The pair charge at the goal of success in this market and nationally. It’s a competition neither league really asked for, but it’s also not one that either is willing to back away from.
Two well-known local sports operators — Prodigal and Sold Out Strategies — find themselves on opposite sides. Prodigal, led by owner Bob Funk Jr., plans to bring a USL Pro team to the city that will start play next year. Sold Out Strategies, led by Brad Lund — best known for his work as the longtime general manager of the now-defunct Oklahoma City Blazers hockey team — would like to bring an NASL team to town, starting in 2015, although an ongoing lawsuit involving Lund’s company and the USL means an outside party, local businessman Tim McLaughlin, has taken the reins of the NASL bid for the time being.
It’s not the first time the two have been at odds through the years. Both sides are confident in their product and think pro soccer will be a smashing success in Oklahoma City. But one question eventually will have to be answered — does the region have enough of a soccer fan base to support two teams?
“It will be up to the community to decide,” McLaughlin said.
Soccer a hit-and-miss proposition
The history of professional/semipro soccer in Oklahoma City has been checkered at best, with teams and leagues coming and going over the last three-plus decades.
“We’ve got to sustain it over a long period of time, not just one year when everybody is excited,” Brian Harvey, the longtime Oklahoma City University coach, who has also coached several pro/semipro teams, said. “It’s got to be over a long period of time. I think we are at the stage where we can support a well-run, first-class franchise.”
Funk said that he first looked at bringing a pro soccer franchise to Oklahoma City in the early 2000s and initially considered a Major League Soccer franchise but decided against it. The idea came back up midway through 2010, when Funk said he began talking with the USL. He and John Allgood, Prodigal’s senior executive vice president of new business development, openly talk of using the USL Pro franchise as a springboard into MLS — North America’s top soccer league.Meanwhile, Sold Out Strategies reached a deal in December to operate a USL Premier Development League (PDL) franchise, Oklahoma City Football Club, starting this year. Lund’s group also wanted to eventually run a USL Pro franchise and submitted an application to the USL in May.
Sold Out Strategies and McLaughlin, figuring they wouldn’t be the USL’s choice, also had begun pursuing an NASL franchise in April. On June 17, the Oklahoma City School Board heard presentations from both Prodigal and Sold Out Strategies about a proposed lease agreement for Taft Stadium, which is under renovation.
The school board quickly chose the group that included McLaughlin, a major benefactor of Oklahoma City Public Schools. Funk said during the board meeting that the USL planned to establish a pro franchise in the city, and Prodigal made the official announcement July 2.
Four days after the board meeting, the USL sent a cease-and-desist letter to Oklahoma FC, threatening a lawsuit if Sold Out Strategies didn’t immediately drop the idea of seeking an NASL franchise. The USL cited a clause in its contract with Sold Out Strategies concerning the USL PDL team that prevented the ownership group from having any interest in any soccer team that participates in a “rival league.”
Sold Out Strategies, Lund and others responded June 28 by filing a federal lawsuit against the USL, claiming the USL acted in bad faith and that the contract clause is not enforceable. (Sold Out Strategies has disassociated itself from McLaughlin while the lawsuit is pending.) USL President Tim Holt said the league’s position “is that (Sold Out Strategies) is in violation of its PDL agreement because of its involvement in a rival league.”
Which ‘ball’ is better?
Which brand of soccer is better, the NASL or USL Pro? It depends. In level of competition, the U.S. Soccer Federation considers the NASL to be Division II and USL Pro to be Division III. According to figures provided by the NASL, the annual league dues for the NASL ($225,000) are considerably higher than those for USL Pro ($35,000) and the NASL has a higher player payroll ($500,000 per franchise) than does USL Pro ($224,000).
Plus, the NASL has name recognition, although the current NASL is not the same league as the NASL of the 1970s and 1980s, which achieved fame by bringing in foreign superstars, such as Pele, and had franchises that included the Tulsa Roughnecks before folding in 1985.
“We have a product that has a great history. It has a high level of play. We’re going to be playing in probably the most historic stadium in Oklahoma City, revamped and polished up, with a great amount of soccer specifics to enhance it for the fans,” McLaughlin said.
USL Pro has something the NASL does not: a player development agreement with MLS, the unquestioned top pro soccer league in the U.S. USL Pro and MLS Reserve League teams compete in interleague play, and by next year, as many as 10 MLS teams will have formal affiliation agreements with USL Pro franchises, according to Todd Durbin, MLS executive vice president of player relations and competition, who spoke to reporters at the recent MLS All-Star game in Kansas City, Kan.
“What do we want as Oklahoma City?” Allgood asked. “Do we want an MLS franchise? If you want a MLS franchise, there’s a clear path to get there and there’s one team to support, if that’s what you want. It’s the best and only path to MLS.”
It’s a winner
The idea of eventually having an MLS franchise in Oklahoma City isn’t so far-fetched. Oklahoma City’s name has been bandied about by national media, including Sports
Illustrated and NBC Sports, as a potential expansion site for the league, which plans to grow from its current 19 teams to 24 by 2020.
Prodigal already has announced plans to build a soccer-specific stadium at a yet-to-be-announced site in Oklahoma City.
Initial plans call for the stadium to seat about 7,000 fans, with the potential to be expanded to 20,000 seats to meet MLS standards.
The fear among Oklahoma City soccer fans, of course, is that the ultimate goal of placing an MLS franchise in the city will be short-circuited because the battling groups divide the local fan base.
That’s a particular concern for Harvey, who has become a sort of godfather of the sport in Oklahoma City after moving here more than three decades ago from his native Liverpool, England.
“I just want soccer to succeed,” he said. “I just don’t see two franchises succeeding. We all need to pull together and not pull apart. Soccer has always been the outsiders’ sport. Now we have our foot in the door and have a chance to make it happen. We just need to pull together and pool our resources.
“If both franchises fail, there will never be another chance for soccer to succeed in the city. That would be unfortunate for the state of Oklahoma.”