Is Now The Time For Promotion and Relegation Between MLS, NASL and USL PRO?

On Saturday in Atlanta, the second division North American Soccer League will crown a champion for the 2013 season. The Atlanta Silverbacks will play host to the New York Cosmos who, despite not playing a full season, are eligible for the championship.  The winner will be crowned champion but will not win promotion to Major League Soccer, the top flight league in the United States and Canada. The champion won’t get a spot in the CONCACAF Champions League or any other international competition.

On the surface, this smacks of being highly unfair as a highly subjective, largely economic standard has been used to differentiate Division 1 from Divisions 2 and 3 in North America.

For years, I believed this standard was not only subjective but wrong. But once you work in the business, you realize why the structure is the way it is. While many of us would like to see changes made in the current environment, they are not possible in the near future.

Those who are connected with the beautiful game abroad want to badly see promotion and relegation in the United States. From a competitive sporting standpoint, it is the appropriate way to go. I count myself among this group. However for the model to work in the US, changes must be made to the domestic professional leagues. In other words, PRO/REL cannot work under the existing league setup. Here’s why:

1. Divisions 2 and 3 remain unstable and lack the infrastructure and professionalism to maintain first division standards

I worked at the NASL for three and a half years. When I began working there, I believed Major League Soccer (MLS) was a monopoly that was quite possibly violating anti-trust laws backed by the US Soccer Federation. I believed at the time a league like NASL could challenge MLS and blow them out of the water. By the time I left earlier this year, I believed Major League Soccer was largely a well-run league whose standards of professionalism and presentation exceed most football leagues on the planet. I also came to believe lower-division soccer needs to be overhauled and upgraded in the ways we talked about at the NASL but now seem to be ignoring.

What changed my thinking? Dealing with the wild west of lower division North American soccer where a lack of ownership stability, consistent standards and league structure inhibit the development of the game. The staffing of the leagues and the constantly changing formats and structure do not help either. USLPRO, the Division 3 in the country, has just once in the past decade gotten through an offseason without a team folding. The NASL, which manages Division 2, has trimmed its league staff and league budget since 2011 while Traffic Sports, which owns three teams in the league, has done the same as revenue projections have not been met. Sponsorship sales are difficult at the team and league level in both Division 2 and Division 3. Most lower-division teams could not possibly cope at the Major League level with the infrastructure they have. And attempting to compete for a single season if quickly relegated could contribute to bankrupting the ownership groups.

Top flight soccer does not sell itself in most markets. Professional, well-staffed clubs are a must to compete in the entertainment market at a high level in most towns that have pro soccer teams in any division. Many Division 2 teams have venues that are too small for MLS. And Division 3 teams have venues that are too small or not appropriate for NASL. Consider also what happens to MLS teams that have been sold for upwards of $100 million and have large soccer-specific stadiums. If those teams are relegated to the second division, consider how dramatically detrimental it would be to American soccer if it were in a large one team market (like Chicago, Philadelphia or Boston).  Conversely, do owners who spend a couple hundred thousand dollars to buy into USLPRO deserve a seat at the table?

2. Regional considerations

One of my greatest concerns about promotion and relegation being implemented now revolves around the geographic distribution of the clubs in each division. Travel costs already account for a large percentage of the budgets of lower division teams. Increased travel or, perhaps even worse, the first and second divisions lacking a presence in certain regions of the country will hurt the growth of the sport.

Considering resources in the United States are skewed towards larger urban areas and both coasts, is it possible with a promotion and relegation scheme that a concentration of teams on both coasts in MLS will be complimented by NASL being concentrated in the Midwest and southeast?

As far as USL PRO, the majority of third division teams from around the country are structured to minimize travel costs and lengthy cross-continent trips. This was among the reasons Rochester and Charleston, two of the strongest USL brands, dropped from Division 2 to Division 3 within the last five years. Self-relegation was the easiest way to counter increasing budget busting travel costs. Thus if promotion and relegation were implemented in the current scheme, one must wonder if teams will turn down the promotion to the top flight citing budgetary concerns.

3. Growth of game stifled

The lower divisions of American soccer are committed to growing the beautiful game and honing markets until they are ready to jump to the next level — as Seattle, Portland,. Montreal, Vancouver, and soon Orlando have proven, building the right model and infrastructure. Growing the sport in untested markets means managing budgets properly. In England it is estimated upwards of a third of Football League clubs buried in lower divisions could be sold.

Given the lack of ownership stability in the lower divisions of American soccer and the continued difficulty teams have making budgets year after year, it could be suicidal. England’s leagues have attracted large numbers of foreign owners at traditional clubs to cope with the existing structures. There’s no guarantee that American soccer will attract similar interest from foreign owners or even from domestic owners. Interest in the sport as a business is still limited in the US and Canada and despite Promotion/Relegation being far preferable to the existing system, from a sporting competitive standpoint.

Recently the NASL has made noises about competing with MLS including NASL Commissioner Bill Peterson claiming on the October 7th Ultras Alive show that teams may eventually want to leave MLS to join NASL. Peterson has previously claimed no NASL teams wants to join MLS and that NASL was looking at expanding into Los Angeles as a core MLS market.

Should NASL raise its standards to an MLS-lite level, we can begin to seriously discuss integrating the pyramid. But currently the gap between the NASL and MLS from a business, team and professionalism standpoint is not like the Championship and Premier League in England. It is more like the gap between the lower-tiers of League One and the Premier League. Thus NASL has lots of work to do. Additionally, NASL’s recent moves towards a more decentralized league take it further away from the goal of integration with MLS and the rest of the pyramid. USL PRO has even more work to do as the number of unstable franchises with what can be best described as “cracker jack” ownership would could not hack it in a more competitive business environment.

Ultimately I believe some form of promotion and relegation will happen in North America. But now is not the time just yet. The business side of the sport is not mature enough or sophisticated enough to handle the sort of flux promotion and relegation brings. This having been said, my personal preference from a sporting standpoint is to have promotion and relegation and to dump the socialist model of American sports entirely in this game. However, the time to do this has not arrived as of yet.

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