Major League Soccer mls

MLS Pyramid Roundtable: Part I

7:12 PMGoalChatter

Fans weigh in on promotion/relegation in Major League Soccer

Chris McGuffin (@thecurseofchris) - USMNT, LA Galaxy and Manchester United fan, regular guest on GoalChatter Radio. (US)

Karim Hameg (@karimhameg) - Blogger with a passion for geography and football. Fan of Olympique de Marseille, Bayern, Zenit, and others. (France)

Ted Westervelt (@soccerreform) - Ardent pro/rel advocate. Founder of SoccerReform. (US)

1. Should promotion/relegation be implemented in U.S. soccer? Why or why not? If yes, when would be the best time to move to the pro/rel model?

Chris: I love the idea of promotion/relegation. However, I don’t think it should be implemented in U.S. soccer right now. MLS just isn't stable enough, and the leagues below it just aren't popular enough to warrant their inclusion. I would much rather see MLS clubs have lower-level teams like the LA Galaxy II so their younger players can gain playing time before they are promoted to the senior team. I also think it’s more important to focus on getting every MLS club an established academy.

Karim: I follow much more European than American soccer, so I'm much more accustomed to the pro/rel system. For me, implementing this system in US soccer can be a great idea because it will open the elite to other teams and it's better, in my opinion, to join the MLS this way than with the current system. The pro/rel system can't be applied now, for reasons I will explain in the answer to the next question.

Ted: Absolutely. Opening leagues is the key to reaching our potential as a soccer nation. We are ready for US Soccer to lead a transition now. An open promotion and relegation has two major benefits: It allows great clubs and drives investment/interest to lower divisions. Soccer thrives on the international stage, and that stage is dominated by great clubs - both in wins and in ratings. Unlike our other major sports leagues, soccer teams battle in thriving extra-league environment, and foreign leagues and clubs flood our air, cable and web waves. The current system disarms our clubs in the face of serious competition - both on the field and in that marketplace. 

Instead of helping our clubs reach the US market, the current system enables MLS to cash in on conceding the US market to imports, via Soccer United Marketing (SUM). Every MLS owner is a part owner in SUM, and SUM has marketing agreements with many foreign leagues and federations. If you have attended a international or club friendly over the past 10 years, it is almost certain that part of your support went to MLS owners. As the story goes, this SUM money will eventually trickle down to MLS. I don't believe in trickle down soccernomics. So, on top of being the only system to accommodate  great clubs, thriving lower divisions, and a product that can compete for the US market - pro/rel is also the only way to break this vicious cycle of conflict of interest and keep our owners honest to their soccer clubs.

. What would be the main challenge for clubs in adapting to the pro/rel model?

Chris: Money. I fear that some clubs, if they were relegated, wouldn't have the financial means upon relegation to get back in the first division. DC United, for example, is a popular club, and has a strong following, but if they were relegated this past year, I’m not sure they could hold on to their better players. Same with some of the other lesser teams, like Chivas (USA).

Karim: The challenge for clubs would be to find their place into the league. With the current system, failing a season has no real consequences. With pro/rel, the clubs need to project their place at the end of the season. It will take some time to make a real hierarchy in MLS.

Ted: The main challenge is getting MLS to play along. US Soccer cannot force them to make this transition.  All they can do is sanction an open system and invite every team to participate. MLS's single entity system - in which every team is little more than a brand in a chain of outlets - makes transition tricky. In fact, the only path into a true open system for an MLS outlet is probably via sale out of the single entity. US Soccer must lead, but there is no guarantee MLS will follow. Regardless, this is far better than the status quo, where MLS appears to set US Soccer policy for their own benefit.

3. What would be the one best and one worst thing pro/rel would bring to U.S. soccer?

Chris: Best: It'd make competitions like the Open Cup a lot more appealing. Worst: Again, money issues. Lack of interest in those lesser teams would also hurt.

Karim: The one best thing is that it will allow teams that have a real sporting project to join MLS. The worst is that there is probably not enough place in US soccer for two or more professional divisions.

Ted: Sorry...two best things: Pro/Rel accommodates great clubs and drives interest/investment to lower divisions. The worst thing: Fans must endure the pain of relegation.

4. How would a pro/rel system influence the U.S. national team?

Chris: Young USMNT prospects would likely be able to play for lower-division teams instead of taking a risk abroad. Those who develop into stars would be able to say that they got their start here stateside, and that might strengthen the view of the sport in this country.

Karim: The international (or potentially international) players will have to be careful with the choice of their club if a pro/rel system is applied. A wrong choice (with a relegation, for example) can be dangerous for a player's place in the national team.

Ted: A pro/rel system puts the onus on clubs to develop players. Properly constructed free markets drive innovation and discovery, and both are sorely needed to scour the nation for talent - and then develop it.

Also, kids love the great clubs. The original New York Cosmos captured the imaginations of many of the players on the 1990 USMNT that took us back to the World Cup for the first time in 40 years. When it comes to inspiring young players in any sport, one cannot overestimate the power of a great club. We need a system that accommodates them.

5. Are there any historical parallels that come to mind with the reluctant attitude among the U.S. soccer elite in discussing pro/rel?

Chris: I don’t think so. NASL’s failure might have something to do with it, but I’m not knowledgeable enough on the subject to have a good opinion.

Karim: I don't follow US sports enough to answer to this question.

Ted: The easy historical parallel is robber barons of the late 1800's. Today's US pro sports owners enjoy many of the same anti-trust protections and precedents as the Rockefellers and Carnegies of yesteryear. Breaking them - even just for soccer - is a tough task. In the face of global competition, we have little choice.

6. Is the aversion to pro/rel possibly a reflection of an aversion to "non-American" ways, or are there possibly other, less-political reasons that U.S. soccer is reluctant to discuss pro/rel?

Chris: I would say so. I like MLS Cup because I enjoy a good, intense playoff. There’s nothing wrong with making part of our sport unique as long as we can keep up with the rest of the world, and I think we do that well. MLS needs to work on their TV scheduling and improving their ratings instead of worrying about pro/rel.

Karim: I think that the pro/rel system is not compatible with the US mentality in sports. All the major leagues work with the franchise system - MLS works the same way as MLB, the NBA, NFL and NHL. Pro/rel is more in the European mentality.

Ted: The main reason the powers that be are reluctant to discuss pro/rel are the promises - written or unwritten - the our federation made to MLS owners. In order to line up original - and still powerful - MLS owners like Kraft, Hunt and Anschutz, our federation had to virtually promise them no pro/rel. Whether what remains of these promises are debts of gratitude or something more quantifiable, they constitute the force that holds pro/rel talk down today. MLS exerts power and control over US Soccer in quantifiable ways. New England Revolution owner Bob Kraft pays President Sunil Gulati. US Soccer does not. Don Garber himself is the head of the Competition Committee. MLS execs/player vets like Kevin Payne and Jeff Agoos sit with them on the board.

The "un-American" label pro/rel gets is ginned up at best. It doesn't take an MBA to realize that the meritocratic system lines up more closely with core American values than the landed lords and ladies that control US pro sports - and their vassals on the US Soccer Board.

As with most things in politics, follow the money to the reasons. The constant struggle in any free society is to stand in the way of money when it threatens freedom.

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