The announcement of Rayo OKC has been met with a mix of optimism and derision by US soccer fans. Hardly a surprise as this appears to be the response to all things NASL, sadly. Love it or hate it, all fans seem to have reservations, particularly about the perceived use of the team as a brand extension of Rayo Vallecano.
Many bring up the failure of Chivas USA, and to a lesser degree Crystal Palace Baltimore, when discussing the folly of this renewed type of branding. Also, a number of others point out the seeming hypocrisy of NASL fans claiming it to be a haven for independent clubs while mocking MLS as a minor league for foreign leagues because of teams like RedBull and NYC FC – and the deceased Chivas.
Aside from the branding, the other main concern is that the team plans to begin too soon. They intend to be a part of the NASL Spring season which starts in 4-5 months, depending. This does seem pretty short for a team to get started from scratch.
The other big complaint many soccer fans seem to have is that there is already an existing professional club in OKC – the USL’s Oklahoma Energy. The argument essentially goes in one of three ways - either the market can’t support multiple teams, the NASL should not try to poach a USL market, or that the Energy are too popular and placing a team there is foolish and will end in certain failure.
On the surface, these seem like reasonable criticisms. However, there appear to some significant differences between Rayo OKC and, at least some of, these past failures. And, NASL is making a gamble on the belief that the soccer market of 2016 is not the soccer market of 1996.
In particular, in terms of preparation time, the narrative that Rayo OKC will only have 4-5 months to be ready is an oversimplification. Those following the NASL in OKC saga will recognize the names of the local partners involved in this venture. They are the principles of the OKC FC club that was initially granted a team in NASL. That enterprise came unglued when the largest financial party in the group withdrew. But otherwise, the group seems to be intact. Those that have been following this for the last two years are well aware that the group that remained never surrendered on their goal of bringing a NASL team to OKC and repeatedly indicated as much.
Point being, this group is not looking a merely a 4-5 month time frame. Significantly, Rayo OKC will be entering OKC with a group familiar with the city, familiar with the sports market, and that ran a well-supported amateur side and continues to run a seemingly successful women’s team also named OKC FC.
Certainly this is not enough to predict success, but if you are of the impression that it is starting from scratch then you’re missing a lot of the history going on behind the scenes of the club. One quick example illustrating the benefit of the local partners is the home venue, Rayo OKC did not have to look for a stadium to play in, they just moved into the existing agreement in place for OKC FC. The groundwork has been there just waiting for a team.
As for the name – Rayo OKC. If you’re not aware, it is named for the third largest team in Madrid – Rayo Vallecano Madrid. Rayo means lightning and Vallecano is a section of the Madrid metropolitan area. There are many that are not fans of this type of branding because it gives the appearance of a relationship akin to being a minor league affiliate, in American sports lexicon. Others don’t approve because they claim it hampers the team from developing its own identity. And still others will point to failures like Chivas USA as an unavoidable future for any such endeavor. These are views held by many, even those wishing the club well.
The problem with this fatalistic rendition of history is that many details are omitted. Chivas USA in particular is not an indication of foreign ownership or branding as a failure, but it is an indication of the failings of that one ownership group itself. Chivas USA entered the LA market with a bang and actually did quite well for a number of years, even at the end they were drawing well comparatively. The problem was the relationship between the ownership and, well, it seemed like everyone. Even the demise of the club appears to have been more a desire of MLS to separate itself from the ownership for p.r. reason than anything else.
Unless, the owners of Rayo OKC go out with the goal of insulting and alienating everyone in their city, and their league, and even in their new country, expecting another Chivas USA seems exceedingly unlikely. Further, although it is a fine point, it should be noted that the rules governing NASL are more in conformity with the international rules of the game that the Rayo Vallecanno owners are accustomed to swimming in. They shouldn’t face the same frustrations the ownership of Chivas reportedly had in dealing with a set of rules unique to MLS.
This issue of NASL conforming to the international rules of soccer, whatever that means exactly, brings us to the issue of competing with the Oklahoma Energy. Observers familiar only with American sports will look at this through the lens of minor league sports and competing leagues and will conclude this situation as untenable. The main reason seems that these detractors don’t recognize a difference between NASL and USL, they are both merely minor leagues. In the US, except rarely in the largest of markets, if at all, you won’t find multiple teams in the same market.
In fact, some have postulated that the formulation of this OKC Energy – Rayo OKC situation has its genesis in competing minor league hockey teams in OKC that were operated by some of the main players behind these two soccer clubs. Interesting background to this burgeoning rivalry indeed, this backroom intrigue will certainly be something to keep an eye on. Hopefully this is not foreshadowing, but neither of those hockey teams is still around.
Nonetheless, looking at this through the minor league lens of American sports is short sighted because NASL has repeatedly stated its claim to offer up the highest level of soccer it possibly can. Unlike traditional minor leagues in this country that develop players for higher leagues, NASL clubs see themselves as competitors for the mantle of being the highest league. Can it accomplish this? Time will tell, but if the member clubs of NASL sincerely want to develop their own players and perform at the highest levels possible they cannot be dissuaded by a market that investors crave if a USL team is already perched there.
Clubs that desire to be the best cannot claim that mantle if they are dissuaded to act by teams that espouses merely to be a feeder club for a competing league. Is this a wise move by NASL? Tough to tell because NASL doesn’t make the rules, this is the landscape that has developed under USSF. But whether wise or not, it is a reality they can’t escape.
What do you think of Rayo OKC? Do you think multiple professional teams can exist in the OKC market? What do you think of the criticism of NASL? Appreciate any comments or responses. Thanks!