The much beloved promotion/relegation system is apparently being threatened in England. Recent news reports suggest that foreign Premiership owners (several Americans in the list) have asked for the elimination of the promotion/relegation system and an adoption of a franchise system more reminiscent of American sports leagues. The decided reason behind this proposal is that club owners would have more financial security supporting their investment. The risk of dropping into a lower league poses great financial risk to club revenues. TV rights alone ensure millions of pounds for Premier League teams; not to mention the money brought in by sponsors, endorsements, merchandise, and ticket sales (to name just a few) in the top flight. Dropping to the Championship or lower can look like plummeting stock in the eyes of businessmen investors. Why not put in measures to prevent this from happening?
The obvious answer to this question is simply put: The tradition and passion of English Football trumps any potential risk to the pockets of investors. Eliminating the current system will seriously strip the game of the heart that it has. The current system gives small seaside teams, donning tangerine kits, the dream of taking down one of the big London clubs; it gives fans of a once great European Cup contender that plunged to the third tier the hope of once again climbing to the top. To lock teams into permanent leagues would be an atrocity that could kill the lower leagues and make for a boring and meaningless season for league bottom dwellers. This is not to mention the nightmare of how to decide which teams get locked into the Premiership. Would there just be a final season as is, and just go from there? While that would make for one heck of a final relegation/promotion battle, what happens to the legacy of teams with rich Premiership pasts? Would teams like Portsmouth, West Ham, Leeds, and Nottingham Forest be permanently banned from tier one football for a few bad seasons? I cannot imagine what that crazy tatted-up Pompey fan would do if his hopes of Premiership glory were dashed. The tradition runs too deep and the passion burns too hard to give it up.
So I realize that I am preaching to the choir, and that no true football fan would desire to see the promotion/relegation system abolished in any league. But here is where I shift my gaze and find some will disagree with me. These recent articles have sparked many American footy fans to once again consider the adoption of promotion/relegation into the US club soccer system. While the idea of emulating the top leagues of the world with the glory and intrigue of such a system sounds enticing, I would argue that it is a horrible idea for American Soccer, for now at least. Many MLS fans plead for the removal of the 2 conference system that has half the teams in the playoffs fighting for top honors. These fans want a one table system where the bottom teams drop to the USL and the top USL teams come into the MLS. “It would be just like Europe, it would only serve to improve the game in the States” is the cry. For all of the stated reasons above about the system in England, I too would love to see the system in the US. I would be utterly enthralled to see my beloved local team, Chattanooga FC, rise from the NPSL all the way to the MLS. But to go back to talking business, this is not a viable financial option for our country… yet.
Simply put, the interest level in the sport and financial weakness of the lower leagues (NASL, USL and NPSL) could not sustain the existence of the relegated clubs. If a team like DC United has one poor season (not too far off from this current season), it could spell the ruin for one of the most successful MLS clubs. Say DC United gets relegated to NASL, the climate at the club would drastically shift. Revenues would naturally drop (just as they do for English teams). The first big money saving change would see the exodus of many of the higher earning players. Short of a few die hard supporters, ticket sales would severely drop off, merchandise sales would plummet. People just wouldn’t care as much. Sponsorship and endorsement deals from the likes of Volkswagen could be replaced by FreeCreditReport.com. The few DC fans interested in watching the game on television would most likely be out of luck. The money making potential would drop off harshly and DC United would cease to be good business, and it would not be difficult to conceive the club fizzling out all-together.
It is this sort of potential fear that caused MLS to organize the way that it did. Players sign contracts with the leagues, not the teams. Teams are allowed only 2 or 3 “Designated Players” outside of the set salary caps. This is all in place to ensure longevity for the sport in the United States; nobody wants a repeat of the old NASL. It would have been incredible to have been one of 70,000 fans watching Pele, Beckenbauer, and the Cosmos on a regular basis in New York City; but it would have been equally disappointing to watch the whole thing crumble just a few years later. In its short lifespan the MLS has already seen the failure of certain clubs i.e. Tampa Mutiny and Miami Fusion). I am confident that MLS Commissioner Don Garber would love to see a promotion/relegation system in our country eventually, but he is a smart enough businessman to know that it is not a viable option at this time.
The verdict: English football would suffer from the abolishment of the promotion/relegation system while American Soccer would suffer from the institution of the same. While a Premier League team would provide a more financially stable investment for owners if the system were to change, the tradition and passion existing within each team would make the transition stifling and disappointing.
On the other side of the pond, it is this type of tradition and passion that needs to be matched by MLS fans before the system would provide any viability for American Soccer. Leeds United can drop 3 leagues and still exist as a club because it has been around since 1919 and fans live and die by the happenings at Elland Road no matter what league they play in. The same cannot be said yet of teams like New England Revolution, which only dates back to 1996 (a founding member of the league no less) and has struggled to get more than 12,000 fans through the gates this season. Relegate that team, and I assure you it will fail to keep the doors open. I am not trying to be pessimistic towards Major League Soccer, but on the contrary I am calling for fans to be patient and optimistic about the future of a rising league. We can get there as a league, just look at what has been happening in Seattle the past 3 seasons. We just do not need to rush changes prematurely. In the meantime let’s hope to be watching relegation battles in the Prem for many years to come.