The NASL and U.S. Soccer have been at war in the courtroom over standards and reform, but the outspoken, wealthy New York Cosmos owner has plans to swing big for an alternate solution.
“Rocco’s not going to stop.”
Take his word for it (he actually said this). American soccer’s contrarian crusader isn’t giving up, either in court or in his two-pronged quest to reform the U.S. Soccer Federation and relaunch the NASL (or whatever his future MLS competitor might be named).
Rocco Commisso can be considered caustic or controversial, and he’s been a nuisance to some. But that’s often the fate of true believers. And whether or not you share the cable TV magnate’s opinion of the American soccer establishment or endorse his approach, it’s worth noting that he’s willing to back up those beliefs with cash.
As litigation proceeds—NASL owners have filed a pair of lawsuits against the USSF and its board members seeking redress for the loss of the league’s second-division sanctioning—Commisso is trying to bring U.S. Soccer back to the negotiating table. His inducement, according to correspondence viewed by SI.com, is the promise to oversee the investment of at least $500 million in new money in American pro soccer. And half the funding will come from Commisso himself.
Commisso sent a letter to USSF president Carlos Cordeiro, the board, FIFA president Gianni Infantino, Concacaf president Victor Montagliani, and members of the U.S. Senate, on April 13. In that letter, Commisso said he’s spent the past four months putting together a $500 million plan that would “allow new as well as select existing clubs to effectively compete at the highest level,” and that with a green light from the federation, “we could also complete subsequent rounds of financing that could see the initial funding amount double.”
In exchange, Commisso wrote, he wants “written assurances that USSF will give us a sufficiently long runway to allow this new initiative to have a realistic chance to succeed,” along with additional considerations. That means, in part, no sanctioning issues, standards or roadblocks for at least a decade.
Commisso’s suggested terms evoke the settlement discussions that failed last year, but this time there’s a significant price tag attached. Commisso told SI.com that he’s seeking only the same sort of leeway or dispensation that MLS enjoyed in its early years, when stadium and market size weren’t an issue and multiple teams could be owned simultaneously by a single investor.
To start, he said he envisions a 10-team league launching next year in stadiums seating at least 10,000 fans. The $500 million, which likely would include contributions from Miami FC’s Riccardo Silva and Jacksonville Armada’s Robert Palmer, would include funds for upgrading existing venues or the construction of modular facilities. NPSL clubs, some of which planned to join the NASL if it got D2 sanctioning this year, would receive financial support and help round out the new league’s membership. And Commisso said he’d like to implement promotion and relegation “as soon as possible.”
The ultimate goal, he said, would be to secure a TV rights deal. “Soccer leagues can’t survive and grow without TV,” he said. “We can accept division two [sanctioning] at the start, but as you know in the United States, minor league sports … don’t typically get TV deals. It should be up to the market to determine [the size and scope of a TV contract], not U.S. Soccer.”
Commisso said he needs room to pursue that TV deal and a laissez-faire commitment from the federation, and soon, so a 2019 season can take place. But he’s frustrated by the fact that Cordeiro hasn’t agreed to meet in person. The USSF president replied to Commisso’s initial letter on April 19, writing, “We welcome the opportunity to re-open a dialogue and to determine whether there is a mutually agreeable path forward that does not involve a multiplicity of legal proceedings.”
Cordeiro said he was focused on the USA's joint 2026 World Cup bid with Mexico and Canada but was working to identify members of the federation’s “leadership” who could meet with Commisso. Meanwhile, Cordeiro asked Commisso to “provide me with a copy of this initiative/proposal or, at a minimum, a detailed and transparent outline.”
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In an April 23, reply, Commisso insisted his promise to invest $250 million of his own money should be enough to warrant a meeting and admitted, “There is reluctance on our part to share detailed information about our plans and proposals with USSF at this juncture,” because of its relationship with SUM and MLS.
“Instead, the purpose of the first meeting should be to determine if we can re-establish a sufficient level of trust and goodwill to allow us to move forward in good faith to pursue this potential opportunity,” Commisso wrote.
Commisso’s reticence regarding U.S. Soccer is understandable, and it shapes a significant portion of the discourse. He said he’s millions in the red since buying the Cosmos in January 2017. And he felt the deck was stacked against him when the NASL lost clubs to MLS and the USL, and then yanked away when it lost its sanctioning last September. If he’s going to spend $250 million and get others to commit the same, he said, he needs to be guaranteed there won’t be regulatory roadblocks.
In his first letter, Commisso wrote that in addition to the 10-year runway, those guarantees must include: the “elimination of the conflicts arising from USSF’s relationship with MLS and SUM,” or at least a “strong conflict of interest policy that will allow the existing conflicts to be properly managed"; equal representation on U.S. Soccer’s board for each pro circuit; rules addressing “poaching” clubs from rival leagues (both MLS and USL have denied actively poaching NASL teams); and the “utilization of an open and competitive bidding process for the licensing of the [national team] rights currently held by SUM.”
Regarding those broadcast and marketing rights, Commisso said that at any time, he’d be willing to buy them from the federation for more than it receives from SUM. Their contract runs through 2022, but Commisso said that if U.S. Soccer could somehow exit the deal, he’s ready to pay up or happy to lose to a higher bidder. “I’d do it yesterday,” he said.
The federation’s role, he argues, is to do everything in its power to breathe life into the game, not snuff it out when things get complicated or competitive. USSF blamed the NASL for its own demise and said those with a conflict of interest recused themselves from applicable votes. The NASL blamed the USSF, and by extension, SUM and MLS. And now there are lawsuits in federal and New York state court and mistrust and some fatigue on both sides. Commisso has said he wants to meet to see if a relationship can be salvaged, but insists he has every intention of pursuing litigation through the discovery phase while trying to lay the groundwork for a 2019 season. That may not be palatable to U.S. Soccer, which seems more likely to agree to certain concessions if Commisso drops the lawsuits. Commisso probably wouldn't do so, however—and he can’t force Palmer and Silva to—unless the USSF essentially returns his sanctioning, dispenses with the pro league standards and somehow extricates itself from SUM.
There's a lot to talk about. U.S. Soccer contacted Commisso Sunday evening and remains interested in meeting, according to a source. It still wants more details on Commisso’s funding and long-term plan, and said Cordeiro remains unable to get together face-to-face in the near future. The president will be in Jakarta, Dubai and Copenhagen over the next week stumping for the World Cup bid. U.S. Soccer believes, however, that senior federation executives and board members can help get the ball rolling.
It’s a cagey play by Commisso. He’s now committed in writing to injecting half a billion dollars into American soccer. But in turn, he’s put U.S. Soccer on the spot. In time, we’ll learn whether the federation believes the structure and standards that sidelined Commisso and the NASL last fall are more vital to the sport’s stability and long-term growth than all that money.