MLS famously does not compete within a system of promotion and relegation. In fact, no league of any real relevance in the United States has ever used the mechanism that has been the standard for the global club game for over a century.
But why doesn’t MLS use pro/rel? League brass, media personalities and fans are often quick to hit you with a myriad of reasons for why the United States doesn’t, and even shouldn’t, have a merit-based soccer pyramid.
Let’s take a look at each of the commonly seen bullets on the anti-pro/rel PowerPoint presentation, and see if there is any real merit to them.
#1 – American owners would never agree to it!
Also known as “who’s going to pay $X million dollars to get in and risk being sent down.” There is absolutely a large kernel of truth buried in this argument. There are indeed very few businessmen who would pay a large sum of money for something and then voluntarily risk it losing value and status. However, most other businesses aren’t offered the protection American professional sports franchises largely enjoy. Other industries – in which owners made their fortunes – come complete with open competition and serious risk. Why should sports not be the same?
Plus, the idea that American owners would flat out refuse to participate in a promotion and relegation environment is patently false. Why?
American sports owners are currently invested in dozens of professional soccer clubs, big and small, all over the world that play in open systems. Even some who also own major American sports franchises.
Do existing MLS (and some USL, NWSL, etc.) owners want pro/rel? Unlikely. But it’s not really up to them. US Soccer, CONCACAF, and FIFA choose whether or not to enforce certain statutes when it comes to handing out sanctioning.
Yes, it would not be fair for an owner to have paid hundreds of millions of dollars for a D1 team only to be relegated shortly after. But there are solutions to this problem. A form of “parachute payments”, perhaps a transition period where these teams are protected from the drop for a certain number of seasons are potential workarounds.
The threat of relegation has not stopped American investment into clubs overseas where pro/rel is the practice. And the possibility of promotion has no doubt, at least in part, sparked investment where otherwise there would not have been interest.
#2 – There isn’t enough talent
This falls into the “soccer isn’t developed enough in the US” category. But are there enough players to fill out 29-30 Division One teams now?
Then why would it be any different in a pro/rel setup? It’s just a few of the teams at each level would differ from season to season. When going up or down, club rosters adjust. This really isn’t an issue at all.
If anything, if the opportunity was there to pare down the number of teams in the first division in an open pyramid, the level of talent could actually improve.
#3 – The soccer infrastructure isn’t there yet
A valid concern is with the quality of facilities for teams moving around the pyramid. However, this is a concern everywhere soccer is played. And standards are put in place to make sure teams getting promoted have the proper, professional-grade venues and facilities.
A grace period for promoted teams to meet standards or find a suitable alternative venue would serve this issue fine.
As of today, there are few lower-division professional clubs whose venues would not be at least temporarily acceptable if they were to win a place in division one. Certainly not while MLS still has clubs playing on baseball diamonds, on plastic grass, and in half-empty (at best most of the time) NFL stadia.
Give me a likely enthusiastic 7-10K fans of a newly-promoted club in a sold-out smaller venue any day of the week over the same number of people in an MLS venue that’s half full, or worse, for a last-place side. As long as the pitch itself and player facilities are up to snuff, frankly, it shouldn’t matter if there are 500 seats or 50,000 in a venue.
#4 – Fans won’t support it (if their team goes down)
It’s almost a universal fact that sports teams that perform poorly draw smaller crowds and sell fewer tickets. Getting sent down a division or two can certainly play into that. However bad teams in closed league systems often draw poorly at the gate too.
But there is a tendency to view this argument through the lens of the entrenched “minor league” mentality of American sports. Almost all baseball, hockey, and basketball, lower level pro clubs are developmental affiliates of major league teams located in other cities. At the risk of oversimplifying things, the prevailing attitude from fans, media, sponsors, etc. is that at the end of the day, these teams don’t really matter.
While most lower-division soccer outfits in the US are independent clubs and not development teams, they are still locked into their place at a lower level. The carrot of possibly getting promoted doesn’t realistically exist. And this can, and often does, stunt potential interest and growth across just about every metric.
So it’s a bit unfair to assume a team moving from say, MLS, to USL would suffer the same drain on interest in a pro/rel setup that it would in the existing system.
But let’s say at season’s end, the Portland Timbers, Detroit City, or LAFC get sent down for next season. Would local support drop off that much? The culture around the domestic game has evolved immensely over the past two decades. Even to the point where there are and have been division two and three clubs that outdraw some division one teams at times.
Getting sent down could potentially hurt support for some clubs, yes. But in an open system, this effect is likely to be mitigated substantially.
#5 – Teams will fail if they get relegated
This one is an interesting angle to take because there is empirical evidence that points to the exact opposite happening.
Professional soccer teams in the United States already fail at what is likely the highest rate in the world. And that’s as a series of closed franchise leagues that have offered some level of market exclusivity.
Meanwhile, clubs outright failing (or even relocating) is a rarity in most developed soccer nations. And in the few-and-far-between cases where it does happen, the communities that lose a club almost invariably have a phoenix outfit pop up immediately to replace them, with the opportunity to move back up the pyramid.
Clubs in open systems tend to settle at a level that is sustainable for their community and level of investment.
Could clubs still fail if America adopted promotion and relegation? Absolutely. Would it be any worse than the rate of club failure we already have in this country? Highly doubtful.
#6 – The game can’t risk losing major markets
Here we have a concept that is tied at the hip with other major American sports. But it doesn’t really transfer to domestic soccer.
Unlike the NFL, MLB, NBA, and NHL, there isn’t a single American pro soccer club that has any sort of real national, casual fan appeal. Not one. There is no Yankees, no Cowboys, no Lakers equivalent. Arguably Inter Miami has this pull for the moment, but it will surely evaporate once their once-in-a-lifetime star attraction, Messi, inevitably leaves.
Maybe decades down the line one or two teams will get to that point. Where fans have moved away and a large dispersal live all over the place. But for the foreseeable future, soccer clubs in this country are driven by and tied to their local community.
So it wouldn’t really hurt if New York, LA, and Chicago got replaced by Des Moines, Louisville, and Richmond. In addition, due to multiple clubs in these big markets, odds are incredibly low that any given season would be completely bereft of big-ticket names in the standings.
And eventually, hugely successful and popular teams may indeed emerge in some smaller markets.
#7 – Media companies won’t go for it
This may be the most complicated and perhaps biggest roadblock to any implementation of an open system. And it does tie into the point above.
American pro sports leagues sign major broadcast rights deals based on their level of competition. And the size of markets within those leagues. If the roster of markets is constantly changing, the value proves trickier to quantify.
And you have to navigate existing rights deals. For example, MLS is in year one of a ten-year pact with Apple. They’d probably be none too happy if their biggest draw at the moment, Inter Miami who happens to sit third from last place, got dropped to USL next season.
Indeed, a massive rethinking and re-organizing of the game and how media rights are sold would likely need to be worked out to make any promotion and relegation system viable. Ideally, the entire professional pyramid could be sold together as a unit. That way broadcast partners get every team, and every market, as part of the deal.
Verdict: An issue
#8 – The REAL reason MLS doesn’t have promotion and relegation
When it comes down to it, the only actual reason why there is no MLS promotion & relegation is greed. It matters not that the most successful and popular soccer nations on our planet use it. Nor that the majority of communities and clubs in the US are forever blocked out from a fair chance to compete. Neither does anyone seem to remember that well-run clubs can, and do, rake in truckloads of revenue in an open system.
What truly matters is protecting the investments of a handful of billionaires. Under the facade of “protecting the game from failing again” – as if it hasn’t still continued to fail the game as a whole since MLS began in 1996. The veneer of a first division, comprised of just thirty clubs spread across an entire continent, covers all.
And the soccer powers that are in the US continue to make money for CONCACAF and FIFA, so there is no strong incentive for those who can press the issue.
So down the road, we go. Clubs in this corner of the world will continue to come and go, but not go up and down.
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