A quick word on pro/rel

Yes, I know. We should be done with this topic for another few years at least.

But every once in a while, I come across some sincere conversation about this, picked out from the ritual abuse and accusations that I’m part of the Cabal from The Blacklist, and The Director and I are censoring message boards and making people disappear so we’ll never have promotion and relegation in our lifetime.

And a quick post will be better than 100 tweets that send my unfollower count soaring.

So here goes …

This is what Minneapolis City SC is trying to do. Supporter ownership, building up from the grass roots.

We have to say at the outset that this isn’t what we see in the league everyone touts as the anti-MLS — the English Premier League. That league has grown through megabillionaires coming in and pouring money into clubs as vanity projects. In Germany as well, Hoffenheim leaped through the ranks when one of its former youth players struck it rich in software and decided to put his money back into his football club.

The good news is that U.S. clubs can build at the grass roots and still move up the pyramid without the risk of being sent down. They would eventually run into some difficulties with the USSF professional league criteria, but if they can demonstrate that they have the finances to make it through a season without folding (the main reason these criteria exist, and I think most NASL-watchers say it has resulted in more stability), perhaps they can apply for a waiver to the “single rich owner” criterion.

That’s the system we have now. Portland, Orlando, Seattle, Minnesota, maybe Sacramento or San Antonio … they can all move up without the risk of being sent down. Then they feel free to invest in facilities and players, both on the Designated Player end of the career path and the academy end.

That quest for security isn’t unique to the USA. If Reading could maintain EPL status, it would have a bigger stadium now. They’ve put it on hold when they’ve been relegated.

Nor should we feel inferior because we don’t have a full amateur-to-pro pyramid. England needed nearly 100 years before it had automatic pro/rel between the League and Non-League football. (England needed about 10 years to have automatic pro/rel between its two pro division, then about another 30 before a third tier was added.) The Netherlands is just tiptoeing into pro/rel between amateur and pro ball in the 2010s.

So how can we make pro/rel happen in the USA? Here are a couple of possibilities and their pros and cons:

1. Force MLS to do it. A non-starter. You’ll spend the next 20 years in court.

2. Start a second “First Division” league that has pro/rel. Also carries a legal risk and a lot of financial risk. Advocates think this move would force healthy competition between MLS and this new league. I’d argue that any U.S. league will have a tough time competing for eyeballs with the big Euro leagues and Liga MX, and diluting the available resources (players, sponsorships, etc.) will just make it worse.

We get back to something important: MLS has reached this point — 20 teams with an average attendance over 20,000, new youth academies, and quite a few players who are a lot of fun to watch — by minimizing risk.

In any case — this is feasible if someone applies. The Federation isn’t going to sanction something that doesn’t even exist on paper and has no capital behind it.

3. Gradually persuade MLS owners that it’s a good idea. Notice I said “owners.” Please forget any notion that when Don Garber retires, everything changes. Garber is employed by and speaks for the owners. It’s not up to him. He’s not the one with anything to risk.

And here’s a hint: Yelling at people that they’re part of some conspiracy and that they all actually hate soccer is not a good way to persuade them.

So how about some ideas that don’t start from the top down?

4. Try it in lower divisions first. Then you can build up interest. Plenty of amateur leagues already do it — trace Open Cup teams back to their leagues, and you’ll often find they’re in a regional “Premier League” with lower tiers beneath.

So maybe we could try this in the NASL, USL and NPSL (the PDL is set up to be a summer league for college-eligible players, and there’s nothing wrong with staying there for those clubs that choose it).

Except … they don’t seem all that interested in actually doing it.

So the bottom line is this … you shouldn’t be yelling at me about it. You can yell along with Eric Wynalda, but as much as I like and respect Eric, that’s not going to bring about any change, either. You can yell at the rest of the media, but they’ve blocked you — not because they don’t think it’s fun to talk about pro/rel, but because the people who’ve been talking about pro/rel for the past 15 years are abusive serial harassers.

You could try yelling at Timbers owner Merritt Paulson or Sounders co-owner Drew Carey. I’ve never seen people doing that — does anyone have any examples of that happening?

Why don’t you try engaging with the NASL’s Bill Peterson? His latest position is “explore options when we get closer to 20 teams.” But they still haven’t taken anything close to a concrete step. They’re really no different than MLS — they want to be totally stable before they take a serious look.

You might actually be best off trying to get the USL to do it. They already tried a bit of it in the past, but the teams couldn’t or wouldn’t pull it off. They have enough teams to make it work.

“But … the USL is part of the conspiracy!” The USL is doing what it can to survive and grow. If you really think there’s some MLS/USL cabal with no interest in the game other than persecuting the New York Cosmos, then maybe you can tell the USL they could steal the NASL’s thunder by going pro/rel now!

So there you have it. That’s my latest effort to speak with some people who seem sincere about looking for a way to make this happen — people who might actually look at the obstacles I point out as “something you have to consider” rather than “evil roadblock I’ve conjured up because I’m part of the conspiracy.”

And if we get more sincere, serious, rational people in the discussion, who knows what’ll happen? We know years of screaming hasn’t gotten us anywhere. Why not try something different?

4 thoughts on “A quick word on pro/rel”

  1. The argument against path 4, and I think it has a lot of truth to it, is that the lower divisions are crippled precisely by not having pro/rel–or to put a finer point on it, by having only the worst of pro/rel. They actually lose teams to MLS left and right, but they never gain any, and their product is not enhanced by having its championship mean anything like what it would in a promotion league. So goes that argument, promotion between Tier 2 and Tier 1 is the promotion that really matters–pro/rel to the first division is no closer because it is done below, or no further away because it is not.

    So, huge longshot that it is, the closest to fruitful thought on the subject that I have seen is in speculating how to make path 3 plausible. My thought on which is this:

    Supposing you wanted a two-up/two-down arrangement, MLS simply sells two expansion slots to the lower league. Right now, the going rate for that would be $200 million. Divided by a hypothetical 20-team lower league, that would be $10 million a pop, which is a payable number, if there are enough investors out there in lower division soccer to do that.

    Secondly, because you’ve sold two-shares, you’re selling two shares of the national TV contract with that. And that’s all you’re selling–even when the lower division team is promoted, they haven’t bought a full share of MLS, LLC. They wouldn’t get the full contract unless the lower league agreed to have their full shares allocated to just the two promoted clubs (which wouldn’t realistically happen) or unless the promoted team bought in fully by paying the difference between their $10 million and the full price of a team. Similarly, even when an MLS team goes down, they retain their share unless they choose to sell it. One could even make a parallel arrangement to this concerning the shared pool of ticket revenue and the roster money that is centrally provided by the league.

    In this arrangement, owners get compensated at the starting point for the risk they assume, and they also get an arrangement that would tend to buffer the cost of getting relegated. A second division gets its teams a crack at the big time, but they don’t get to free ride on the brand value that MLS has painstakingly built over 20 plus years.

  2. Definitely some reasonable thoughts there. Any team relegated from the top flight would need at least a parachute payment, which is what we sometimes see overseas. A share of SUM would be good as well.

  3. I really think the discussion on pro/rel is irritating and stale now. That its been equated with something akin to a civil rights issue and conspiracy theory by a few people who spend the whole day shouting on twitter makes any “debate” seem ridiculous. Where were all of these people when you could buy into MLS for five million? Even further back, where were all of these people when a couple of people with almost nothing could start and ASL or APSL team? There were plenty of opportunities where what this group of people want could have developed. The interest and finacial support wasn’t there. We can have this conversation because MLS took a risk and both stuck around long enough to reap the rewards of the sport gaining traction and built itself into a something that isn’t going anywhere any time soon.

    1. All true. And that’s the moral reason for letting MLS owners have a very strong say in the future of Division I or whatever you want to call it. (Which is academic, because there are also legal reasons galore.)

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