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Leagues: MLS

Why the Promotion/Relegation Debate Should Be Ignored


One of the topics that generates a lot of clicks on the Internet, but that we’ve purposefully stayed away from, is the debate about promotion/relegation in the US soccer system. There’s a couple of reasons why we’ve avoided it until now. One, it’s a hornet’s nest. It attracts a lot of irrational comments from both sides of the fence. The “conversation” among readers ends up quickly descending into chaos.

The second reason we generally avoid the topic is that promotion/relegation isn’t going to happen in the United States until the NFL adopts it first, which means it’s never going to happen. The mere concept of pro/rel is completely against the way that the NFL and MLS operate.

For soccer fans in the United States who want promotion/relegation to happen, it’s a pipe dream. The system in place will not allow it. And even if they did, which they won’t, the vast majority of second and third tier clubs in the US aren’t financially or commercially ready to sustain the move up to the top tier.

Soccer is not a democracy. While we like to think we do at times, soccer supporters have no representation or impact on how soccer federations run or are governed.

At the same time, the pro/rel debate has continued because people in the media have made the topic a priority because it generates clicks, views and heated debate. By engaging in the topic and replying to trolls tweeting about the topic, the anti-pro/rel crowd (mostly fans of MLS teams, or the MLS in general) have added fuel to the fire and given exposure to the promotion/relegation advocates, which is exactly what they want.

I realize that by merely bringing up the topic that this article feeds into that in a minimal way, but I felt it important to set the record straight regarding why we’re not covering the topic or getting into heated debates on social media about it.

One thing I do agree about is that it’s healthy to question the US Soccer Federation, MLS and other leagues and/or football associations around the world. But for those who want to make promotion/relegation a reality in the United States, it’s a waste of time. They’d be better off spending their time for something good that will have a positive impact on the sport in this country like volunteering to coach a kids’ soccer team, or something else.

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  1. Udo Obiechefu

    December 19, 2014 at 8:16 am

    While I don’t believe pro/rel will happen anytime soon, if at all, I do believe that a simulated version is possible. Garber made a slight reference to this a while back (maybe someone has the link)

    An alternative is definitely needed. This country and Canada combined can probably support 28 to 32 top flight clubs. I think we may need to stop looking at the pro/rel in the traditional, old world sense and think about alternatives that keep the owners (somewhat) happy, while at the same time solving this problem.

  2. A Thought

    December 18, 2014 at 4:07 pm

    If not pro/rel then shake it up! Add teams to make it up to 32 (I’m sure it wouldn’t be that hard if the desire was there).

    8 groups of 4. These groups are based on strict geographic closeness. Lots of rivalry games to enjoy.

    34 game season:
    H/A v all your group = 6 games.
    You play every other team once = 28 games (rotates season-to-season H/A).

    The 8 group winners play each other at the end of the season in knock-out comp.
    1 v 8
    2 v 7
    3 v 6
    4 v 5
    Best (lowest) rank always plays at home.

    This is probably yet another ‘no chance of that happening’ but I dunno – for me something needs to change. The regular season lacks something because half of each conference makes it to the post-season. I think that wanting the other 3 teams in your division to lose each week would just add more interest…

  3. gobli

    December 16, 2014 at 9:26 am

    i sure hope you make promotion and relegation happen. soccer will normally die and and fade into 100% complete obscurity in the U.S. as it always does, but if you do this, it will acclerate the process by an order of magnitude! lol! soccer is for losers and you’re all a bunch of losers! ROFL!

  4. Sun Jihai

    December 13, 2014 at 6:55 am

    This is actually a great article because of its intrinsic point – why talk about something that is inherently impossible?

    I do think where the action is at as far as making the MLS more compelling to follow is in reducing the number of clubs making their “playoff” format. You could substitute the initials “NBA” and “NHL” quite nicely into the above sentence as well.

    Is that impossible? Seems less impossible than pro/rel anyway.

  5. Mark Williamson

    December 11, 2014 at 6:40 pm

    Economically, right now, it won’t work. No explanation needed as it has been already stated above. You sure as heck can not knock watching a dog fight at the near end of a season as the lower teams play some incredible football to stay above.

  6. DZ

    December 11, 2014 at 10:10 am

    Simply, it will never happen as long as the cabal of franchise owners in the MLS don’t wish it so. MLS is a group of owners that exists solely for the benefit of said owners.

    Unfortunate the league uses this model as it rarely exists to actually engage and cater to the fans. More so only to provide a product of its choosing at the benefit of the owners.

    Ever wonder why the sports people truly engage willingly with need so little PR/spin/promotion?

    Until the franchise model is changed to become fan-oriented (and thereby increase fan engagement – i.e. TV ratings, ticket sales, merchandising), I predict the long, slow, slide toward further irrelevance and perhaps ultimate demise.

  7. TheDuke

    December 10, 2014 at 10:46 pm

    Two things that make America different from Europe that are not even mentioned here. Geography and Culture. The U.S. is freaking huge the Revolution traveled almost twice the distance between London and Moscow to play in the cup final Sunday. This is an extreme example but MLS teams and large American cities are not close to each other. If you wanted to start a second division team near the Revolution the nearest city with a chance would be Hartford CT. That is almost two hours away and would eat half a gas tank to drive. There are two areas I know of in England where there are six Premier League sides within half this distance of each other. Culture NO ONE roots for the Pawtucket Red Sox instead of Boston. There is not the passion for minor league sports that is needed to support a business model. Our second division teams are dependent entirely on their major league teams and I do not see a sport that draws numbers only in its event years changing the nations minds.

    • Rob

      December 12, 2014 at 7:55 pm

      If soccer becomes as popular here as it is in Europe Cities will be crying out for multiple top-league soccer teams.

  8. Ken 'The Machine' Riggins

    December 10, 2014 at 10:05 pm

    Clearly there aren’t enough teams for promotion/relegation but have a regular league format at least. Top team at the end of the season wins, no stupid cup format and just one whole division.

  9. Rob

    December 10, 2014 at 9:11 pm

    The more MLS expands – it doesn’t appear to be slowing its growth – the more likely pro-rel will become a possibility.


    The reason Europe’s soccer leagues look the way they do is because teams are local. Their support is local. Their fans are from right near the stadium (European teams are certainly gaining world-wide support now too, but there remains a heavily local element).

    Soccer’s popularity here will continue to grow, creating more and more possibilities for viable new MLS teams. More MLS teams=more locally supported MLS teams.

    As our soccer culture grows (rivalries, supporters groups etc.) support will become more reliable and the issue of losing support/interest/television revenues upon relegation will fade…Not to mention the league will be too massive to remain ONE league.

    Also. Don Garber won’t be around forever.

    • Flyvanescence

      December 10, 2014 at 9:18 pm

      Congratulations on ignoring the entire American soccer landscape outside of the MLS. The Don and all his cronies salute you.

      • Rob

        December 12, 2014 at 7:52 pm

        I’m not at all opposed to MLS dissolving and having the existing local teams incorporated…

        My overall point is that as soccer becomes more high profile here more local teams (existing now or not) will become viable money-makers due to increased attention overall…

        Pro-rel is more possible in that kind of landscape IMO.

  10. Smokey Bacon

    December 10, 2014 at 6:45 pm

    It may happen, just not in our lifetimes. That said, did anyone see the poll in Bloomberg today? A majority of parents in the United states do not want their kids playing throwball for fear of serious injuries including concussion. This is a worrying trend for the NFL if fewer players are coming through. The article compared it to boxing which was a major sport 100 years ago but is now small market. It’s not the end of the NFL but we may have reached peak interest. The demise of throwball would be huge for soccer and may lead to more consistency with European and other leagues. The chances are slim but it could happen down the road.

    • gobli

      December 16, 2014 at 9:29 am

      another delusional soccer fan. the NFL, NBA, MLB, and NHL all have long, storied histories in the United States. these are American/North American sports. they are what the country loves. America’s passion for football will never die. it has no passion and never has for something as boring and un-American as soccer. and a disrespectful loser un-American soccer lover like you is going to be disappointed when soccer disappears in this country yet again, like it always does. because nobody in the U.S. cares about soccer – NOBODY. so suck on that you soccer-loving loser! LOL!

  11. StellaWasAlwaysDown

    December 10, 2014 at 4:30 pm


    1. Just because it is a hotly-debated topic doesn’t mean people should ignore it. I think it IS a hot topice because all of the major soccer leagues in the world are doing it! We are effectively making the US system obsolete and obscure just because of owner greed. MLS is the standard to the world’s metric system. So yes, it needs to be out there in front.

    2.What does the NFL have anything to do with MLS any more than NHL, NBA, etc? I don’t get where you are going here.

    3. I think promotion/relegation would actually help 2nd/3rd tier teams as just in the EPL there are monetary rewards for being promoted. This helps small teams to grow, and definitely would make it interesting if the SA Scorpions could be playing Houston or Dallas creating rivalries and derbys.

    4. Again, the media keeps talking about it because it is a big deal. It’s like the world using 4 wheels on a car and the US decides to use 3 wheels “just because.” Besides owners wanting to get rich, what benefit does closing the system have? I’m seriously asking.

    Every time the MLS front office and owners get together and wring their hands wondering why their league is stagnant and TV revenues suck, all they have to do is look at their ass-backwards system to find their answer. You want us soccer fans to take MLS seriously? Then act like a real league!

    • Flyvanescence

      December 10, 2014 at 5:42 pm

      Couldnt have said it better myself. Great post. The one thing you left out is this:

      Of course MLS is not going to institute relegation. It would be a certain bad business move for at least a few of its owners.

      Problem is our useless, lazy, do-nothing USSF, who cares only about collecting $ and couldnt care less about developing the huge talent pool we have (or else they would force the necessary overhaul of our professional system) or governing club soccer like every other functioning FA does.

      It is the responsibility of USSF, who has never done much of anything since its inception around 1900, and that is why we have no relegation.

    • Christopher Harris

      December 10, 2014 at 6:09 pm

      StellaWasAlwaysDown, in answer to one of your points:

      #2 Don Garber left his job with NFL Europe and was hand chosen to become MLS Commissioner by the main owners of MLS clubs at that time (who owned NFL teams). Garber has always praised the way that the NFL is run, and wants to model his league on the success of the NFL. To Garber, the NFL is the end-all and be-all of how sports leagues are run, so he sees them as the model.

      • StellaWasAlwaysDown

        December 10, 2014 at 6:19 pm

        Good addition Fly!

        Chris – makes more sense now. Unfortunately for them, the two sports are vastly different, and need to be organized/marketed as such.

        • Christopher Harris

          December 10, 2014 at 6:37 pm

          Agreed! But it’s not going to happen with current owners and commissioner in place.

  12. Cody

    December 10, 2014 at 1:56 pm

    There will never be pro/rel because MLS doesn’t contain “Clubs” It is franchises, much like a McDonalds.

    • City Blue

      December 10, 2014 at 3:44 pm

      Perfect example. My problem is that they can move a team I support to a place they think is better because it’s a franchise and not a club. I’m not a fan of the MK Dons model of business at all.

    • supertrev

      December 10, 2014 at 3:48 pm

      Spot on. No investor in his right mind would pay millions to join MLS if there’s a possibility his team could be dumped into USL, a league with no TV contract whose teams mostly play in high school stadiums watched by a couple of thousand spectators. USL/NASL have to prove they are financially viable leagues before Pro/rel could even be considered in the US

      • Purple Soda

        December 10, 2014 at 4:53 pm

        Playing devil’s advocate here for a moment: is small attendance really a dealbreaker at this point. Keep in mind that the now-defunct Chivas and currently active Columbus Crew didn’t exactly bowl folks over in terms of attendance while NASL clubs such as Indy Eleven and Minnesota United and USL Pro’s Sacramento club averaged similar (if not greater) numbers. Even some of the middling NASL and USL Pro clubs aren’t lagging that far behind some of the bottom MLS clubs.

        If anything, now is the time to institute pro/rel while the stakes aren’t particularly that high, per se.

        • John P. O'Donnell

          December 10, 2014 at 10:49 pm

          No it isn’t, you don’t do Pro/Rel just for the sake of it. Pro/Rel was a solution to a problem, one we don’t have here right now. When Pro/Rel started many teams that played in England were thought to be better than the best in the top division. Much like college football and the problem at the end of the year with naming a true number one. The solution to give the top division more legitimacy was pro/rel. So if NASL can start producing three and four teams playing at a higher level then the champion of MLS, then I think it’s time to have the conversation. It’s an old concept and part of the culture now in Europe so I understand why it’s part of the game there. But in truth most the time only the top four teams have a shot at the title and I’ll pass on that. Right now the 7th place team in La Liga is 12 points from the top of the table and the 8th place team is 10 points clear of the relegation zone. That would never fly here in America and is probably one of the reasons baseball is on the decline.

          • Purple Soda

            December 11, 2014 at 6:01 pm

            You make some valid points here, some of which I hadn’t considered.

            That said, one of the things that you suggested was that the top division gained more legitimacy in England through promotion and relegation. Is this not MLS’s primary problem? It doesn’t have any legitimacy primarily based on two factors: a dearth of talent and far too many teams in the top flight.

            Think about it: for relative neophytes in top flight soccer, MLS will likely have upwards of 26-27 clubs by the end of the decade. Nobody can say–with absolute certainty–that the MLS comprises the best soccer clubs in the United States. It behooves American soccer to have its best teams in its top flight league.

            In regards to your other valid point about European leagues being dominated by the same four clubs, that certainly is the case. The proto-socialist model of sports is what we Americans favor. That doesn’t mean it’s the best. It also doesn’t prevent dominance by the same teams each year, particularly in MLB and NBA. While there’s certainly more variation in American pro sports than in European soccer, there really isn’t *that* much–even in the highly favored NFL.

        • Tim

          December 11, 2014 at 3:05 pm

          Columbus avg attendance is 16k+. Thats pretty good.

  13. Purple Soda

    December 10, 2014 at 1:54 pm

    Promotion and relegation is certainly a non-starter when it comes to MLS, which wants to be more MLB/NBA/NFL than it does Premier League. That’s fine.

    However, that’s not to suggest that discussions of promotion and relegation should be tossed out the window–primarily because, arguably, if there was ever a time in which to do it, it’s now.

    Here’s why: the gulf between MLS and USL Pro isn’t necessarily all that wide (as evident by the Lamar Hunt Cup competitions). As a fan, who would you’ve rather seen this year in the top flight: Chivas or Sacramento? Orlando City or Montreal?

    MLS has claimed top billing in the American soccer hierarchy; that doesn’t mean we have to let them keep it. NASL has shown some openness to it:

    All in all, MLS promotion and relegation likely may not happen. However, what may happen with MLS is even more daunting–it may collapse under its own weight. Couple that with NASL’s gradual growth and openness to promotion and relegation, and one has to conclude that it’s not totally outside the bounds of possibility.

  14. christian

    December 10, 2014 at 1:25 pm

    Me = Eurosnob

    Enjoy your meaningless Supporters Shield trophy and end of season matches with zero on the line.

    • John P. O'Donnell

      December 10, 2014 at 10:31 pm

      Thanks, I will.

  15. Tim

    December 10, 2014 at 1:02 pm

    I am a MLS/NASL fan and just an American soccer fan in general…I would love pro/rel becuase it gives you a chance to root for the underdog and I love that.On the other hand I am a realist and would NOT want to see it until the lower leauges develop more stability. The MLS game of the week will not look good in a 6k stadium any more than 40k in Seattle with football lines. With that said I hope it happens but when the time is right.

    Que @totalrelegation troll to go off on here…

  16. Kei

    December 10, 2014 at 12:44 pm

    “The mere concept of pro/rel is completely against the way that the NFL and MLS operate.”

    The corollary to that statement: The mere concept of a lack of pro/rel is completely against the way that most soccer fans in America behave (see EPL or Liga MX vs MLS ratings, etc).

    • Tim

      December 10, 2014 at 1:08 pm

      Are you joking? People are not watching those leagues because they have pro/rel. They watch them because they are better…thats ok and not that hard to figure out. If people are saying “I cant watch (Insert American soccer league game) because no one will be promoted or relegated later in the year” then you have some serious issues.

      • Awful Awful Knight

        December 10, 2014 at 2:11 pm

        >>People are not watching those leagues because they have pro/rel. They watch them because they are better…<<

        But doesn't the existence of Pro/Rel *make* those leagues better? Put me in the camp that says it's a good thing but not at the moment — it just wouldn't work. When there's 50-60 solvent teams that can regularly pull 15K attendance at home games, we can start to have a realistic discussion about this in the US. The current economic model just won't support it.

        • Tim

          December 10, 2014 at 2:20 pm

          Yes and no…I think it can make some games more entertaining but the fact that people say it will be better is saying that bad players will now all the sudden become better and thats not the case.

  17. Paul Scanling

    December 10, 2014 at 12:28 pm

    I could totally see this working in 50 years or so when there are 100 financially sound clubs at various levels. Until then, there is no way a club could get promoted and have any chance of competing, and a relegated club would lose most of their income from television, sponsorships, etc. I do think it’s funny to observe the debate. A lot of people want the US to look just like Europe. A lot of people want the US to look different just because they don’t like Europe. It’s really entertaining, in a can’t-stop-watching-a-car-wreck kinda way.

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