The semiannual restatement of facts on promotion/relegation

Amid other lunacy on Twitter today, someone alerted me that the man whose Twitter ID rhymes with “locker deform” brought me into a conversation about the topic that has consumed most of his 70,000-plus tweets: the prospect of promotion/relegation and “open systems” in U.S. soccer.

We don’t have good discussions about such things in this country for a couple of reasons:

1. Soccer fans who have been on the Internet since the mid-90s have been discussing it since the mid-90s.

2. “locker deform” and a handful of others have dominated the conversation for the past five years, doing so with a conspiratorial bent that would make Alex Jones say, “Whoa, wait a minute, let’s be reasonable here.” The cycle goes as follows: Someone attempts to have a rational conversation with him and point out the logistical and financial hurdles facing a pro/rel plan, and he labels that person as a lapdog (or perhaps surreptitiously paid agent) of a USSF/MLS plan to undermine what would otherwise be a thriving multi-division ladder in the United States. As another journalist once put it — if anyone took him seriously, we’d have to sue him.

That’s a pity, because I think we’re getting closer to the point at which we could actually discuss such things.

MLS now has 19 teams. Orlando has made substantial progress toward being the 20th, even as the league is focused on a 20th team in New York. In a country of this size, a 24-team league with two geographical divisions is reasonable — each team plays its division-mates twice (22 games) and plays each other team once (12, for a total of 34). But once you get beyond 24, it’s time to talk about the options.

And so for those who have not been kicking this topic around for nearly 20 years and 70,000 tweets, here’s a quick guide to the issues as described in past posts:

December 2011: For all the talk of MLS as a “closed system” that imposes “limits” on its teams, MLS owners have no shortage of ways they can invest money. They can invest in youth academies (and some are doing so with eight-figure outlays). They can use their Designated Player slots to sign three of the world’s best players. The salary cap has about as many loopholes as the NBA’s.

Also, as you’ll see in other posts, no one with money or the hopes of raising money has backed a promotion/relegation league in the USA.

May 2011: A commenter on this post reminds us of something: This is a huge country. Geographic divisions make more sense here than they do in England. (Yes, Russia is also huge and manages the Moscow-Vladivostock trip, but do we really want to start following Russia’s lead on anything?)

October 2011: Plenty of teams are moving up the pyramid without official promotion/relegation in place.

February 2012: Along those same lines, I think this is the most succinct way I’ve summed it up to date:

– You can move up the ladder in American soccer if you have the capital and facilities to do so.

– Most clubs choose not to do so.

And that’s the issue. From a practical (and legal), you are not going to see U.S. Soccer force the Carolina Railhawks to move up to MLS if they win the NASL title. Nor can it force the Columbus Crew into what certainly would be a death spiral with a relegation.

Pro/rel fanatics never admit this side of the equation. They think pro/rel and open markets are great because they’ll encourage owners to build superclubs. That’s plausible. They also see second-division teams enthused by the possibility of promotion, which is less plausible — at least at the moment, when teams can compete in the NASL or USL Pro without risking a ton of money.

They don’t address this part of an “open market”: What happens to the crowds in Columbus if everyone knows that the Crew, like Stoke or QPR, will be doing little more than battling to stave off relegation? Or if they’re Fulham, which might not be relegated but isn’t likely to snare the prizes at the top of the table?

You can’t see a crowd of 78,000 for a couple of touring European giants and say, “See? The USA has deep soccer support!” It’s one thing to travel one hour or five to catch a one-time glimpse of a European team. And I have no doubt that the Sounders and Galaxy could keep up or even improve upon the crowds they get today if they were able to field eight Robbie Keane-level players.

The question is whether fans will turn out to see a team that is fighting relegation this year and doesn’t have the market size/ownership to to compete for the league title.

So to those of you who want to see MLS move away from its “closed” system, all I can say is this: Be patient. And understanding. Since 1996, MLS has moved away from its gimmicky tiebreaker and substitution rules, brought in the Designated Player, and issued all sorts of exceptions for “home-grown” academy players. Who knows what will happen in the next 17 years?

But what do I know? I’m just too busy counting all the money I’ve received from my closed-system overlords.

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Beau Dure

The guy who wrote a bunch of soccer books and now runs a Gen X-themed podcast while substitute teaching and continuing to write freelance stuff.

7 thoughts on “The semiannual restatement of facts on promotion/relegation”

  1. Beau, I love you 24 team, two region idea. I think that is perfect for the US. I also agree that promo/rele is out of the question. However, down the road, should the sport continue to grow as it has done recently, could we have a two league system? Not a whole ladder of leagues, but just two. A 1st and a 2nd if you will. Perhaps only one team moves each year. In 10-20 years, could we not support 40 teams?

  2. But if you’re a neutral or hate a team that’s facing it, relegation is fun.
    More seriously, promotion and relegation is an anachronism. If the largest clubs and wealthiest owners in Europe could get rid of it, they would. If they were starting a new league from scratch, it would be closed. If the MLS ever gets to 24 or more clubs, the league would probably have a given club not face every other club in the regular season.

  3. Oligopolists would oligopolize if they could, but that’s not some new innovation, and doesn’t prove that oligopoly is a new innovation.

    Most US leagues actually tried to limit the number of teams to the mid-teens at some point in their existence (MLB, the NFL, NBA and NHL have all done this). . . what they got for their existence was an inter-league war and a 30-32 team league. And enough revenue to prove they’d all been wrong in their original opinions.

    (Or rather, not so much wrong as selfish. It is indeed in the interest of each individual owner in a league to attempt to lock as many out as he/she can. That does not mean it’s in the interest of the league as a whole not to create new owners in new markets and generate new value.)

    Like Beau, I find it occasionally odd to be in favor of at least thinking seriously about pro/rel when most of the people in favor of it aren’t really thinking seriously (because they’re nut jobs).

    But my belief is that we are in the entertainment business, and pro/rel delivers entertainment. Even if it’s the gut wrenching variety, there’s a market for that–witness horror movies, roller coasters, and Ricki Lake.

  4. P/R is a high-risk, high-reward hypothetical in it’s current state. The biggest risk is obviously financial IF club ownership remains in its current state. The presumption is in most cases further investment would come for clubs both in markets that already have pro soccer, but also those that don’t that can start from a lower league and move up. Clubs that can grow organically and not be forced into the single entity world of MLS are better off IMO. The clubs that got their major break in NASL/USL and eventually bought in MLS are proof of that. Their fan support is top notch compared to most of the stalwart MLS clubs who have been there mostly since its inception. Unlike the other major sports here, soccer isn’t a sport than can ONLY work in major markets to succeed. Not every stadium in every market has to be 60k+ capacity. In most leagues around the world, the capacities of stadia from top to bottom can vary by almost a good 30-50k. Hell, the Galaxy have a stadium much bigger than Santos in Brazil and they only won Copa Libertadores a few years back. Even Columbus’s stadium is bigger or about the equivalent. Success isn’t and shouldn’t be determined by the exterior. Red Bull NY should be proof of that. No success despite all they have invested. The lingering issue with the financial that I see is the expansion fee. Every club had to buy in to join the league as a sign of “stability and commitment”, but it is really no different than the pay to play system that has plagued youth development in this country and singles out only those that can pay compared to missing out on those who actually can perform. With the expansion fee, especially as it has continued to increase in rate, excludes clubs and markets that would really be great for MLS. Is a Carolina MLS club worth $100M?? I doubt it. Even Orlando $100M is a stretch. But in NYC for their second club, you’re talking about an MLS club that will be worth a half a billion before it even takes the field after you factor in the stadium price. That has to be some type of record for a club that’s never played. And as you stated, after the league reaches 24 clubs (which I agree is a feasible number, even without two divisions), something will need to change because given the current number of clubs that means the expansion fees will soon be drying up and there will need to be another flow of income to replace that…. can P/R achieve that?? The finance obstacle is a big one, but its only one. Just keep chipping away. P/R isn’t the only way to go at that boulder.

    The benefits to P/R outnumber the negatives IF DONE RIGHT. Truth be told I don’t think MLS is ready for P/R and for the very reason MLS is going so hard for NY2. Like any league in the world, they all have multiple clubs in their biggest markets. We CAN NOT do P/R with only one club in NYC, Chicago, Boston, DC and none in Atlanta, Miami, etc. We have to get over the mindset that only one club can be supported in one city. London functions with five EPL clubs and several more in lower leagues, all with varying levels of support. It’s not all cookie cutter. Now we don’t need the same number in NYC or LA but 3 or 4 that have the ability to get promote only helps because it decreases the possibility of losing a big market from TV in case one club in the area does get relegated. Soccer is more community supported than regionally supported like the NFL is. MLS and their hierarchy strives to emulate the financial success of the NFL but it’s not the same fit and can’t grow the same way. Fans don’t cheer the same, Players don’t develop the same, and clubs aren’t ran in the exact same function. While the NFL is a great model to imitate, it leaves so many other critical aspects hanging in the pursuit to make a buck. It’s easy to say that once the money is made, we can work on those other things, but you can also say if we work on those things now, the product will be better and we’ll make even more money because we’ll have additional revenue coming from players sold. With a P/R system it also forces improved development practices, better coaching standards, and more ambitious sporting goals. No longer can a club like Toronto or New England dwell at the bottom and just wait for next season to get it right. And I think it can not be understated that a player will push harder to stay up and avoid having to go down and risk the chance of having their pay cut due to the club not having as many resources in NASL as they did in MLS. That can make a player even better than they were before. And in that we COULD have an even better, and deeper player pool. Now we also need to work on our player pool (AND PAY) so that our pool gets even deeper. We have so many players in college that don’t translate to playing professionally and that must change. Our dependence on foreign talent wouldn’t be as high if we caught our talent up to the point where 1) they want to continue playing as a professional and 2) we close the gap on the players who actually play pro straight from academy instead of playing pro. So many players miss out on great earning and developmental years due to the restrictions placed on NCAA soccer. I actually don’t think we need P/R to fix that issue, but it would definitely push clubs to make a deeper investment. The more players developed, the more players sold, the more money made, the more funds available to invest in a better on field product.

    What needs to happen first for P/R to become even plausible:
    1- end single entity
    2- multiple big market clubs
    3- national TV deal for NASL/regional for USL

    I think the end result for P/R to happen is a likely merger with NASL. With that it solves the TV issue for NASL, and adding more clubs in necessary markets. I think MLS is being over-deliberate in their slowness for obtain financial viability. I think they can be a bit more aggressive than they have been, within the constraints they’ve created for themselves. P/R CAN happen, just not now. But as the soccer and sport culture here becomes more educated and knowledgeable of the game, the murmur will become and outright buzz in 10 years wondering why we don’t have P/R. It’s just the natural American nationalist ambition. How can these “lower” nations have this system and we can’t? We’re America, we can do it better, all that talk that normally comes with other arguments when comparing America to other countries in the world, whether valid or not.

  5. The problem is all non-MLS leagues should look to become much more hyper localized (read sustainable). Those leagues should start promotion/relegation. They have far less issues to deal with than the MLS does in this area. If they can start to build a healthy base of clubs knocking on the door and meeting minimum stadium (and other) requirements it might give the MLS the safety it needs to make changes surrounding promotion/relegation.

  6. I think there’s an opportunity to have regional pro/rel leagues below the MLS level. The trouble is that so many teams in the PDL and NPSL depend on college players and can’t go fully professional. They can still play in leagues with pro teams, but they have to play a ridiculously short season because players are due back to college so early.

    But still — I think it’s a good idea. At some rungs of the English ladder, teams only take promotion if they have the infrastructure to do it. Maybe do that with PDL teams — if you can’t play a longer schedule, you can’t get promoted. Other teams can.

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