I’ll start by saying that I don’t hate promotion and relegation. I can’t dislike a system that rewards success, punishes failure, and provides opportunity. Stripped down to the simplest of explanations, it sounds very American.
My stance has always been that domestic soccer has unique challenges and considerations that aren’t necessarily fixed by structural changes to the pyramid. There’s no magic bullet here, as some would have you think.
What we get is a noxious clash of ideas with a lot of shouting and idiocy on both sides. Pro/rel advocates froth and whine on social media while those of us on the other end of the spectrum, or somewhere in the middle, are guilty of engaging in the pissing contest instead of ignoring the trolls and seeking out rational thought instead. Just like Capitol Hill, moderate voices and measured takes are often drowned out.
So I think the premise of the column is this –
American soccer doesn’t necessarily need promotion and relegation. I think we can be successful in our current setup, with a closed league, steady growth, and a soft salary cap that promotes pseudo-parity in lieu of top-heavy foreign-framed systems. Let’s fix MLS before tearing the whole thing down and starting over.
The main pro/rel argument basically suggests that opening the pyramid will provide opportunities for smaller teams and result in widespread investment at lower levels due to the removal of the ceiling that limits those clubs. Would-be owners who can’t buy in to Major League Soccer can start a lower division team that has unlimited potential for upward growth. Lesser division one teams, like your Philadelphia Union, can’t be cheap and lazy, or else they go down.
Sounds good in theory, right? Fresh blood and motivation. Jay Sugarman, one of the worst sports owners on this side of the Atlantic, would be punished for his thriftiness with D2 relegation, which would have happened in 2015 after the Union finished with 37 points and a 10-17-7 record. Down goes boring Philly, up comes the exciting New York Cosmos. We punish the underachiever and reward success.
Nothing wrong with that on paper. My stance has always been predicated on four things:
1. There are organic ways to remove owners and executives in a closed system
During that 2015 Union season, the Sons of Ben marched to the gates of PPL Park carrying a coffin with an image of CEO Nick Sakiewicz inside. Painted on the casket were the words “serial franchise killer,” a reference to Sakiewicz’s time with the Tampa Bay Mutiny and New York Red Bulls, the former of which folded in 2001 and the latter which found little on-field success.
This was a grassroots protest from the same fan body that lobbied for an MLS franchise in the first place, starting with a group that gathered in McGillin’s Olde Ale House to discuss ways to generate interest in Philadelphia soccer. In a way, that 2015 protest was a natural extension of the process that started the Union, which was organic and fan-generated. Sakiewicz was removed at the end of the season and Earnie Stewart was installed as the club’s first Sporting Director.
Two years later, Union fans have come to realize that the failures were not entirely Sakiewicz’s fault, as the team continues to struggle after his departure. But the takeaway here is that fans were able to influence the front office even in a closed system with no built-in punishment for under-performance. And if they’re fed up with the team in 2018, they can simply stop showing up, stop buying tickets, and stop buying merchandise. The consumer always has the power, whether he or she realizes it or not.
Another point is that relegation doesn’t automatically mean that ownership and front office problems are solved. Take Hull City, for instance, who are currently in 19th place in the English Championship. Owner Assem Allam bought the team in 2010, saw it promoted twice and relegated twice, and tried to change the name at the same time, angering the entirety of his fan base with one weird decision. Here’s a team on its fifth manager in two years and now trying to stay afloat in the second division after seven seasons of turbulence.
How about Francesco Becchetti, who took Leyton Orient from the verge of the Championship to division five?
Or Ellis Short, the guy who oversaw Sunderland’s descent into irrelevance? What about Mike Ashley and Karl Oyston?
Relegation isn’t an auto-fix for ownership issues. There’s no guarantee that Jay Sugarman or Stan Kroenke would leave town if their clubs took the drop. They can drag it down even further into the mud.
As it stands, their franchises continue to increase in value with the addition of new MLS expansion teams, so they can simply sit on their rear ends and watch their investment grow. Sugarman paid $20-30 million in an expansion fee back in 2010 and that fee is now up to $150 million. I don’t know how much that value drops if Philly takes the fall. If anything, the asking price probably remains relatively high in a system where that franchise can potentially go back up. I think it’s a wash.
What the league can do is guide ownership from within. MLS can certainly pressure cheaper owners to add new partners or increase their financial profile, or run them out entirely ala Chivas USA. You can tweak cap and roster rules to price them out. Look for MLS to start turning the screws a bit once expansion finishes.
Trust me on that one, per sources that have been spot on in the past. I’ve spoken to numerous people who say MLS HQ isn’t exactly thrilled with Union ownership right now. Sugarman sits on the expansion committee and, theoretically, the value of his club should level off at least somewhat when we get to 28 teams.
2. Pro/rel creates top heavy leagues and alternative boardroom objectives
Look at the Premier League table right now, where Manchester City is 13 points clear with a +49 goal differential after 20 games. Might as well hand them the trophy.
They’ve been a pleasure to watch, a team with 18 straight wins and 0 losses this entire campaign. They’re having historic success this season.
Next up is the clump of Manchester United, Chelsea, Tottenham, Liverpool, and Arsenal, who are sort of jockeying for Champion’s League positions. Going into this season, I think those were the six clubs that really had a chance to win anything in the Premier League, which is usually the case every year.
What, then, are squads like Stoke and Watford playing for? 10th place? Moral victories?
The problem with a pro/rel setup that doesn’t have a salary cap* is that only a handful of teams can really achieve anything, while the mid-table clump is irrelevant and the bottom feeders are just trying to stay afloat. That creates auxiliary goals for smaller clubs who aren’t even necessarily trying to win, they’re just trying to remain in the division. And maybe that’s a success for a small team like Huddersfield, which is trying to make progressive forward steps after years in the lower divisions.
But the nice thing about American sports is that everybody, theoretically, is pulling a Herm Edwards. You play to win the game. Sure, teams like Toronto and Seattle are obviously going to be favored to beat New England and Colorado, but at least the lesser MLS teams still have a chance at the playoffs in September and October. This doesn’t turn into a two-team race between Barcelona and Real Madrid seven games in.
For starters, eight different clubs have won MLS Cup in the last 10 years. La Liga has three different winners in that time frame. Same thing in Italy, where Juventus has won six Scudettos in a row. Same thing in… Germany, too, where Bayern Munich has won the last five. In Turkey, only one non-Istanbul club has won the Super Lig dating back to 1984.
In the prem, it’s United, City, Chelsea, and… Leicester!
We love Leicester. What a story, right? It’s the prime example pro/rel advocates use when explaining why their system makes more sense than what we currently have.
Problem is, a story like Leicester only comes around once in a blue moon. Chapecoense doesn’t happen often enough. There’s a big gap between Eibar and the Spanish top-five. Go around the world and you’ll find that these “small club” success stories are too often drowned out in top-heavy leagues with oil sheikh and Russian oligarch owners. It results in some high quality football at the expense of table slots 5 through 20, which are ultimately pointless unless you care about the Europa League. What we’re trying to build here is not a three-team snooze-fest, but a league with parity and competition.
Let’s take a look at the last nine years of Ukrainian football:
See a pattern there?
I enjoy the MLS system, where every season 10-12 teams can win a trophy. Our league has plenty of ridiculous issues, which requires a separate column, but I like the idea that squads are playing to win hardware, or at least make the playoffs, as opposed to “just staying up” or being satisfied with a mid-table finish.
Let’s check in with the Crystal Palace boardroom:
“Well lads, we finished in 14th place and fired our manager, but at least we didn’t go down! Hooray!”
I don’t like the direction the Philadelphia Union are going in, but I can appreciate the fact that they don’t need to bring in Sam Allardyce to save themselves from the drop. They’re at least committed to a young manager and not going to bail after four months to bring in a “relegation specialist.” Say whatever you want about Jim Curtin, who isn’t the best example for this story, but we can’t be canning coaches at the rate of Swansea City. Caleb Porter went from 1st place in the west, all the way down to 6th, then won a title. Bob Bradley will have a chance to build something at LAFC, not get run out of town at a shit club after 11 games.
Honestly, a lot of this just boils down to preference. Do you like open leagues with unrestricted spending that results in three to four clubs having a real title-winning shot? Or do you like a closed league with restrictions that close the gap from one to 22? MLS, of course, is not the best product out there, but it’s certainly more competitive and interesting, and at least I know that there’s something to play for in October, November, and December. Truthfully, I’m just bored with the Premier League and Serie A and La Liga, where it’s the same shit year after year after year, save for one enjoyable season of Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez. I watch the games and enjoy them in a vacuum, but the title-races leave a lot to be desired.
Now, does pro/rel automatically come with the removal of the salary cap? No, I don’t think so. But are we going to open the pyramid and then tell Miami FC that they can’t spend more than Jacksonville? You can’t cap teams while asking them to be ambitious investors at the same time. The MLS salary cap is waaaaaay too low right now and that has to change. We haven’t even scratched the surface, and we have to get rid of at least 50% of the absurd MLS roster building rules if we’re going to keep moving forward. Again, another article entirely, but I can’t get behind pro/rel entirely until I feel like we do everything in our control to maximize what we currently have. It’s like tearing down a building that’s only half-way finished.
(*I put the asterisk there because, yea, you can go above the MLS cap with a couple of designated player signings. That’s why it’s a soft cap with pseudo-parity instead of a true cap like the NFL or NBA.)
3. We’re not financially stable, yet
Let’s say the Philadelphia Union take the drop. Say it happened in 2015.
Now you’ve got a division two team playing in a half-full, eight-year-old stadium in one of Pennsylvania’s poorest cities. Chester is under a state-mandated recovery program (Act 47) and already pulling from other revenue sources to cover for the $275,000 annual shortfall in county bond payments. The stadium lease doesn’t expire until 2040. The pending litigation over waterfront property (and its valuation) takes a turn. How many people are driving down there to watch the Union play the Richmond Kickers? Every painfully small step to improve that area goes straight into the toilet if Philly goes down.
In a perfect world of Capitalism, you let it fail, right? Just let the market do its thing, which is what our economy is predicated on. That sounds good in theory, but the cost is just too much here. People lose their jobs. The city loses money. Fans stop showing up. The Philadelphia Inquirer pulls Jon Tannenwald off the Union beat to go do high school football instead. 2,000 season ticket holders decide not to renew and the front office lays off 10 sellers. Academy investment is cut back and Bethlehem Steel hemorrhages more money in year number three. It’s like a devastating backwards version of Reaganomics, where nothing is really trickling in either direction.
We don’t have 75 years of history to create a diehard core of supporters who will stick with the club through something like that. If the Eagles go down, no problem. If the Union go down, I don’t know if they survive. This is a 10-year old team and long-term project that already faces incredible struggles, some of which are self-inflicted and some that aren’t, namely the construction of a soccer-specific stadium in a less-than-desirable area during the worst part of the economic recession. Good job by Ed Rendell on that one.
Furthermore, potential buyers know they’re going to take a short term loss on an investment that might not even pan out if the Union never make it back to D1. Sure, they’d probably slap around Charleston and Pittsburgh and remain in the top-half of the table, but there’s never any guarantee here. Portsmouth and Blackburn are where right down? League One? Where’s Charlton?
Here they are:
PROGRESS | 👇
2013: Charlton finish 9th in @SkyBetChamp.
2014: Duchatelet buys Charlton.
2016: Championship relegation. ❌
2017: 13th place finish in League 1.
— Charlton Athletic FC (@ParodyCharlton) December 26, 2017
People always talk about the rise of new clubs but ignore the fall of once-great clubs. Charlton has been around for more than 100 years and now languishes in the third division while their fans suffer:
“Next on 60 Minutes, it’s the side of pro/rel that they don’t want you to see. I’m Lesley Stahl and I’ll take you to Southeast London, where one of England’s historic clubs is now total shite.”
Is there enough money out there to provide a parachute payment that would sustain an MLS drop? I don’t know, but that same infusion is basically labeled as allocation money within our closed system. It’s all coming from the same source, I just don’t know how much you would need to keep these clubs afloat.
If Wall Street banks were “too big to fail,” then MLS clubs are too fragile to fail, at least the one that plays here. You’re trying to make inroads in the country’s fourth largest television market, not risk the entire thing falling apart. We’ve already taken major backward steps from 2011 until now, with local TV ratings dropping below 1.0 and a slight dip in attendance. The Union have become more and more irrelevant and demoting them to D2 ain’t gonna help.
For years, Major League Soccer’s success was built on the process of slow growth and steady expansion. Seattle came in. Toronto came in. Vancouver and Montreal came in. One or two teams every year or every other year. These are nascent and vulnerable clubs. The fallacy here is that every division one team is some established juggernaut, which is certainly not true. Philly is a venture. The club didn’t even have practice fields or a training complex until two years ago. They used to drive to a public park to train. Now we’re pulling the rug out and jeopardizing a decade of (slow) development in a difficult soccer market just so division five Traverse City can get a shot? Do we want Capitalism or Socialism? What exactly are we looking for here?
Overall MLS attendance has increased dramatically in the last 20 years. TV ratings aren’t amazing, but they’re better than they were. This league has grown by leaps and bounds, but don’t let the success of Atlanta and Portland fool you. There are a ton of challenges for numerous “big market” teams, especially on the eastern seaboard. Revenue needs to increase, our TV deals need to be stronger, we have to do a better job of attracting casual fans, and we have to keep improving the product and create some stability before we risk it with structural changes. 1,500 fans might work in Utica, but it’s not gonna work in Philly. We can’t start turning our attention to smaller auxiliary markets until we gain a foothold in places like Boston, Dallas, New York, Washington, and Chicago. That’s how we negotiate better broadcasting deals and get more eyeballs on the product. As someone who worked in television for nine years, I can tell you that division one Shreveport does nothing at the bargaining table. But if the Chicago market, with 3.4 million TV homes, tunes in to a Sunday afternoon Fire game against Seattle, then partners are willing to sign off on bigger and better deals.
On the bottom end, we need to get teams like Harrisburg (now Penn FC) out of baseball parks and into stable situations. We need to stop sharing college stadiums and we need to continue building on the positives at the USL level. A lot of lower level teams simply do not have the infrastructure and business setup to be viable at division one. MLS is only 22 years old, yet lower division teams that have played less than five seasons are ready for promotion? The cart is way out in front of the horse here.
We’re only just starting to find our feet.
4. You are not entitled to anything
You know what’s more American than a free market economy? Earning your spot at the table.
Sorry, but you don’t deserve a shot to play with the big boys simply because you started a division nine soccer team that plays in a borrowed middle school stadium.
“We want the shit we don’t have and we want it for free!”
It doesn’t work that way. I worked graveyard shift producing the 5 a.m. news in Augusta, Georgia before I earned the opportunity to work at a bigger television station and make more money. I didn’t come out of college demanding $55,000 and a nine to five gig at Action News.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not some apologist for the GOP or the “one-percent,” but there has to be a modicum of respect for the owners that took a leap on Major League Soccer back in 1996 and got us to where we are today. Yes, that includes Bob Kraft, who is terribly absent in 2017 but played an enormous role back in the day. That includes Phil Anschutz and Lamar Hunt and everybody else who got this thing off the ground.
If you don’t like it, you work against it. NASL pushed MLS but ultimately blew it. Cross-league jockeying creates competition that forces rivals to up their game. That’s how our economy works. Don’t like Verizon? Go to Comcast. Don’t like Comcast’s horrendous customer service? Cut the cord and stream the game on your Chrome Book. Don’t like your Chrome Book? Buy a Mac.
That’s America. It’s not about free handouts, it’s about making a product that’s bigger and better and more desirable than the other person’s product. And when you fail, sue the shit out of someone! Minnesota and Montreal went to MLS because it meant financial and competitive stability. Carolina, Tampa, and Ottawa saw a path forward in a smarter and less bombastic USL. The NASL shot itself in the foot with a lack of focus and poor expansion strategies (among many other things), then pointed the finger at the USSF instead of looking in the mirror.
And if we want to go down the road of, “well, the U.S. Soccer is a corrupt monopoly that favors MLS,” then go out and lobby for one of the candidates currently running for USSF President. Go be a part of the democratic process and make your case. There are pro/rel candidates out there who can change the game if they win the job. This is your opportunity make your voice heard. We’re still a pay-to-play sport that caters to suburban white kids with money. We need a national team coach. The women’s team isn’t being treated the same as the men’s team. U.S. Soccer has a million problems, but not all of them are directly tied to whether or not we have pro/rel at the professional level.
Just don’t suggest that the American soccer media, which is basically a rag tag group of part-timers, is “in the bag” for MLS or U.S. Soccer. I made less than $25,000 in eight years of writing about soccer ($3,125 annually) and never received a paycheck from MLS headquarters. I think I speak for most writers when I say that my motives were to put something on the resume and do a bit to hopefully grow the game in this country. I didn’t spend Saturday nights in Chester to pad my bank account, I was down there to hopefully play a small role in pushing the Union in a market that traditionally only watches the “four major North American sports.” I’d be flattered to receive bung offers but they just haven’t come. There’s no secret conspiracy going on here, so enough with the accusations of “collusion” and “tyranny” and all of the conspiratorial melodrama.
People with truly productive pro/rel opinions are being done a disservice by the tinfoil Twitter personalities. These guys claim to speak for the movement but they’re really just faux guerrillas fighting a contrarian war against the “establishment.” It’s like Occupy Wall Street, which started out as a protest against, well, Wall Street, then slowly morphed into a catch-all demonstration for the grievance of the day.
Walk away from these people and you’ll see the conversation open up. You can’t make outrageous accusations and then act surprised when the vitriol is reciprocated by myself and others.
Can it ever work?
Sure, pro/rel could work here, but it’s a monumental project. You’re talking about 100+ clubs spread out over a massive geographic region that includes two countries. Are we doing single-table or playoffs? Spring and Fall seasons? FIFA calendar? Is Canada on board? MLS is already on a seven-month, 34 game schedule built to accommodate weather, travel, and the existence of competing sports.
With the partnership between USL and MLS, people talk about doing a controlled, two-division pro/rel system after expansion is completed. I think that’s a start, but the problem there is that a lot of USL clubs are farm teams for MLS squads. Bethlehem Steel exists solely to provide minutes for academy kids and future Union signings, not to win trophies and make money. The team plays in a borrowed college stadium that has no lights. It’s funded entirely by Keystone Sports and Entertainment.
Now, compare that to teams like Charleston and Cincinnati, who have no affiliate and are not owned by a parent club? What now?
If you’re going to do pro/rel, I think you start with these four clumps:
- Major League Soccer clubs
- independent USL clubs
- NASL leftovers and folded teams
- USL clubs owned by MLS teams (Steel, NYRB 2, etc)
I don’t know what you do with the fourth grouping. Bring back the MLS reserve league? No idea. I like the idea of playing double-headers where, for example, Bethlehem Steel can get a 90 minute run out against Orlando City B after the senior teams finish their game. That might be a solution.
Then, if you take the first two groupings there, throw #3 a bone, and split the country in half, you’d get something like this:
It’s arbitrary. I’m just flying by the seat my pants here. But you get the idea, right?
I like four divisions split into two halves of the country, because it cuts down on travel and creates more meaningful games in smaller geographic regions. You’d play a 30 game schedule from March to September, with two teams relegated and two teams promoted every season. You could hand out a trophy for winning your regular season, then do a four to eight team playoff in October between eastern and western teams and award another trophy there. This all coexists with the U.S. Open Cup and Canadian Championship, so it’s basically placing more value on the regular season while still throwing out two more trophies to claim.
Maybe NPSL clubs or new franchises fill the slots that say “team.” There’s room here to add more, but I don’t know where a squad like Reading United fits in. They play at Exeter High School and are an incredibly small operation. Even if that team is promoted to D2 or even D1, that market doesn’t move the needle. Are we closing this off at four divisions in two regions or going further down the pyramid? I don’t know, but I think we need 8 to 10 more years of stability before traveling down this road.
It’s a start, though. I think something like this could work. More rivalry games, easier road trips for fans and media, and single tables that could still theoretically operate with a salary cap. You’ve got possible expansion from 16 teams per bracket, to 18, then up to 20, with room for new blood in ownership. Existing owners will never sign up for anything that could harm their investment, so they give them a five-year window to cash out before we install the new system.
The biggest struggle I have with pro/rel is that I feel like there has to be bridge here to involve investors who want to play a role, people dissimilar from Riccardo Silva and Dennis Crowley, who just want a piece of the pie that they didn’t bake.
That’s the important thing here, we’re selling ourselves short by excluding people who have good intentions and something tangible to provide. I joke about 500 fans showing up to a division four soccer game in Altoona, but we want these people on our side. We have enough obstacles trying to attract the Philly tough guy who could give a shit about the Union but walks around wearing a Chelsea kit. It’s counter-intuitive to divide soccer fans in this country when we already face an uphill climb against NFL and MLB traditionalists.
Right now I think we have four competing factions:
- MLS fans
- pro/rel NASL types
- white Americans who watch foreign soccer but not MLS
- 1st/2nd generation immigrants who watch foreign soccer, but not MLS (think Mexican-Americans and Liga MX fans)
It’s ridiculous that soccer in this country features multiple groups of fans with contrasting opinions and interests, and that’s the priority here. We need to pull these groups together and find some common ground before we start working on the 65-year-old Phillies fan. He or she is probably a lost cause anyway, but we’re trying to grow the game here with soccer people on entirely different pages.
I don’t like going to bat for folks like Bob Kraft, but I do respect what they did for MLS in the late nineties. And I don’t want to dismiss investors at lower level clubs with good intentions, I just want to weed out the leeches who want a free spot at someone else’s table. I think pro/rel provides opportunity and forces lazy owners to spend, but I also don’t like top-heavy leagues with a lack of true competition. I appreciate stories like Leicester City while also being concerned about the future of a Bolton or Blackpool.
Each system has its own merits, and a lot of this, as I said before, just comes down to preference. Right now, I think we can be successful by improving what we currently have and building on a competitive and interesting league, instead of taking a huge risk by tearing down 22 years of progress and starting from scratch.