American Promotion Story
On Thursday, December 2, MLS commissioner Don Garber gave his annual State of the League speech, marking 15 years at the helm. In it, he hit upon such things as expanding the playoff field from 10 teams to 12, the goal of expanding the league to 24 teams by the end of the decade, renewing the collective bargaining agreement (set to expire January 31, but the expiration of which won’t actually affect any games until March), the desire to hold all the games on the last day of the regular season at the same time (ala most everybody else on the planet), and the desire for greater transparency in financial dealings regarding player movement.
Also touched upon, briefly, was the ever-looming question of that most international of touches, promotion and relegation. Garber was brief in his address of the topic, stating “it’s not happening anytime soon.”
Promotion and relegation is often brought up by some as something that MLS needs to at some point do if it truly wishes to be as much a member of the international soccer community as it claims. Think of the excitement towards the bottom of the table, they say. Think of the lack of having to treat clubs like movable franchises anymore, when any city in America can simply win their way into MLS! And besides, everybody else does it; let’s get with the program! Some particularly bold proponents might suggest that the other North American leagues would do well to also enact it.
These people are then quickly met with the other side of the coin, as told by the opponents of promotion/relegation. The owners bought into MLS as franchise owners and don’t want to see their investment go poof due to one bad season. The dropoff in revenue would be severe, and MLS clubs aren’t all financially healthy enough to survive it. Promotion/relegation would result in a league of haves and have-nots, much like in other leagues, where any given season begins with only a handful of clubs even able to dream of lifting the cup, and American leagues value parity.
As far as MLS is concerned, I have to agree with Garber here. MLS is growing, yes, and growing at a rather heady clip at that. But the difference between a league with teams healthy enough to sustain themselves, and a league with teams healthy enough to survive getting chucked into a minor league, is vast. With the recent death of Chivas USA, one could plausibly hesitate to say that MLS, as well as it has done, has even fully cleared the first hurdle, never mind the second. This is still a fragile product if handled improperly. Being reckless with the health of the constituent clubs could very easily spell disaster. Maybe one day MLS reaches that point where it’s safe to consider it. But that day is far from now.
As things stand, teams don’t promote or relegate in the traditional sense. Cities and teams do move up or down, but it’s done on an ad-hoc basis. If MLS sees fit to call up a lower-level team, they just do it, as has been done with, for instance, all three of the Pacific Northwest teams. If a team in lower levels wants to move up or down, they just move their team into the relevant league, as they’re not all interconnected anyway.
This does not, however, mean formal, regulated promotion and relegation can’t still be a concept put into practice in America.
MLS can’t currently handle it. The fourth-tier USL Pro Development League has been largely converted into a minor-league system for MLS clubs. But that still leaves tiers two and three, the NASL and USL-Pro respectively (even if USL-Pro is also heavily affiliated to MLS). All manner of cities looking to prove themselves worthy of joining MLS have come to these two leagues to start up a club and try their luck at impressing Don Garber. As cities get accepted, their lower-tier clubs fall away and more are started to take their place. It seems to me that if promotion and relegation is to be seen in America, a good idea would be to test it out at a sub-MLS level.
The first thing one would have to do is further cement USL-PDL as the minor league tier and find replacement affiliate teams for those MLS clubs with affiliates in USL-Pro. I don’t think that would be all that difficult in theory, though in practice it would take some level of convincing for everyone involved. Being an affiliate does offer a level of stability. But for this test to happen, those affiliations need to be cleared away. Because if promotion/relegation is what you want, what you’d probably want to do is to start by flipping teams between NASL and USL-Pro. The drop from NASL to USL-Pro would not be anywhere near as painful as the drop from MLS to NASL. If a club cannot cope with that smaller drop, an MLS team sure wouldn’t survive the bigger drop.
The attendance figures show the lower degree of decline. The average attendance at an MLS game this season has been 19,148. NASL average attendance has been 5,501. USL-Pro average attendance has been 3,114. [NOTE: This originally read 16,076 for MLS. That was the figure for the Chicago Fire, not the league. Thanks to Shawn Ferdinand for catching that.]
You do have at least some immediate buy-in here. While MLS is against promotion and relegation, NASL head Bill Peterson is in favor of it, as well as the abolition of a salary cap, another thing that would bring American soccer into line with international norms (though at great financial risk). And before NASL and USL split apart in 2009 into their current forms, promotion/relegation was in fact being bandied about as something they could do. Of course, Peterson has a swap between NASL and MLS in mind, not NASL and USL-Pro. But if he could be brought around to the idea that a successful implementation between NASL and USL-Pro could help lead to adding MLS to the mix as well, I think Peterson could deal with being the hunted as opposed to the hunter. And he does have the backing of national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann, though this could be a rather dubious accolade given Klinsmann’s propensity to pick verbal fights with just about everybody Stateside.
But that still leaves getting USL to sign on as well. And as they’re the ones affiliated to MLS at both Pro and PDL levels, it should come as little surprise that president Tim Holt has echoed Garber in saying that promotion/relegation is “some distance down the road”. He’s not completely against it, but he doesn’t look to see the point in fixing what isn’t currently broken.
Bill Peterson has some aggressive ideas regarding the future of American soccer. Perhaps those ideas might even be right, though the widening salary imbalance between teams in NASL is rather worrying. He absolutely has his share of support for his ideas. But in order to implement them any more broadly than they currently are, he’s going to need to get the other leagues to sign on. Currently, that’s what he doesn’t have.