Spotlight: Interview with Court Jeske - Executive Vice President, USL
- Hi Court, thanks for your ongoing support, and for taking the time to speak to us. It is just over a year since USL unveiled a new structure and brand identity. Can you begin by explaining how the new structure and brand identity work and what the motivations were for making the change?
Thanks for having me, it’s a pleasure to represent the USL and serve on the Soccerex USA Advisory Board.
It’s hard not to notice how fast the game is growing right now in the United States, but we need to simplify the message to fans to accelerate that growth.
Our new structure in the USL is a three-tiered system, something that’s familiar in international soccer all over the world. We have our top tier The USL Championship (Division II), USL League One (Division III) and USL League Two, the top amateur competition in the country.
A common opinion is that USL promotion and relegation is imminent, but our current priority is to continue to grow USL League One which just concluded its inaugural season. As the league grows and matures and as the USL Championship continues to reach new heights in North America, I can tell you that the conversation is open to ingrain ourselves even more in the international football model, however that may be.
- How do you feel the new identity and structure have been received by the different stakeholders in US soccer?
Next year will be USL’s 10ThAnniversary season. As young as we are, we knew that we needed to simplify the message for fans, the corporate community and the international football world. Forums like Soccerex allow us to continue to share this story. It’s generated a lot of excitement and we are bullish on what our second decade holds for our clubs and the league.
- The restructuring has come after a period of significant expansion and USL will soon be delivering soccer in 100 markets across North America. What do you see as the key factors fuelling the league’s rapid growth?
It starts with the fans. I think the appetite for professional soccer in this country combined with the rise of a supporter culture is the foundation. There’s a cultural/soccer movement happening all over the United States whether it’s large cities like Las Vegas, Tampa or Phoenix or smaller cities like Madison, Wisconsin and Greenville, South Carolina. It’s tangible and it’s amazing to see.
- One of the league’s standout features is the diverse range of ownership groups involved. What is it about USL that makes it an attractive investment opportunity and why do you think the league has been able to attract such a diverse and success group of investors?
Again, it’s no secret that soccer is quickly rising to the top of the professional sports arena here in the U.S. whether you’re talking fan engagement or corporate interest. It’s reflective in our ownership groups where nearly all professional sports leagues in the U.S. are represented, including MLS, NBA and MLB. Our franchise valuations continue to rise. Since 2014, valuation of USL Championship clubs have increased five times over. Attendance is strong, community support is increasing every day and when you addour new, recently announced three-year rights agreement with ESPN to the package, potential ownership groups take notice.
- As the game’s popularity continues to grow in the US, brands are increasingly committing their sponsorship dollars to soccer. What is the importance of corporate partners to USL’s continued success and what benefits do you feel your leagues and member franchises can offer to potential partners compared with other soccer properties in North America?
We provide brands and potential partners three things: unique experiences, a growing sports platform and the exact demographic that they want to engage with.
Soccer simply put is the “cool” thing to do right now. Whether it’s wearing kits, playing the game or supporting it – the popularity of the sport is intersecting into a wide range of industries and discourse. It’s a lifestyle. Brands want to be relevant; they want to be topical. So, the timing is right to align themselves with the sport and the opportunity to get involved on the partnership side has never been better. Earlier this year we brought on Premier Partnerships to help us capture and engage this corporate opportunity. It is early in the process, but the response from brands has been very positive.
I think what sets us a part is our hyperlocal strategy – whether it’s small town America or the top DMAs we never waver from a community-first approach when we’re expanding, and we continue to promote that message to our current clubs. I think what you’ll see is that we have a different brand of soccer in the USL – go to a match in New Mexico, Louisville and Phoenix to name a few.
- USL has built a reputation for being a progressive business operation committed to innovation. In the increasingly disrupted digital era, what do you see as the biggest opportunities and challenges for the league to generate new revenue streams and how are you embracing these?
I think the phrase “disruption” gets overused. We are in a time of very positive change when it comes to the power of the fan. We have to make sure that product and customer service comes first. If we are authentic to that, the fans will find us. We have a unique relationship with ESPN where we provide 800 professional matches a year to ESPN+, but then allow our clubs to partner with a local broadcaster as well for linear and digital rights. It’s the best of both worlds for where we need to grow.
We recently modified our marketing rules to allow betting sponsorships on club kits which opens the door for further ancillary revenue streams for our clubs as sports betting becomes more mainstream and we’ve amplified our digital network and content distribution platform by investing $10 million in our state-of-the-art USL Broadcast Center.
- USL has also committed to being earlier adopters on the field – you were one of the first leagues to implement VAR and you recently applied to implement an experimental rule change for temporary head injury substitutions. What is behind this drive to be early adopters and how have you been able to adapt your business to implement these changes?
We act and run like a start-up. If we see a chance, we do a quick calculation and make a decision. If we see an opportunity to challenge the rules to support the health and safety of our players, we will certainly do that. If we’re not paying attention to current issues in the game and being proactive with solutions then we’re simply doing a disservice to our fans, players and all stakeholders involved.
- Over the past 12 months you have introduced two new youth competitions – the USL Academy Cup and the USL Academy League – can you explain how these competitions will work and how you see them furthering the development of young soccer talent in North America?
We have only begun to scratch the surface of the talent pool in North America. The USL Academy provides our clubs a clear path for local elite youth players to reach the professional level. There is no more powerful sales tool than to root for the local hero on the field.
- At Soccerex there will be a discussion looking at the evolution of soccer specific stadia in the US – over the past decade, USL franchises have built 16 new soccer specific stadia with a further 15schedule to be completed by 2026 – how important do you feel dedicated soccer stadia are to the league’s development and in what way do innovations like modular stadia ensure these new venues match the needs of USL different franchises?
Clubs, and their fans need a proper home. Getting stadiums across the line and built is a complex process, but when completed these venues become the foundation for successful clubs. Look no further than what’s happening in Louisville. A market of 1.3 million people and they are one of our most successful USL Championship clubs. They have played in a baseball stadium since their inception, but that didn’t stop them from moving forward with a tremendous 12,000-seat soccer-specific stadium set to open in 2020. In addition, innovations like modular stadiums provide a cost-effective solution as well as a platform for communities to attract a wide range of events year-round.
- What role do you think the 2026 FIFA World Cup will play in the growth of soccer in North America and in particular in USL?
The Men’s and Women’s World Cups provide “water-cooler” conversations on a regular basis, but hosting it takes that to a whole other level. The 2026 FIFA World Cup will undoubtedly play a huge role in the growth of soccer in North America. Key for the North American soccer ecosystem is not how the event is celebrated in the handful of markets that host games, but how does it lift the sport across the entire continent. That is the true opportunity that we look forward to playing a critical role in.
Regarding player development, with over twenty USL players having competed in the Gold Cup this year, there’s no doubt with an expanded world cup that there will be plenty of USL players competing on the field.
- Finally, you are a veteran of many Soccerex events – how do you feel Soccerex can help USL in your ongoing development and in supporting the growth of the wider game in the US?
I’ve had the pleasure to work on this sport at the Federation, MLS, a club and now USL. What we need is to accelerate our clubs’ integration into the global ecosystem. We have some catching up to do, but no doubt the soccer talent, fandom, and commercial interest are all there to do that very quickly.
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