The discussion around promotion and relegation, and the potential of it being implemented in the US/Canadian leagues has grown in scope and intensity over the last few years. One camp of fans and analysts clearly state that American sporting culture is different than what we see in Europe or South America, and that promotion and relegation simply can never fit our system. This camp argues that investors that pour millions of dollars into franchises cannot be expected to expose this investment to the potential of “their” team being relegated.
A second camp argues that the closed system of Major League Soccer has kept the game from truly exploding in this nation. This camp argues correctly that hundreds of thousands of fans watch soccer from Mexico or England every weekend without even the slightest interest or passing knowledge of the domestic game in the United States. This camp argues that promotion and relegation is the only way to fix this problem, since many fans have no incentive to support local professional or semi-professional soccer in a closed pyramid system.
These two camps make lots of noise on social media and on blogs. They tend to drown out any voice of moderation. But a third way does exist, and that is the camp I fall into.
While professional soccer has a rich history in the United States, the current iteration of the truly professional game is only two decades old. It took years for Germany and England to get the systems right and Scotland arguably still has not. Promotion and relegation is worthy of discussion, and to be a long-term goal. However, lower division soccer in the United States and Canada is not yet at the level it needs to be at to implement a true promotion and relegation scheme. A real effort to invest in the development of lower divisions and the clubs in smaller and medium-sized markets must be made before such an idea is implemented. The current second division in the United States, NASL, has opted to try and bring its league to first-tier markets rather than focus on medium or smaller sized ones. Until the map is completed with leagues committed to their respective roles in the pyramid, we cannot have promotion and relegation.
It’s important to understand why leagues in Europe and South America developed promotion and relegation through the years. It’s also important to weigh the possibility that promotion and relegation in its current form quite possibly will not exist forever in the more visible leagues of Europe. For example, as more foreign investment comes into English football, the likelihood grows that eventually those buying clubs will want some security against a Luton Town or Portsmouth-like slide down the divisions. I believe we might eventually see the league in England sealed off to somewhere between 54 and 62 teams playing in three divisions with promotion and relegation only within that self-contained structure. In the future, a small side like Bournemouth may not be able to achieve three promotions in four seasons. It simply may not be permissible.