FTP Exclusive: NPSL Stakeholders Express Disappointment In Leadership

To the ordinary soccer fan, the National Premier Soccer League is a semi-professional league, comprising as of 2020 ninety-four clubs rostered with unpaid players. Accredited by the US Adult Soccer Association, players' unpaid status is a foundational element because their NCAA eligibility is predicated on this being true. In this country, the NPSL (and distantly, the UPSL) is amongst the highest level of competition before reaching the vetted stratum of professional soccer. It is one of the largest 'pro-am' leagues, and arguably one of the most professionally run.

First Team Podcast has spoken to various people throughout the league and one thing has become apparent: the NPSL is in trouble. From club owners not having a voice, to not feeling there getting enough value from their participation in the league, to the deepening of uncertainty stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Throughout our conversations, one common theme arose: the contrast between experiences with the current leadership, and how the previous, with Joe Barone as chairman, engaged with the owners. Joe Barone, former NPSL chairman and vice president for the New York Cosmos, departed in 2019 to take on management responsibilities with Serie A side Fiorentina. A person close to the situation said, “ once Joe resigned from the NPSL, that was the beginning of the end of the NPSL as we knew it”.

“Joe Barone was so approachable," one owner said. "He would call owners a couple of times a year and get owners opinions before making a decision, Cindy and Kenny (the current NPSL Leadership) would just send an email”. A number of NPSL owners described a professional relationship where they were engaged with directly and in a positive fashion. But with Barone's departure, times appear to have changed.

NPSL's current management consists of a board of directors whose members are unpaid and voted in by the ownership group. NPSL's management and staff are however paid salaries. Each year the league hires seasonal workers to register players due with the league’s database.

The main person that calls the day-to-day shots on behalf of the board of directors is the managing director, Cindy Spera.

Spera has long been involved with soccer; from playing for Cornell University (1988-1991) to the Long Island Lady Riders (1994-2002) in the defunct W-League. She earned three USASA national championships with New York Athletic Club; as a player (2007), player/chairperson (2010) and chairperson of soccer (2014). She served as chairperson for New York Athletic Club for five years while also serving on its board of directors. She also spent time as the commissioner of the North Region for the Women’s Premier Soccer League and currently is a conference liaison. Spera also served on the Cosmopolitan Soccer League’s board of directors for two years.

With the NPSL, Spera assumed the role treasurer and later as the league’s director of operations. In 2018, she was named the managing director. “This is an exciting time to be involved with soccer in this country,” Spera said. “The amateur game and grassroots soccer, and leagues like the NPSL, will play an important part in the evolution of soccer in the United States. I am excited to apply my combination of soccer and business experience to develop the league and bring it to the next level of success.”

With someone who has lived and breathed college, amateur and 'pro-am' soccer, one expected much from the NPSL's managing director in the wake of Barone's departure. Navigating the opaque fallout from NPSL's attempt to spin up a professional league ('NPSL Pro') that transitioned NPSL from a mix of paid and unpaid players to purely unpaid, possibly as a condition for retaining its USASA sanctioning, however left a pall over the league as it entered the 2020 season. According to a person close to the league requesting anonymity, however, “ compared to Joe Barone, Cindy’s relationship with U.S Soccer is not there”.

Director of Football and Head Coach of Hartford City FC Nick Balisterri has shared that he “has seen a lot of positives since Cindy has been named Managing Director. Minimum standards which include showers, locker rooms for player and match officials, ball boys, match day staff, pizza after the game, scoreboard and the like have improved. “I believe there is value in being a NPSL Club. If we joined the next level [e.g., USL League 1, NISA, etc.] we wouldn’t be able to be sustainable”, said Nick Balisterri.

According to people with knowledge of the league's financial situation, managing director Cindy Spera is paid a six figure salary each year. The NPSL promotes itself as open and transparent, and a place where all of the club owners have a say. But some NPSL owners suggest results towards these goals are mixed.

Some comments from club ownership sources express frustration with perceived complacency with the status quo. “People are paid comfortably [in league management]...there’s a tight knit club and they don’t want to lose their power” "The leadership has been stagnant." "I think they work hard, not smart. It shows, with the budget and their leadership”.

The league employs 4-5 people, on about 60k a year. This is slightly uncommon for 'pro-am' leagues but it also speaks to the money that the league generates is mostly from the very high yearly fee, which is $5,500, not to mention the huge expansion fee. All the money the league generates is put in a pot and is divided into multiple categories, from national playoff subsidies, league staff , etc. The leagues yearly budget is high six figures, with the league subsiding National Playoff travel in the region of $150k every single season.

On the league’s yearly annual budget, according to a source: 20% goes to the playoff subsidies and about 40% is used to pay the permanent staff.

Most leagues have a central league office, but the NPSL is different in that regard, all league staff work remotely and the only time all the owners are in the same room along with the board is when they host the league AGM.

The NPSL AGM, is a time when all members of the league gather in a NPSL market to vote on leadership and to discuss the future of the league. Most of the people I have talked to throughout the league, have mentioned that before they even land, most of the decisions have been made and the only reason they show up, is to vote for leadership and to approve the budget. Owners don’t see the documents until they are at the meeting and only have minutes to discuss. One source mentioned: “The people that are voted in, are backbones to the system”.

An example from a previous AGM, from a source close to the situation, “the board of directors berates owners when there are objections, arguments precede, the board then says they are out of time to discuss and rush to approval”.

Each owner has to cover their own expenses on the trip, the league doesn't compensate for travel or hotel. One owner has told FTP, that if you are trying to be on a tight budget, you can waste about one thousand dollars on the trip, from plane, food and hotel. The league used to provide food, but that is not the case anymore.

With what’s going on in the world right now, Covid-19, the league might want to consider having a virtual owners meeting, so money can be saved and hopefully they can make more progress.

Before the national stay at home orders and other guidelines were put in place by state governors due to the spread of the coronavirus, there was a situation involving the league and one of their member clubs. A match was scheduled and players feared, showing up and playing the sport which involves close contact with the opponent and match officials. Players were calling up the club's coach threatening a lawsuit, and the club’s owner called up the league and did the same thing. The league was communicating with the club that, “if you don't play the game, there will be a fine, or lose points. Hours before the scheduled kickoff, the state’s governor enacted their Covid-19 protocol and the match was then suspended, because they would be breaking the law, if the match would have gone on.

Throughout most of our conversations with NPSL people on and off the record, we realized that there are a lot of problems in the league that the management and board are probably not aware of. The league does have procedures for owners grievances to be heard. For example, if an owner had a problem, the complaint would be sent to the conference liaisons, which serve as a buffer and then the complaint is sent to the league staff. Enter, Robin Shacket, Director of Operations and Club Services at the NPSL. According to a person familiar with the situation, “ Robin is damage control and understands the owners are not happy. She doesn't have a voice or any power and does whatever Cindy wants her to do. When things get bad that’s when Cindy comes in”.

The current league management is the reason why Nader Debash, President and Founder of Orange County FC decided to leave the NPSL, for the UPSL, a competing amateur National League. For Nader the decision to move leagues was an easy one. The UPSL, provides through their sponsorship deals discounts on uniforms, a website for only $30, discount on travel because of the deals in place with travel agencies, the league provides fields (This is for the West Coast) , and has league and tournament prize money, with the highest reward being 60k. Not to mention the very reasonable yearly fee compared to the NPSL.

The UPSL currently employs six people and produces weekly shows, podcasts and a lot more content then the NPSL.

The NPSL doesn’t offer their member clubs a financial reward for winning the National Championship, some might argue that the exposure and value of winning a Championship might bring more benefits to the club than a big check from the league.

Nader mentioned if the NPSL would take $500 out of the yearly fee from the almost 100 clubs, the league can set aside about $50,000 for the National Champion. “ Looking at the financial statements it allows that” said Nader Debash.

“ Treatment that the NPSL gives you, is not what it claims to be,” said Nader Debash, President and Founder of Orange County FC.

There was an incident that involved Nader, his club, the NPSL and a new club on the west coast, Cal United. Cal United was joining the NPSL and the league didn't even reach out to tell Nader that there would be another club close by. The league accepted the expansion side, took their money and never once spoke to Nader about that decision. Nader threatened to sue Cal United and the league.

FTP has been told that there have been various lawsuits and those types of threats in the past against the league.

The NPSL has announced a credit for the 2021 season of $2,000. You might be wondering how did they come up with that figure? Here is the explanation that was shared with all club owners.

The NPSL fiscal year begins on November 1st, and the league had several months of operation before the COVID crisis. Budgeted spend during this time included the AOM, the USC convention, staff salaries, and regular business operating expenses. The league looked carefully at our budget and the unspent funds related directly to supporting the playing season. We carved out the budget for playoff travel expenses and the cost of running the national championship, including marketing, medals and trophies, and staff travel. We have also released seasonal staff members which provided significant savings. Core staff has been retained.

It is important to note that just because the league is not organizing this Spring/Summer, the league still has operational costs. “We are always running very, very tight”, said Tim Sas, Midwest Region Representative and General Manager of Duluth FC. Since the league didn’t bring back their seasonal staff, due to the suspension of play because of the pandemic, “everyone is doing more work than they have done before”, according to Tim.

Most businesses throughout the country and around the world have felt the economic hardship and they will most likely be affected for an extended period of time. The league hasn’t faced that same hardship, yes matches are not being played, but they are still keeping the league fees, when most of their clubs have been greatly impacted.

“We have not discussed particular clubs that are in hard hit areas. All clubs have been hit very severely. Trust me we understand it because every board member is also a team owner who has lost a lot during this time”, said Tim Sas.

On the possibility of the league helping clubs in the hardest hit areas due to the pandemic, Tim Sas had this to say: “It would be extremely difficult to quantify who got hit harder, and no it’s not necessarily the clubs in the hard hit areas with the worst case of the virus”.

Will clubs leave the league due to not receiving cash refunds? This statement is from the league and was included in an email, sent to all members of the league.

This decision supports NPSL members whose business model depends on the NPSL thriving for many years to come, and who understand that we make an annual investment in the league and its future. We recognize that the decision will result in the attrition of teams. We have done the analysis and are comfortable with the level of retention and attrition we have projected.

If teams, decided to not play for the 2021 season, even with receiving that credit, the NPSL has an inactive fee, that was described by an owner, as a good investment, if you want to wait a couple of years before rejoining, and not having to cough up however much the league will cost then. The inactive fee is currently $1,750.

League executives throughout the United States have taken pay cuts, but the NPSL staff will still receive their full salary.

Tim did confirm that the league staff will receive their full salary.

A club owner in the league voiced his frustration, “ they should all take a pay cut, the league has been cancelled”.

Tim Sas, made it clear that the league is trying to re - negotiate contracts because companies are not providing the services.

“ We didn’t bring back our seasonal staff, which meant more work for the leadership staff. Everyone works remotely, everyone is doing more work, than they have done before”, said Tim Sas.

The NPSL is a unique league that ticks most of the boxes for professionalism, but I believe that comes at a cost, the owners not really having control, or any say when it comes to important league decisions, is not what most of the owners signed up for.

Who is in control? Kenny and Cindy? The board members?

The clubs pump money into the league each year, to only realize that’s going to pay big wages and not being reinvested back into the league.

The league is for clubs, with big pocket owners that are not afraid to lose money. The yearly budget for an NPSL club is between 75k- 100k. The club's home stadium has to have a scoreboard, locker rooms and showers for both teams and match officials.

It costs about $800-$1500 per home game, which includes $400 for the officials, coaching staff and some players get paid.

Dennis Crowley, an entrepreneur who co-founded the social networking sites Dodgeball and Foursquare launched a NPSL club back in 2015 and currently sits on the board of directors.

According to a person close to the league, “ Dennis is a great guy, I joined the league because of him. He is very active, the only reason the NPSL has anything new. He is a sharp guy, and most of his ideas are ignored. He is the only reason the league has the deal with MyCujoo”.

One year at the league’s annual meeting, according to a league source: “Dennis had a new expansion idea, the plan would expand the league in emerging markets”. It doesn’t seem like the league took that idea onboard, they might consider everyone’s idea, for a few minutes, but for the league to fully meet the expectation that they are advertising the owners, must have more of a say besides voting on the budget and leadership.

At the AGM Dennis is the only owner, with big pockets and power, that can correct people politely during the meeting and the league management would sit there, and listen.

In one instance at the AGM, Dennis Crowley intervened when there was a vote that would give away the owners right to vote.

This is not meant to be a hit piece on the NPSL, it is meant to shed more light on what goes on behind the scenes. Since most of the stakeholders don’t have a say besides their vote at the annual meeting, as a collective they feel the brunt of the leagues decisions, because they weren’t able to share their thoughts and come to a fair compromise.

On many occasions, I was told that the NPSL, has much better teams, and the competition is better then the UPSL, but this argument or discussion is not about the competition on the field, it’s the business of the league, and if it makes sense for the owners to continue investing in their clubs and markets.

UPSL Communications director Dennis Pope said on The Protagonist Podcast, Sight Lines, that the league is looking to add one thousand clubs nationwide. Some fans would question the quality of the clubs, but the UPSL, from what we have been told, value their membership, because they are a private business, they want the best for their membership, and will work hard, to make all of the clubs satisfied with the league direction.

One source said, “the UPSL practices the open free market, they accept clubs, if they meet the standards and have the money, and overtime they will see if they have what it takes in the world of soccer to be successful”.

The NPSL expansion is much more complicated, it involves wiring a certain amount of money to the league, there is an application fee, which I was told was $100, and then you have to stump up the $18,500 expansion fee plus the $5,500 yearly fee, which to join the league is in total, $24,000.

That is just your startup costs, that is not adding into the equation, a home venue that meets all standards, which will be costly, a decent coach, travel budget and maybe a front office staff that are getting paid on a seasonal or full time basis.

The decision to join a certain league, it’s not made with the sporting department in mind, it’s all about the business structure of the club. The NPSL, may be a better league, with much better teams and a PR Strategy but that’s not the end all and be all. At the moment, for a lot of owners the UPSL, is the better league for their market, club, players and fans.

Danny Szetela has a long soccer resume from playing in Major League Soccer with Columbus Crew and DC United. Playing abroad in Spain with Racing Santander and in Italy with Brescia. Since 2013, Danny has been playing with the New York Cosmos. He has experienced the rollercoaster ride the club has endured from the reboot season in the modern day NASL, to winning three championships, leading the team to exciting victories in the U.S Open Cup.

Over the past two seasons the Cosmos were participating in the NPSL, due to the NASL getting de-sanctioned in 2017 and the league not getting the injunction, they needed to continue operating. The lawsuit is still active, and hopefully post Covid-19, there will be some in-person arguments so that it can come to an end, on the side of independent soccer.

Danny Szetela represented the New York Cosmos during their short stint in the NPSL. “The NPSL is run like a youth organization”, said Danny Szetela. The quote, is in reference to the structure of the league, that it’s national but regionalized and each club has their own policies.

Due to the amateur status of some clubs in the league, since they are using college players, they have other things such as school, work and just a personal life to take care of. Even in the NPSL, if you are not getting paid to play soccer, it’s not your main focus, it can be your passion, and you are working hard everyday to become a professional player but you have to work on something that brings in money or furthers your career and life.

“ There are a handful of teams that train everyday. If teams don’t train everyday there won't be chemistry’ said New York Cosmos Midfielder Danny Szetela.

On the East Coast clubs having a shorter season then their West Coast counterparts, Danny had this to say: ‘ that is something the league has to figure out, make the season so it’s far and everyone starts at the same time.

Danny and his teammates during the Cosmos NPSL days, prepared the same way regardless of what league they were playing in.

Bledi Bardic, has played with the Cosmos since the Cosmos B days in the NPSL, until he got promoted to the first team. Since then Bledi played in the NASL, and most recently in the NPSL, as the Cosmos first team went head to head with amateur sides, which fielded teams of college players.

Before Bledi joined the Cosmos, he was playing for Clarkstown Eagles, out of New Jersey, which are now FC Motown Celtics. “Clarkstown helped me, and was my jump to New York City FC combine and to preseason where that is where I got noticed. The NPSL is a decent league, definitely in between Pro and amateur, stadiums are colleges or high schools, definitely not professional, same with locker rooms but it’s a good league for young guys to go to the next level”, said Bledi Bardic.

The NPSL changed their policy on paying players in the league recently. Before clubs had the option of paying players a capped salary or bringing college guys, and not paying them, so they don’t lose their college eligibility and give them the opportunity of showcasing their talent nationwide.

According to Director of Football and Head Coach of Hartford City FC Nick Balisterri, the reason the league changed their policy on paying players, is due to the Cosmos and Miami FC participating in the league, with full professional squads. “Those players are historically playing with their National Team. You're not starting on equal footing, but it did raise the players and clubs when they faced those clubs”.

How does the league change to be inclusive and to give all the owners, coaches and players all the resources they need to be successful?

Nander Debash, President and Founder of Orange County FC, on what the NPSL has to do to change their ways: “ they need a longer season, and can’t be charging that much money. Lastly the management has to change”.

Currently the USPL, according to Nander, offers more incentives.

The moral of the story is that at this level, every single club is trying to figure out how to play more matches, make their season longer, without having their operating budget go exponentially high to the point that it is not sustainable on a year to year basis.

Without an open system, there are no big profits to be made, and that is why there needs to be prize money for clubs that win the championship and their division. It seems like the NPSL has a decent sized group of big pocket investors that can be playing at a higher level, if they do wish to do that.

“We do lose money, nothing to put food on my table”, said one NPSL Owner.

The main reason why a lot of owners are disappointed in league management, is it’s all about their promotion of the league. The NPSL is sold as the top league outside of the professional ranks, with the highest expansion fee and yearly fee, then their competitors. From the outside looking in, you might think, that means the NPSL has a much better product, well no, they don’t, on the business side, they don’t seem able to leverage their assets, promote their players or clubs, sign a National TV deal to give more exposure to their member clubs. Duluth FC of the NPSL, has a local TV Deal, why can’t the league, which has more resources and is operating on a high six figure yearly budget, why can’t they lower their staff costs, and invest in the league, and that will generate more money for the league which can be distributed to the member clubs evenly.

The argument is not, NPSL v UPSL.

The NPSL, doesn’t offer a better product then the UPSL, just because they charge more, it just means there are higher standards and a more professional system but it is not for every single club, and a group of owners and clubs are not happy with the state of the league but still are a member because there is no other place to go.

The conversation should start, to say how the NPSL should improve, and the membership should have more of a say, not being berated when objecting during the agm.

It’s meant to be a collective of clubs working together on and off the field, not clubs paying the league each year, and the staff and board are keeping the power and the clubs have no say.

Isn’t that the problem, throughout the whole pyramid.

A source on the current state of the NPSL: A lot of businesses need to go through self - reflection, and the NPSL has to do that as well”.


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