Soccer and antitrust law:
Soccer is unique among American pro sports because of U.S. Soccer and its authority over American soccer derived from FIFA.
Since the advent of pro soccer in 1967, there has been a steady stream of legal challenges to U.S. Soccer's authority.
-- The outlaw NPSL sued the rival USA (fronted by foreign clubs for the summer), the USSFA (as U.S. Soccer was then called) and FIFA on antitrust grounds at the end of the first season. Before the case was decided, the two leagues merged -- there was hardly interest for one soccer league, let alone two -- and the NASL was formed, providing amnesty to players who had played in the NPSL without FIFA's approval.
-- The USSF "won" both antitrust cases in modern era: Fraser vs. NASL and Champions World vs. USSF. But both were won on technicalities, leaving the key issue of the federation's authority to oversee pro soccer unsettled.
In Fraser, in which the USSF was a defendant, players attacked MLS's single-entity structure and U.S. Soccer's Division 1 designation, but the case collapsed before the validity of MLS's single-entity structure could be determined. MLS could not conspire to control a market because the market for players was greater than MLS alone.
In Champions World, which went bankrupt after promoting international matches, Charlie Stillitano, the firm's promoter had agreed to FIFA arbitration as a FIFA match agent, taking the case out of the court's hands.
h/t: Steve Holroyd
Tuesday's filing came as no surprise to NASL watchers. In 2015, the NASL was seeking Division 1 sanctioning and threatened to sue the USSF on grounds that it proposed to change the Division 1 requirements -- move the goalposts, so to speak -- related to league size and ownership wealth, among other things. (The pleadings in Tuesday's filing covered the 2015 dispute in great detail.)
The NASL's attorney then and now is Jeffrey Kessler. The longtime labor and anti-establishment attorney, perhaps best known for his suit against the NCAA, represented the MLS Players Association in Fraser and represents the Women's National Team Players Association against U.S. Soccer in its EEOC complaint.
Kessler was once on the other side in a fourth soccer case that provides a reality check for NASL owners and what may lie ahead in their suit against U.S. Soccer. Kessler has made a career of challenging the National Football League, and he represented the old NASL when it sued the NFL to strike down its ban on NFL owners owning teams in other pro sports leagues.
The NASL won on
appeal in 1982 in a case that went all way to the Supreme Court, but by the time punitive damages were awarded -- all of $1 -- the NASL was on the verge of collapse. In the case of the current NASL,
the great fear will be that clubs won't survive long enough to gain the benefits of any decision on the merits of its case.
NASL's Pro/rel case:
A side note to the NASL's case is the pro/rel claim filed by the NASL's Miami FC and amateur Kingston Stockade FC of the NPSL against U.S. Soccer, Concacaf and FIFA in the Court of Arbitration for Sport, seeking to require U.S. Soccer to adopt promotion and relegation across all U.S. Soccer divisions. The NASL wants all U.S. Soccer divisions abolished.
If the NASL prevails in its antitrust suit, there will be no U.S. Soccer divisions to implement pro/rel. There would be nothing, however, to prevent the NASL or any other private league from launching a multi-tiered league with its own pro/rel component.
The X factor in NASL vs. USSF is FIFA's position. The one thing you should know about FIFA is that it has historically abhorred the court system -- and that was true long before the 2015 FIFA corruption case turned FIFA upside down.
It's been suggested that the filing of the suit will threaten U.S. Soccer's World Cup 2026 bid with Canada and Mexico. But Champions World was making its way through the courts in 2010 when U.S. Soccer was bidding for the 2022 World Cup. It lost out to Qatar, but that had nothing to do with FIFA's position on the litigation.