There’s a soccer world outside MLS and Non-League America are on a mission to promote it.
In 2009 Luton Town were relegated to Non-League for the first time in the club’s history. It was also the year I moved to America. Whatever limited opportunities I had to watch/listen to the games in Ireland would be dented even further I thought being thousands of miles away in California. Luckily for me, we are in a day and age of technology and where there’s a will there’s a way. It also got me thinking about the beautiful game in America and how different it was.
At this point I knew about MLS and that was it. I wasn’t aware of the USL and only became familiar with the NASL later in 2010 after finding out a former Luton player, Ricky Hill, was Manager. I didn’t watch a lot of MLS so Tampa Bay Rowdies was my introduction to American ‘Soccer’ and when I did watch the MLS I was shocked to find the difference in skill was minor. The NASL was classed as a lower league but take away the stars attracted to MLS for a nice retirement payday and the only difference was the money involved. The Franchises of the MLS clearly dominated that.
In England ‘Franchise’ is a dirty word that is held by only one unholy club. In America, Franchises are the norm. Not only in Soccer but all sports. Instead of earning your way in you buy it. For Soccer this will always be a foreign concept to me, but again I grew up in a different country where you earned your stars and stripes based on talent and work ethic not your bank balance. After searching Twitter it seems I’m not alone. That’s where Steve Bayley and Non-League America comes in.
“We started as a Blogspot blog called Deep In The Pyramid,” said Steve, who founded the concept in 2012. “It was supposed to be one mans attempt to attend 100 games in 1 year across all levels. I got to about 40” he says, laughing. The idea came from a famous pastime in England called groundhopping where a fan will try to visit as many grounds as possible. They are normally covered in blogs or vlogs and have become increasingly more popular over the years.
“At the time, there was very limited coverage of the amateur scene in the US” Steve said. “I started originally writing game reports but noticed there was a lack of a cultural lens.” That’s when the idea come to broaden the horizons outside of his home base of New England and “focus on the growth of supporter culture and the ethnic affiliated clubs with longer histories and local cultural relevancy in their communities.”
With this came a name change and a website was born. The ethos remained the same though, to show local communities and their love of the game. “We experimented with different approaches to creating video content” Steve said. “I was doing video myself and also shipping camcorders with prepaid return postage to correspondents. I wanted higher quality output and to embed researchers in different communities long term.”
As things grew the ambition soared with it “We bought a truck with the goal of wrapping it and going out on the road just traveling the country covering below the radar soccer events.” Pretty much giving a voice to the voiceless of a sport that runs a pay to play program which stifles talent from lower-income families. “Eventually I linked up with a videographer and director who I liked from her hip hop music videos and wanted to bring her aesthetic into the documentaries. We shot our first project in 2017 with Jamisa Johnson and Peace Living Films of Wilmington, DE about Bearfight FC.”
“For the next two years we flew her around the country making docs. At the same time I got the truck wrapped and started doing stand up interviews and attending games in the truck.”
Flying people around the country? Wrapping a Van? Attending games across the country? There must have been some serious investment you would think, yet Steve and the crew still do everything through ‘grassroots’. “We build a professional proof of concept and traffic so we can offer turnkey execution when sponsors come in.” This is where Steve’s professional background as a strategist working in advertising agencies comes in handy. “I bring that insights-based approach to the work. I write a creative brief for each project for Jamisa, similar to how I write a creative brief for art directors and copywriters when I make ads.”
So what’s the goal for Steve and Non-League America? ”To bring brands into the platform as sponsors of the documentaries as part of their multicultural marketing strategies. We want to have multiple trucks crisscrossing the country shooting and editing and posting professional documentaries specifically about independent and unsanctioned clubs and tournaments.”
“Unsanctioned clubs are a big thing, although most of them are sanctioned somehow or another, because that is how they get their insurance. The problem is related to 1. The professional league standards set by the federation with arbitrary wealth requirements, and 2. The tying to the defacto “4th Division” leagues (NPSL and USL League 2) relying to NCAA players, playing for them in a short 3 month season to constitute national amateur leagues, which are regional conference based competitions that funnel into a national playoff.”
“There is no allowance for actual “semi-pro” part-time wages or strictly incentive-based compensation for players within the formally sanctioned leagues. As a result, you have unsanctioned leagues and tournaments being played fueled by cash prizes and big side betting activity. This is where the Latino soccer community thrives, as well as other ethnic-based competitions that are long-standing and serve to maintain the culture and social connections for their communities.”
Players for these clubs rarely if ever get paid but even more importantly for the game if players are seen and given a gateway to the game the clubs who gave them a chance are often left with no compensation. “This is the other part of promotion/relegation” says Steve. “An open system of training compensation and solidarity payments for player development. All these teams should be getting paid for their players as they are sold on to other clubs. Open Soccer. Just like the rest of the world.” Instead players normally go the NCAA route like with other sports in the country.
Which brings it back to the documentaries. “Our docs have an angle about how these clubs and these communities are systematically stifled in their growth opportunities by our corrupt soccer federation and it’s unholy alliance with MLS/Soccer United Marketing.” To stop this stifling would require massive reform within the game. For this to happen there would need to be an intervention from either the world governing body FIFA or the US Government which is beyond unlikely. FIFA is as corrupt as the MLS and unfortunately, the sport isn’t big enough in the US for the government to care.
Therefore the only realistic option is a “Reform candidate winning an election” to the US soccer board. “This would require two things” according to Steve. “Block voting by the state associations against the pro league representatives, and also the athletes council standing up to SUM and aligning with the state associations.”
Given where the money lies within the beautiful game in America this could take a while, but as long as we have people like Steve, Non-League America and technology there will always be a way to support grassroots football and the players whom, while not rich enough to pay and play, could be the next Messi or Ronaldo if given the stage and chance.
You can follow Non League America on Twitter