Like the new production of The Tick, the pro/rel debate sometimes muddies the waters between the two “sides.” Is Overkill a trustworthy ally against The Terror? Are we supposed to root for Miss Lint to overthrow Ramses?
And like The Tick himself, a lot of people pop into this saga with no memory of what happened before.
(Look, Amazon Prime gives you more bang for the buck than HBO does, and I don’t think I’d have the stomach for Game of Thrones, anyway. So please pardon my taste in non-soccer entertainment.)
Where, for example, would you categorize Jacksonville Armada owner Robert Palmer?
No, not that guy (RIP), though I’d recommend checking out some of his other solo work and the Power Station, featuring guys from Duran Duran and Chic (RIP Tony Thompson), just in case you only know him from Addicted to Love.
We’re talking about this guy:
This Robert Palmer is either the savior of lower-division soccer or the guy who will crush everyone’s pro/rel dreams. He bought the NASL’s Jacksonville Armada and plans to buy several U.S. Adult Soccer clubs/teams (the exact term is a debate for another day). He’s sincere, charitable and creative. But whether he’s the guy to carry the banner for a U.S. soccer pyramid may depend on how you interpret his informative interview with Neil Morris on the Inverted Triangle podcast, in which Palmer described that “Division 4” investment as a minor-league structure to send players to the Armada. He also said fans generally don’t know what division they’re watching, a blow to those who insist only unsophisticated rubes would watch MLS when there’s a good European game on somewhere, and his soccer interest seems guided by the desire to have an RP Funding logo on screen for 90 minutes.
The Armada business model will be an interesting test case for years to come. But after a decade or so of chastising MLS for bundling its broadcast rights with other soccer properties, how will pro/rel folks react to someone who’s bundling a local club’s broadcasts with his aggressive ad campaigns for his mortgage business?
So it’s not always easy to separate the good guys from the bad guys, no matter how opinionated you are.
And for folks just joining this discussion or those who have misconceptions, which would be all of you, here’s a guide to the parties involved:
Major League Soccer (MLS): An evil entity created by the NFL, which is so afraid that soccer will dominate the U.S. sports landscape that it formed a closed league (no promotion/relegation) with a single-entity structure (it’s complicated) that intentionally plays bad soccer so people will watch gridiron football instead.
Well, that’s the conspiracy theory. Like most conspiracy theories, it falls apart under any sort of examination:
- Why would MLS invest in youth academies, stadiums and other facilities if the goal was merely to demonstrate how bad soccer can be?
- Why did the NFL owners (Lamar Hunt, Robert Kraft) and the commissioner they recruited from the NFL (Don Garber) go to such great lengths to keep the league from collapsing when the economy crashed after 9/11? (Phil Anschutz was the only other remaining original owner. The originals included investment groups in Los Angeles, New Jersey and Washington, the last of which included popular conspiracy-theory target George Soros.)
- In the current MLS boardroom, non-NFL owners could easily outvote the NFL crew.
MLS staved off extinction by creating a new company, Soccer United Marketing (SUM), which has marketing rights for MLS, U.S. Soccer and the Mexican national team. This was either:
- A brilliant move to avoid a lot of the in-fighting that has plagued U.S. soccer over the decades.
- All part of the NFL conspiracy to limit soccer’s growth.
- Mostly the first part but perhaps a little difficult to untangle when some of the same people are involved in varying capacities within MLS, U.S. Soccer and SUM.
MLS does not have promotion and relegation. It is expanding. The next wave of owners to join in will have to pay roughly $150 million each. That’s either:
- A Ponzi scheme (a poorly researched Deadspin piece made that accusation, but they’re not the only ones to make such a comment).
- Justified compensation for the original capital expenses the previous owners have made to get this thing going.
Or something in between. I’m as surprised as anyone else that someone would pay $150 million to join a soccer league that will always struggle to match the Big Three and a Half sports in the U.S. marketplace and hold its own in the U.S. soccer marketplace against better-established leagues in Europe and elsewhere.
(And before you take this as conclusive proof that pro/rel and traditional soccer structures are the only thing holding back the USA from building England on our green and pleasant lands, consider that the most-watched league in the USA is actually the Mexican league, which has bastardized pro/rel and a convoluted playoff system. Many factors go into soccer supporters’ choices — the German Bundesliga probably offers better soccer than England’s Premier League or Mexico’s Liga MX, but the USA has more expats from England and Mexico than it does from Germany. But that’s another part of the series.)
My publisher would probably want me to tell you that I wrote a book about the history of MLS called Long-Range Goals: The Success Story of Major League Soccer. Honestly, I wasn’t wild about the subtitle, but I made peace with it because, when the book was published in 2010, the fact that MLS had remained in business at all was reasonably considered an achievement given the deep-seeded cultural antipathy toward the sport in this country and the collapse of all previous leagues, including the …
North American Soccer League (NASL): In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the USA had a glitzy soccer league that thrived on legitimate (if aging) global superstars and Americanizations like the “shootout” and a points system that required advanced math to calculate where you really stood in the table. Attendance was all over the place. In 1978, the star-studded Cosmos averaged nearly 48,000 fans, but half the league averaged less than 10,000. The league played a lot of games on old-school AstroTurf and some on baseball fields with the infield dirt simply part of the playing surface.
That league died in 1984, leaving a first-division void that went unfilled until U.S. Soccer, with considerable prodding from FIFA, held a bidding process for a new league in which MLS defeated the existing but somewhat minor APSL and a proposal called League One America, which would have drastically altered soccer’s rules.
Then the NASL was reborn and recast as the anti-MLS. Yes, the league that bent every rule of traditional soccer became the league of choice for traditionalists who disliked the MLS single-entity, non-pro/rel, salary-capped, playoff-having structure.
A lot happened along the way. The league nearly agreed to a partnership with MLS. It was propped up for a while by Traffic Sports, which was ensnared in the CONCACAF scandal. It made a lot of noise about whether divisional status meant anything without promotion/relegation, enticed fans with visions of going pro/rel at some point, and ran screaming when the NPSL (we’ll get to them) suggested they actually set it up.
(It’s been suggested that U.S. Soccer, not the leagues, is responsible for setting up a promotion/relegation system. I’ve asked for precedent along those lines, and I’ve never seen it. As far as I can tell, most sports leagues around the world set their own pro/rel agreements, though it’s not really possible to prove the federation has no input.)
Today, the NASL is fuming because it’s losing Division 2 status. Once upon a time, that wasn’t considered meaningful. The NASL posited itself as a legitimate challenger to MLS, though it never really demonstrated itself superior to the Division 3 USL. (We’ll get to them. Briefly.)
NASL clubs are considering options. Maybe USL. Or maybe …
National Independent Soccer Association (NISA): At last. A professional league with a concrete plan to go pro/rel. And it’s backed by Peter Wilt, a well-respected sports executive with experience in MLS and the NASL, along with women’s and indoor leagues. He talked about his plans on the Ranting Soccer Dad podcast.
The plan is to start out at Division 3. Ideally, a Division 4 will materialize (for now, it’s an unofficial term for elite amateur competitions), and they can start promoting teams to a D3 NISA. And NISA will happily promote its teams to D2. Then when all these divisions have a critical mass of clubs that meet the various divisional standards (more on that later), they’ll start going up and down.
To some of us, this makes sense. Demonstrate to U.S. owners that pro/rel can rev up interest in U.S. soccer. Put clubs on a solid foundation before moving up to the big leagues. Maybe they’ll convince MLS to join the fun.
To the zealots (we’re getting to them, too), this plan seems to be part of the Grand MLS/USSF/SUM/NFL conspiracy because it doesn’t explicitly state an intention to fold the top division into the mix.
Meanwhile, clubs have other options:
USL: Oh boy. The history of this league would go on for quite a while. In short: It once had three divisions (two pro, one amateur) and even a little bit of attempted pro/rel. But a lot of clubs chose to drop to the amateur ranks, now called the PDL, and the pro ranks were a little thin. Then the clubs that eventually formed the reborn NASL splintered away, in part because of disagreements over the USL’s centralized ownership (still an obstacle when it comes to making a complete pyramid).
The USL accepted Division 3 status for a while, though it was competitive with the NASL on and off the field. Now they’re Division 2 — and they’re starting a Division 3 league as well.
And they haven’t slammed the door on pro/rel.
The USL also has a lot of MLS reserve sides, which is somewhat controversial even though it’s common practice in many nation’s soccer pyramids. It does render the atmosphere a bit uneven — a couple of clubs average five-figure attendance, a couple of MLS reserves average three figures. (See Kenn.com.)
National Premier Soccer League (NPSL): Like the PDL, the NPSL offers summer-league play for college players to get a few competitive games before returning to campus, and a few other amateurs join in. Both leagues also can accommodate semi-pro teams.
Unlike the PDL, the NPSL has some clubs that make a lot of noise about being a bit more than a summer-league amateur activity. And some of these clubs (Detroit City FC, Chattanooga FC) really are building something interesting, testing the waters for a possible move up the ladder. (Which, in our current system, is simply a question of being ready to meet the standards.) But as a whole, we’re talking about a league that generally doesn’t even hand over attendance figures, for all of Kenn’s asking.
I’ve heard the argument that we have to call a lot of NPSL clubs “semipro” instead of amateur because they have professional staff. By that definition, I played “semipro” because the Fairfax Sportsplex pays people to make the schedules, hire the refs and serve the beer.
There’s nothing wrong with what the NPSL does. Not at all. We’re talking about a lot of clubs playing for a lot of different reasons — in many cases, just giving local kids who’ve gone off to college a place to play in the summer. If some clubs are building up toward going pro, great.
It’s more or less the same business model as the PDL, which has a couple of clubs (Des Moines in particular) that could consider going pro and a couple more (Carolina, Long Island) that have been there in the past.
If you’re really looking for semipro ball, consider the New York futsal leagues in which U.S. women’s player Allie Long picks up a few extra bucks. From Gwendolyn Oxenham’s book Under the Lights and In the Dark: Untold Stories of Women’s Soccer (see our podcast interview): “In the 2015 National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL), for the six-month season, the starting salary was $6,842. An NYC men’s league ringer can make more than that in two weeks.”
Your town might have a league like that. Someone should really do a story or a book on it.
U.S. Adult Soccer Association (USASA): The umbrella for nearly every other soccer competition in the United States, including a handful of leagues now designated as “Elite leagues” that send forth the bulk of our annual U.S. Open Cup surprise teams. The American Pyramid Blog is compiling standings for many of these leagues.
Pro/rel zealots (PRZ): Steve Holroyd, I believe, deserves credit for the term “pro-relots.” I like that, but I’m going with PRZ for the remainder of this series.
These people are to legitimate pro/rel discussions what the antifa are to legitimate pro/rel discussions. At some point, you wonder if they care about the underlying cause at all or if they just want to cause as much damage as possible.
I’ve documented these guys a few times. They’re the ones who, when faced with any sort of reality check on their “full, open pyramid” dreams, respond with personal attacks and conspiracy theories such as the MLS stuff above. (I also have a lot of documentation in the NASL/NPSL piece mentioned above, where I note with some sadness that I made a Husker Du reference. Sadness because I learned today that Grant Hart has passed away.)
MLS “shills” like me: I once had a Twitter conversation with someone who claimed not to realize that some journalists who don’t work for the official MLS site actually cover MLS.
“Where are the articles?” he asked. Well … ESPN, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Sports Illustrated, etc., etc. Somehow, it didn’t sink in.
I tried to look up the specific tweets, and my computer crashed. I’m taking that as a sign.
So I’m going to repeat something about myself for the record:
I wrote a few fantasy columns for previous MLSNet management more than 10 years ago, and my book was written with MLS’s cooperation but no backing from the league. (I didn’t even let a guy pay for my lunch.) Currently, I have no season credential to cover MLS, and I haven’t been paid to write about the league for years.
Frankly, I’d probably benefit financially if MLS suddenly joined a pro/rel pyramid. The freelance market is dead right now, thanks in large part to the “pivot to video” movement that has seen Fox and Vice lay off writers. Someone would probably take a story pitch if MLS changed course all of a sudden.
I’ve actually come up with a lot of suggestions for getting the pro/rel movement going in this country, mostly because I’m an inveterate tinkerer. Ask me sometime how I’d make the Europa League more interesting.
And I’m not alone in this. The people who get the most vitriol are the people who engage, not those who ignore the topic completely. We’re the ones who see a potential for pro/rel despite all the madmen who’ve pushed the topic for years.
The good news? We’re starting to have other people to talk to. That’s why I’m doing this series.