- Carolina RailHawks
- NASL Commissioner Bill Peterson meets the media at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, N.C.
Before making my way to WakeMed Soccer Park at 8 a.m. last Friday to interview Bill Peterson, the new commissioner of the North American Soccer League, I sent a text message to Curt Johnson, president of the Carolina RailHawks, to verify the somewhat uncommon meeting time.
“Yes,” Johnson texted back. “That works well for Bill’s schedule.”
For the past 21 years, Bill’s schedule has taken him to over 50 countries by his estimation, working in industries ranging from professional football to sports management to food and beverage services. After being tapped last November to replace outgoing NASL Commissioner David Downs, Peterson embarked on a listening tour that’s now covered every present and imminent NASL market save Ottawa, where he plans to visit soon. On the day we met, he was finishing a 24-hour swing through Cary, N.C. This week brought a trip to the NASL AGM in Indianapolis, a city unveiled as home to the league’s newest expansion franchise.
The 48-year-old executive has bounced from port to port, coast to coast, and continent to continent. And he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I’m not wired to sit in one place for 10 or 20 years and steward something,” Peterson says. “I want to build it and grow it. I want to see movement.”
Peterson was born in Smithfield, N.C., his mother and grandmother being natives of nearby Benson. However, after a couple of years Peterson’s father, a Vietnam vet, relocated the family to the borough of Irvona, Penn., where Peterson would spend the remainder of his formative years. Still, Peterson made regular trips back to the Tar Heel State to visit relatives, and his brother lives in Chapel Hill.
After high school, Peterson enrolled at Lock Haven University, a state school situated along the Susquehanna River in central Pennsylvania. The school won three NCAA Division II men’s soccer championships between 1977 and 1980, but American football was Peterson’s sport of choice. After graduating from Lock Haven in 1986, Peterson, who played linebacker in college, made it as far as the Oakland Raiders training camp before being cut.
After college, Peterson settled into nearby Clarion, Penn. and took a well-paying job as a production supervisor for a mobile home manufacturer. On the side, he began dabbling part-time at coaching football, initially at his alma mater. It was there that a fellow coach passed on some advice that Peterson not only recalls to this day but also predicated his professional journey.
“The key to this sports thing is you’ve got to spend about five years living on nothing and be better than everybody else,” the friend said. “Most of them quit or get culled out of the process, and then they’ll pay you more than you’re worth the rest of your life.”
Realizing he didn’t want to work in the modular home industry the rest of his life, Peterson packed his bags and struck out for James Madison University, where he snagged a volunteer job as an assistant secondary football coach tasked with breaking down film and running scout teams. He financed this venture by working the midnight shift at a book factory. At the end of the season, however, the head football coach was fired and his entire staff were out of their jobs, including Peterson’s unpaid gig.
Peterson dug deep into his Rolodex and found opportunity: the new World League of American Football. The NFL-sponsored spring developmental league opened in 1991 with teams scattered throughout the U.S., Canada and Europe, including the ill-fated Raleigh-Durham Skyhawks, which played one winless season out of Carter-Finley Stadium before folding.
Peterson decided to take his chances across the pond.
“I thought that would be a great opportunity for a young man,” Peterson says. “So I just started calling people, telling them I had a suitcase and some prior business experience by that time, too. And I got
hired by a team from Frankfurt.”
That team, the Frankfurt Galaxy, was coached by Jack Elway, father of John Elway. Peterson was hired by general manager Oliver Luck, an NFL veteran who went on to become the first president and GM of the Houston Dynamo in Major League Soccer. Today, Luck is better known for his famous quarterbacking son, Andrew.
“We did a good job under tough circumstances,” Peterson recalls about the early days of the WLAF. “None of us had worked in Europe, obviously. No one [over there] had seen American football at this level in Europe. There were no plans or strategies on how to run things—we landed, went to practice the next morning, and they couldn’t figure out how to line the field … That was day one.”
After the league rebranded to NFL Europe in 1995, Peterson was offered the opportunity to become general manager of the new Amsterdam Admirals. After three years there, he moved to London and managed league business, eventually being named president of NFL Europe.
By 2000, Peterson was now married and the couple had their first child on the way. With nearly 10 years in Europe, he says he decided it was time for another change. Among those he reached out to for help and advice was Don Garber, who Peterson once reported to when Garber was managing director of NFL International. Garber had just been appointed commissioner of MLS the previous year.
“I called Don and said, ‘Look, I need to go back [to the U.S.]. I never signed on to stay over here the rest of my life.’ He said, ‘Look, I don’t know them very well, but you should call these guys in L.A. I think you’d like them.’ So, I called Tim Leiweke, [President and CEO] at AEG.”
Leiweke hired Peterson, who was initially tasked with organizing the Anschutz Entertainment Group’s corporate soccer assets. He served as AEG’s Board of Governors rep for the Chicago Fire. He worked on stadium development in Chicago, Denver and ultimately the Home Depot Center near Los Angeles. Peterson managed the Home Depot Center for two years, where he helped negotiate usage deals with U.S. Soccer, the U.S. Tennis Association and USA Cycling.
After leaving AEG in 2006, Peterson spent three years overseeing operations for Centerplate, a food & beverage services corporation. In 2010, he was hired as Chief Operating Officer for the cash-strapped United Football League, an uneasy marriage that ended in October 2011 when Peterson sued the league for unpaid wages and breach of contract.
When asked to pinpoint the common thread to his circuitous curriculum vitae, Peterson begins succinctly: “My DNA.”
“I enjoy challenges,” he continues. “It’s not always startups, sometimes it’s turnarounds or brand new ideas. But, I really enjoy those challenges more so than managing a mature, stable business. So, I’ve looked for those opportunities when I’ve had chances.”
The NASL, something different
Whether Peterson saw the NASL as the antithesis of a mature, stable business is an open question. But last year, he was in Europe doing consultant work when he received a phone call from a friend telling him about the league’s open commissioner position. The way Peterson tells it, the application process that followed was as much about Peterson sizing up the league as the league vetting Peterson.
“As I was going through the process seeing if this is something that’s real and sustainable, I started getting more and more impressed with the group of owners that are involved,” Peterson observes. “Everybody has a pretty clear vision of where they want to go, people are passionate, and most importantly the owners in this league are very open to [learning] how do we get better. No one walked in and said, ‘I’m the smartest guy in the room.’ Everybody wants to know how to we get better.”
While he and the league members address the important fundamentals of putting together their team, selling tickets and building stadiums, Peterson says he is already working on the side to develop new avenues for fan experience and interaction in the NASL. He admits his ideas are currently more conceptual, but it’s during this line of discussion that Peterson becomes most voluble.
“The relationship between sports properties and their fans will change,” Peterson contends. “It must change.”
“If you look back at the history of sport, people were going to stadiums because that’s where the sports were,” he continues. “Then all of a sudden you have radio, then television, then color television, then the advent of sports channels that are providing these events on a more frequent basis, followed by the talking heads analyzing basically the same thing every day. And then you’ve got this proliferation of statistics … Every night ESPN stops right there: game, replay, talking heads, stats.
“Then underneath this you’ve got this social media thing now. Now people underneath are buzzing and talking about it, and the people in sports are trying to figure out how to interact with them. So what they’re doing now is sending out crap or trying to sell them something, taking the same thing they do every night and [applying it to social media]. They’re not doing anything different, really.
“Where they stop is where we need to start and look at how do you redefine fan relationship. It’s going to revolve around certain pillars: access, two-way communication, more value in the experience at a stadium, which could involve everything from easier parking to a more exciting game on the field. You’re going to have to make the experience of coming into the stadium better and it’s going have to align with this data society. How do we bring our team, its coaches and players to that other level where they’re really part of the conversation?
“All the old rules of even how you manage a team, what the coaches say, what they allow the media to see, what the players are allowed to say, when they’re allowed to talk to the media … all that has to be changed. If we come out here and mimic other professional leagues in everything we do, it won’t succeed. We need to do something different.”
New York Cosmos and league expansion
I asked Peterson about the recent fervor over the delayed start by the New York Cosmos and Puerto Rico Islanders to the 2013 NASL regular season . Both clubs recently announced they will forego the Spring Season and begin play at the start of the Fall Season in August. This has prompted concerns among fans and media about the viability of both clubs and a possible competitive advantage given to teams that only have to compete over half of the NASL’s new split regular season format. It’s also suggested a level of preferential treatment already being afforded to the Cosmos’ brand and market, an accommodation that has already deprived each league member of one ample gate in 2013 brought by a visit from the revived Cosmos.
Peterson waves off any such consternation.
“I acknowledge the concern and try to see their viewpoint,” Peterson says. “But I’m looking at the overall growth, development and health of the league. First and foremost, in the case of the Cosmos, just playing the Fall Season limits their chances of making it to the Soccer Bowl by 50 percent. [Their delay] had nothing to do with trying to find a way to game the rules to get to the Soccer Bowl. This was about, ‘Guys, we’re here at this point, we’re not going to make Spring of 2013 and be a strong organization and ready to go.’ That decision was made before I got here, and I tell you it was the smartest decision. People starting teams never have enough time. Loudoun County in Northern Virginia has been working on this for three or four years; they’re going to have almost five years under their belt. That’s more like it. [The Cosmos] don’t know how much work they still have to do. They’re getting through it, but starting a team is so hard. If giving them an extra five months to prepare helps them have a better start, then do it.”
Prior to his RailHawks visit, Peterson had just returned from a tour of the new expansion franchise in Loudoun County, Va. and came away impressed with what he saw.
“It’s almost a model of how to launch a team,” he says. “They’ve got a great ownership group. They’ve got a great plan for building their stadium. They’ve got a lot of experience on a staff that’s been working on this for a long time. They’re very clear on what they need to do and when they need to do it. The reaction thus far to the team coming has been very positive. I was shaking my head, thinking, ‘Wow, this is incredible.’”
Citing similar run-ups by San Antonio and now Indianapolis, Peterson says a new expansion strategy will be presented to the NASL’s Board of Governors this week.
“We’re giving each [expansion] team 18 months from closing [the expansion deal] to opening [their debut season],” Peterson explains. “The league is coming out of the phase where, ‘You gotta have eight teams, you gotta get teams,’ to where do we want teams, who do we want to own those teams, and how much time do we take to really build an organization?”
The next two years will be imperative to the growth of the NASL. And before the next challenge in his career comes along, Peterson will be the league’s point man, early to rise and making his pitch.
“[NASL] was an idea whose time had come,” he declare. “To build a soccer league in communities like Raleigh, N.C. that you’re pretty sure can be successful and profitable, and that you can become as important to the community as teams in other [sports] leagues.
“I want to be involved in things where we can make a difference and possibly change the paradigms and fundamentals for how the business is being run.”