The ups and downs of promotion and relegation

Long the province of cranky conversations in the virtual soccer community, promotion and relegation leaped into the news in recent days with a couple of pieces of bad reporting:

1. An English executive of some kind, Richard Bevan, claimed that some overseas owners of Premier League clubs want to scrap promotion and relegation. American-owned Aston Villa responded: “Put up or shut up.” Neither happened. Liverpool’s John Henry has now weighed in with his own denial.

Let me back up with a disclaimer: My love/hate relationship with Britain (probably 80% love) can be summed up like this – Britain invented many things I love in the arts, sports, sciences and intellectual thought. That includes Monty Python, the Beatles, the Comedy Store Players, soccer, antibiotics, economic theory and (eventually) the notion that a capitalist country should find a way to take care of its least fortunate.

But don’t let anyone tell you it’s not provincial, especially in sports. They’re miffed that the rest of the world doesn’t play the same sports they do. Some people even prefer the “awkwardness” of the UK version of The Office to the full-fledged character development and creative situations of the American version. They’ve spent decades thinking there’s something wrong with the way South Americans play soccer. They STILL think the 1930 U.S. World Cup semifinalists were all Brits, no matter how many times Roger Allaway and company smash that myth into pieces.

So we shouldn’t be surprised when the bad old Americans are seen as overlords who want to turn the Premier League into the NFL. They really should be more worried about people who want to form a pan-European NFL of their own.

2. Meanwhile, in Korea, the soccer powers that be want to start promoting and relegating. Here’s the problem: They tried that just a few years ago, and the lower-division teams didn’t want to move up.

That’s not unusual. In the USA, teams have often preferred to move down or stay down. The USL’s sprawling three-tier system of 15 years ago is now a scaled-back third-division pro league with scores of teams opting instead for fourth-division amateur status. Some clubs, like the well-rooted D3 Richmond Kickers, have no desire to bounce back up to a division that would require cross-country travel every other week. (Yes, I’ve asked.)

Teams also aren’t that likely to see a giant leap in revenue with each step up the pyramid. Consider other U.S. sports. I saw Greensboro’s minor-league hockey team move from the brutish ECHL to the flashy AHL, a big step up the ladder that brought much more talented players to the Coliseum. Attendance dropped.


We’ve had “promotion” of a sort in the United States for a while now. If you can put together the capital and the stadium plan to move into MLS, you have. Seattle. Portland. Vancouver. Montreal. All have moved up. Their former colleagues in the lower divisions aren’t ready to make that move.

Promotion and relegation may happen in the top levels of this country’s pyramid one day, and if it does, it’ll be a day to rejoice. Not because of promotion/relegation itself, but because if we ever have it, it means soccer in the USA will have progressed to the point at which it can afford such a luxury.

Personally? I’d love to see it. I think it’d be a lot of fun.

Professionally? I’m one of the few people who would directly benefit. This year, I’ve earned less covering MLS than I have covering ACC basketball and the Pan Am Games. If MLS put in a promotion/relegation system, I could probably sell at least one more story. And I’d have an excuse to do a revised version of my book.

Some people, of course, see a conspiracy keeping promotion/relegation down. (Whatever happened to the Twitter account representing the alleged “United States Soccer Futbal Association,” anyway? It was changed to “futbol” when others noted that “futbal” is a word used in Slovakia and not really anywhere else.)

When promotion/relegation zealots really wind up, they steer the conversation to the ills of MLS — ragged play, losses in CONCACAF games, etc. See a fairly typical BigSoccer thread. What’s never adequately explained is how we could magically instill promotion, relegation and a top league with no salary caps, then start routing every team in Mexico. And the zealots don’t want to hear that maybe, just maybe, Mexico has a better-established soccer culture than the United States. Pumas and Morelia just might beat MLS teams more than half the time even if they spent wildly and managed to stay in business.

And Mexico, unlike the USA, has plenty of stadiums. MLS has done unpleasant time in temporary venues such as Dragon Stadium, the Southlake Carroll football stadium that blistered the feet and soured the fans of the Dallas Burn and their opponents. Today, most teams have their own stadiums, and the occasional lower-division team (Rochester) has a viable place to play in front of at least 13,000 fans. But all told, the total number of decent venues is less than 20.

MLS is requiring a legit stadium plan to get into the league now, with good reason. And D.C. United, for all its past glory, is the MLS team in the most danger of relocating because it’s the one team paying through the nose to use a venue it doesn’t control. Even New England, which has a relatively cozy arrangement sharing an NFL stadium with its NFL owner, is looking for something different. (Seattle, another MLS/NFL organization, is an exception because the crowds are big enough to create a great atmosphere, and the location works.)

It’s not just a question of finding a place that seats 25-40K. It’s a question of revenue streams. D.C. United doesn’t have them. And so they struggle.

Let’s hope pro/rel stays in Europe. The old league systems worked pretty well in Europe before Bosman and before rules on foreign players were struck down. Today, with loads of Champions League cash making the rich richer, we have a titanic race between giant clubs that are able to float massive debts. We have a Big Four/Five in England and a Big Two in Spain.

Europe already is starting to tinker with its league systems to keep teams off a financial roller-coaster. Some relegated teams get “parachute” payments to lessen the financial blow of going from TV dates with Arsenal to quiet treks to Preston. And we have cumbersome agreements on youth development to try to redistribute the wealth just enough that the lower leagues can stay afloat.

Some uniquely American aspects of the soccer structure can limit a league system. On the national level, travel is financially draining as well as physically draining, and it might make sense to split into regions instead of tiers. On the regional level, travel and venues may not be an issue, but NCAA regulations on amateurism limit the availability of those in the 18-22 age bracket who are solid players but not quite first division pro material.

But the bottom line is money. Think of it as evil if you must, but investors have a right to believe they’re not about to flush money away. Even with all the risk-limiting steps MLS took in the early days, they lost nine figures and dropped down to three owners. Through sales and expansion fees, they may have recouped many of their losses. It’ll take a few more years of stability and growing prosperity for all owners to have enough confidence in their investments to let them slip into a second division.

And for all the fans talking about promotion and relegation, no one has ever stepped forward with a concrete, capitalized proposal. That’s not because there’s a vast conspiracy keeping it down. No one stepped forward with such a proposal when U.S. Soccer heard bids for a Division I league in 1993. No one with a ton of money has stepped forward and said he or she is willing to risk it in a completely open system. If it made sense from a business perspective, wouldn’t someone step forward and do it?

Even this old proposal by one of the wiser traditionalist voices of the old American Soccer mailing list days recognized that it can’t happen until the USA has a stable first and second division. We don’t have that now. The second division splintered in the last couple of years, the USL retrenching into a third-division pro league and a handful of brave teams making a go of it as the second-tier NASL.

David Downs, the commissioner of the second-division NASL, recently said he could see promotion and relegation “in his wildest dreams.” But he made it clear that such a system would be difficult if it meant MLS would lose its largest markets. (Remember: London and other major European cities have many teams. Tough to relegate them all.)

Never say never. Maybe Fox gets so emboldened by its World Cup rights that it makes a massive bid for MLS and NASL broadcasting rights in 2014. Maybe MLS sees another rush of interested parties with capital and stadiums, and we’ll have three New York teams, three Los Angeles teams and about 40 teams nationwide. Who knows?

And if that happens, all soccer fans in this country will be thrilled. (And some will still prefer to watch Manchester United or Club America.)

In the meantime, the U.S. pro soccer landscape is far better today than it has been at any time since the 1920s (before the Soccer War and other in-fighting destroyed the old ASL). If people want to spend a lot of money on soccer, they’re welcome to do so. MLS teams allow three Designated Player slots and plenty of exemptions for home-grown players, so someone can build a massive club with a couple of player signings and a big youth academy. The ASL — and to some extent, the more faddish NASL of the late 70s/early 80s — had good runs. Today, the roots are deeper. Deep enough that we can contemplate one day having a country that can support league systems akin to European leagues that have been around for a century and more. Not deep enough to do it anytime soon.


  1. The competing Overton Windows here are fascinating – establishing it here, abolishing it overseas. The respective systems are appropriate where they are, and changing things would cause far more problems than it would solve in both cases. I really don’t know what’s a worse motivation – greed overseas, or stupidity at home.

  2. To answer a question unasked here but asked on Twitter…I believe that in this county, promoted D2 teams would have a hard time with facilities and infrastructure.

    Now, crazy people who believe in lizards living underneath Denver International Airport will tell you that D2 investment will just explode if there’s that 1/8 or 1/12 or 1/16 chance your investment will pay off in an eventual MLS side (assuming it can get up and stay up), but that’s bollocks. It won’t.

    Let’s say Minnesota wins the NASL over the next 8 days. They have no owner. Their facility is substandard for MLS, though workable for D2 for now. What would their prospects be at the MLS level? So they play in what would be MLS’ worst (or near-worst) stadium situation for a year, go right back down and don’t worry about it (which has its own repercussions) or do they inject a bunch of money into a stadium solution they might not actually need if they don’t stay up?

    Does Ziggy Wilf say he’ll take over the club while it’s in MLS? And then what?

    Repeat that situation with, say, Puerto Rico. Or Tampa Bay. Or, from days past, Charleston or Wilmington, both of whom have won D2 titles before. They’re not MLS cities, and they’re not GOING to be MLS cities, even if you forced them to compete in MLS in the name of your quixotic dream that American soccer look JUST LIKE European soccer.

    It’s insane. I’m absolutely not opposed to the idea, I think it’s fun. But it’s completely wrong for us, for now and, very likely, for my lifetime.

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