The National Premier Soccer League (NPSL) is a well-known adult amateur soccer league, which will be one of two (the other being the United Premier Soccer League, or UPSL) “tier one” leagues in the upcoming USASA tier format. Therefore, understanding the health and longevity of the NPSL, prima facie, gives us a metric for the health of amateur soccer clubs at large.
As conversation continues about the possible launch of NPSL Pro – a league where current NPSL teams plan on playing a full-season with salaried players – Soc Takes was interested in examining the sustainability question for the league in it’s current state.
When Soc Takes wrote about the rapid turnover of ownership in professional Division 2 soccer, we were unable to include data from the NPSL. Via the help of very kind collaborators, Soc Takes was able to generate a document that maps the genesis and death of every NPSL soccer club in history.
And the numbers paint a disturbing picture.
A quick review of NPSL’s history: The league operated as the Men’s Professional Soccer League (MPSL) from 2003-05, after which it rebranded as the NPSL, and has operated as the NPSL ever since.
Colloquially referred to as a “Division 4” league, the NPSL is sanctioned annually by the United States Adult Soccer Association (USASA).
The league primarily plays in the summer with mostly college soccer players. As we learned via a series of posts from NPSL team Kingston Stockade FC’s owner Dennis Crowley and Minneapolis City SC owner Dan Hoedeman, teams in the league can operate via moderate expenditure.
However, as his posts show, even well-planned, responsibly run teams tend to operate in the red.
Given the incredible heterogeneity in the league in terms of ownership, it would be impossible to learn the finances of each team, or even a representative estimate of what a team may be losing each year. But, there is a more objective metric to judge club success — the longevity of clubs in the NPSL.
In order to learn more, the collaborators of this article and I generated a document (see below) where we mapped out the temporal window of each NPSL club from genesis to mortality.
Two hundred and fourteen teams have played in the NPSL between 2003-18 with a varying degree of success and longevity (see above document and Figure 1 below). That’s a staggering number of teams. Teams that have been home to tens of thousands of adult amateur soccer players over the years. These players have provided a non-quantifiable number of memories and planted the seed for future generations of soccer players.
But, the teams themselves have a really short life span. According to our data, 81.3 percent of clubs in the NPSL operated for five years or less, and 65 percent of the 214 clubs operated for three years or less. The mean life span was 3.3 years, while the median lifespan of a club was two years.
Interestingly, certain states were home to many more clubs than others. The state of California has been home to 40 different NPSL teams (rebrands were only counted one time), which amounts to 18.7 percent of all NPSL clubs. Other states that were more prevalent were Texas with 15 teams, Florida with 13, and Michigan and New York with 11 each.
What happened to these teams? We attempted to dig through the literature to find the reasons for the dissolution for each club. We learned that 26 teams joined other amateur leagues (with 13 joining the PDL and seven switching to the UPSL, with the remaining joining leagues such as The Premier League of America, Texas Premier Soccer League, etc).
For a majority of the clubs, however, we were unable to determine the reason for dissolution.
However, it is an open secret that financial difficulties are a component of these dissolutions. Even though costs are minimal, so is revenue. And, unlike D2 owners, who often have the dopamine-flooding-ego-reinforcing-boost of thousands of supporters turning up to each game, NPSL attendances tend to be significantly lower. In fact, an analysis by attendance guru and soccer historian Kenn Tomasch estimated that NPSL teams have an average attendance of 961 per game. And, based on what is certainly a rightward-skewing self-selection bias in the data he was sent, I would wager the actual average is lower.
As a comparison, USL attendance shill and author of the upcoming book “Eleventy Bazillion: The Indy XI Story,” Mike Pendleton, reports an average attendance of just under 5,000 fans
(Caveat: arguably, in both cases, median attendance might be a better metric due to the skewing of data by high-attendance teams such as Detroit City and FC Cincinnati).
Therefore, owners have little to no incentive to remain in the game.
There are exceptions, of course. The oldest team in the NPSL is Sonoma County Sol (SC Sol), which has played continuously since 2004. Other clubs that reached the double-digit mark are the Minnesota Twin Stars, New York Athletic Club, Madison 56ers, Real San Jose, Erie Commodores FC and Chattanooga FC. There are 41 teams (19.2 percent) that have been active for more than five years.
Soc Takes reached out to Sonoma County Sol for comment.
From the morgue
What about the longevity of dead clubs specifically?
The above analysis may yet be biased by a recency effect — the fact that a club born in 2016-18 will over-represent the one- and two-year longevity group and, therefore, left-skew the data. In order to eliminate that bias, we analyzed a subset of the data (Figure 2) – specifically defunct NPSL clubs.
We found that our general trend seems to support our earlier data. Of the clubs that went extinct, 91.5 percent did so by year five of operation. In fact, 64.5 percent of the clubs died by year two. Of the defunct clubs, the mean survival time was 2.6 years, while the median was 2 years. Unsurprisingly, the mean survival time was lower in the subset of defunct clubs. The median remained unchanged.
The polytely of solutions needed for lower-league soccer success is something we have described before. The numbers we are seeing from the NPSL and professional Division 2 data highlight the need for novel solutions imminently.
It turns out, regardless of whether you are investing in an amateur or professional team, your ride is likely to be a short one. With the upcoming (and in some ways much-needed) NPSL-pro option, there is clearly an issue to be addressed here. That issue is – most NPSL clubs have shown an inability to survive at the amateur level. At this level, costs are low, and so is revenue.
NPSL-Pro will have to be (1) selective, (2) Ensure that revenue generated increases at a similar rate as the expected increase in expenditure. That is theoretically obvious to anyone reading this. But, clearly, based on the graveyard of American soccer clubs, not obvious in practice.
Soc Takes reached out to NPSL for comment on this story.
Caveat: This is a significant amount of data, sourced largely on Wikipedia entries and articles from journalists. If you come across any errors, please let us know.
Soc Takes would like to thank Aran Kinwan, Ciaran Jalavin, Michael Mascilak, Mark Murray, Jeff McCollum and Soc Takes staff writer John Lenard for contributing to the data collection portion of this article.
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