no big TV money is likely to come to the lower levels any time soon) would send a strong message about viability, which has been a huge issue in the lower level universe for years now.
The NASL needs to do this, too. Tampa Bay at least controls its former baseball park and has made a ton of improvements and branding to it, so it's not as essential for them as for some other clubs, which are either in places that are not really suitable (like Jacksonville), not ideal (like Indianapolis) or too big (like Ottawa and Miami).
But the lower levels need to get their clubs into their own yards, yes.
One of the things I've been reading about, and this looks like something the Cosmos are attempting, is hitching a stadium to mixed use property development, like super markets, hotels, that sort of thing, and in particular, when the development is downtown. Is that type of arrangement the best way for teams in the USL and NASL to get their own stadiums?
How has it worked out for the Cosmos?
How did it work out at One Loudoun?
Who has actually pulled that off?
And how can it be the best way forward if no one is actually pulling it off?
Valid points. Pretty sure the teams that have pulled off something like this are doing it as part of a sports complex, and then usually a renovation, not something new. Lane United in Oregon came really close, but then the old grandstand burned down.
One of the things I've heard online from soccer fans is that USSF standards aren't what they should be because under their guidelines, a team like Bournemouth wouldn't be allowed in MLS. Or Chattanooga in a higher level like USL or NASL, if they tried to go there. What do you make of that objection?
Bournemouth would struggle in MLS, just because of the travel.
Our landscape and England's are so different and their history and traditions so much richer than ours that Bournemouth or the other Green Bay-like clubs over there are not valid comparisons.
As for Chattanooga, they do a great job. But if they want to be fully professional, they have to be able to demonstrate the financial wherewithal to do that. One of our major problems in the 1996-2010 period (when 60-75% of new clubs failed) was that owners' eyes were bigger than their stomachs and USL (in particular, as they were the only lower-level outfit then) would just sell franchises to under-capitalized, inexperienced owners who could finagle a lease at a local high school stadium.
Lower-level clubs don't fail at the rate they once did, in very large part because of the safeguards installed with the standards. Anyone who doesn't see that as a positive has some strange ideas. Just because a club draws well for a short period of time doesn't mean they should just instantly be moved up and get a free pass to the next level because the other issues will just magically work themselves out. History tells us it's not easy to make the move from the amateur ranks to the professional ranks.
As for Chattanooga, it's funny how they are now the favorite talking point for pro/rel advocates. They are usually fixated on results-based promotion, and Chattanooga hasn't actually, you know, WON their league. And if they are advocating CFC get to move up because of attendance, they are drifting out of their lane and beginning to advocate for clubs with some demonstrated financial abilities to get promoted. And, lastly, if they claim there is some conspiracy to keep Chattanooga down, it's nonsense. They could go pro right away if they wanted to. They would have to bolster their ownership and backing to do so and meet some standards that I don't believe are onerous. So you have to pay for stuff? Boo hoo. That's America. You have to pay for stuff here.
These are the same arguments as were made on behalf of Rochester at the turn of the century. They were outdrawing a handful of MLS clubs and having success in the Open Cup, so, of course MLS just HAD to let them in and the thought was they would double their attendance and everything would be hunky dory. Only, as we came to find out, their ownership was specious and left bad debts all over town and they are now on their third ownership group in 20 years.
It's hard to do this. It should be. Making it too easy created the landscape of the late 90s/early 2000s when you never knew if a club would be back the following year.
Rochester is an interesting example, their story tends to get swept under the rug a bit. Do you think the main reason the pro/rel crowd leans towards team like Detroit and Chattanooga as positive examples has more to do with their crowds making the lower levels good, rather then making sure the teams in the lower levels are truly sustainable?
I can't say because I don't know what they are thinking on that.
I know we need viable teams at all levels for soccer to be truly successful here. And if teams want to be at a higher or lower level than they are currently, there are mechanisms to do that. There are barriers to entry, yes, but those are safeguards.
It's great that Detroit City and Chattanooga do well. (The crowdfunding effort DCFC just undertook for stadium renovations was tremendous.) If they aspire to be more, than can do that. But it needs to not be a Cleveland City Stars situation.
Oh gosh, the City Stars. I remember those guys, Martin Rennie had them doing some special stuff. I still thinking moving up, then losing him and several players to other teams had a big impact of their failure, at least on the competitive side. Rennie is actually coaching in Korea now, of all places. This question is going to be a little out there, but, based on what you've the soccer landscape go through over the last 20 years, what do you think it will all look like in the next 10 years or so?
MLS should settle at about 28 teams. (It serves their purposes to have the supply be less than the demand, it provides a tension that works to their benefit.)
The NASL has to decide what it's going to be: very strong second division, actual MLS competitor or what. I do not believe anyone can mount an actual attack on MLS because MLS has a 20 year and multi billion dollar head start and if they want your market, they can just take it. I am skeptical the NASL can get to 20 solid clubs anytime soon, but maybe they can. But regardless, they need to decide what markets they are going to go after and bolster their investors and infrastructure. And chasing the Quixotic things like forcing pro/rel on MLS or hooking up with the NPSL or trying to get automatic entry to the CONCACAF Champions League just muddy the waters. They need to concentrate on being as good as their investors will allow them to be.
If USL gets second division sanctioning, they are going to have to decide what to do with their "MLS2" teams. I don't know if they will get left behind in a third division or what. But if we have competing second division leagues (and, quite frankly, I am not sure that is a competition USL can win, really), it will be more chaos, I think. And we have had enough of that.
The amateur levels will always be with us, I think. The NPSL has some quality but is where the PDL was in about 1994 in terms of organization. There will have to be some shakeout there.
And the NWSL may have hit on a formula that works: having the big salaries paid by the US, Canadian and Mexican federations. How long the other two feds will participate remains to be seen. But this might be the time that the women's pro game finally manages to survive. (And some alignment with MLS will likely be critical there, at least in some markets.)
It's exciting when you think about it. We are living in a golden age. The question is no longer "Will soccer make it here?" because it already has. The question is what it will look like in five years, ten years, twenty years. And one thing that's probably a safe bet is that none of us can say for certain.
Sounds pretty solid to me. Ready for a couple of rapid fire questions, and we can call this done?
What's your favorite book?
Who's your favorite soccer player, one past, one present.
Don't have a fave at the moment, and haven't since Jesse Marsch retired. Back in the day, I loved Rodney Marsh (though his teammates did not).
Do you have a favorite soccer podcast or talk show?
Have never found one. I don't consume soccer that way anymore. I don't care if someone thinks the US should play 4-4-2 or 4-3-3 and I don't care for the fact that every yahoo with a computer thinks they can host a shot.
What are your US soccer predictions for 2016?
Copa America won't go well for the men. Qualification will be its usual angst-ridden self, but we always qualify. The women should win the gold in Brazil.
What's your favorite book?
Those predictions sound pretty reasonable. I think this is just about does it on my end. How can people find out more about you and see what you're up too?
My website is www.kenn.com and I am @kenntomasch on Twitter, though I have not had the time to be as active on either as I would like.
Who knows, maybe this will help get you enough readers to quit your day job and write full time?
Nah. I am not very entrepreneurial. Plus, health insurance.
Health insurance is the kicker. I think I've got plenty of material now for the interview now. Thanks for taking the time to do this Kenn, I really appreciate it, and it's been a lot of fun covering some of this ground. Always appreciative of a man who's logical.
Glad to help. Good luck with everything.
Kenn, thanks for taking the time to do this. I really appreciate it, and good luck on in the upcoming season. Remember, if you are enjoying the content I'm putting out, I'd encourage you to click here to Follow me on Twitter, or here to Like the page on Facebook. And if you'd like even more content coming your way on the regular, click here and sign up for the weekly newsletter, and you'll be the first to know when articles are released and 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. I can't accomplish my goal of maximum exposure for all levels of the American Soccer Pyramid without YOU. Until next time, Stay Loyal, Support Local.