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Getting stuck in: Could MLS survive with promotion and relegation?

The Getting Stuck In column delves into some of the more intriguing aspects in US Soccer and MLS, shining a light on the stories regarding the league’s teams and its most-loved characters. This week Dave Lewis looks into whether promotion and relegation is a possibility for Major League Soccer…

Every weekend from August to May I sit on my lumpy couch, remote in hand, ready to watch Premier League matches until my eyes bleed. Liverpool games are always my main meal, but I have some other dishes I like to munch on. Maybe a U.S. player like DeAndre Yedlin, Geoff Cameron, Brad Guzan or Matt Miazga is playing? Or I might dig into an intriguing Manchester derby. This year I will watch anything Leicester City. But nothing gets the little hairs on my head to stand up more than a relegation battle.

Ah, promotion and relegation. That strangely un-American and un-Canadian system that has been exhaustively debated from coast-to-coast since MLS came around 20 years ago. In a recent ESPN poll, MLS players were asked if they would favour promotion and relegation in MLS. The results saw 49 percent say “yes” and 51 percent answer “no”. And that seems to be where we are: pretty much split down the middle.

But the person who really counts is MLS Commissioner Don Garber. He recently said: “We play in a country where the major leagues are really successful. There is no promotion and relegation in hockey and basketball and they work really well. It is not happening in MLS any time soon.”

So we are stuck with a quirky playoff system that rewards 60 percent of the league, with very little punishment for the remaining 40 percent. But could promotion and relegation work? No is the answer with the way the league is presently constructed. No owner would pay an expansion fee of $100 million just to be relegated. That is what would’ve happened to NYCFC last season when they amassed a paltry 37 points in their inaugural season.

Ok, let’s start with the basics of how relegation and promotion might work. First, you need a league for MLS teams to be relegated to. Like in the Premier League, there needs to be tiers. Could MLS (Division I) work with the NASL (Division II) and USL (Division III) to form a three-tier system? It would certainly take a lot of work from all three leagues to get aligned, but it is doable.

Now for the stadium issue. The USL and NASL, for the most part, play in – and I use this term loosely – small stadiums. Here’s a scenario: FC Edmonton win the NASL and gets promoted to MLS. They make peanuts on tickets sales, concessions and parking because their rinky-dink stadium holds a mere 5,000 people. They won’t be staying up for long with that kind of revenue.

Let’s look at the reverse. NYCFC gets relegated to the NASL. I doubt David Villa, Frank Lampard and Andrea Pirlo will accept going down when they have to play Rayo OKC at the Yukon High School. While I seriously doubt they will be able to convince their European pals to join them with this kind of pitch: “Hey Ronaldo, you should really come check out soccer in America. Not sure where I am, but I think I am playing on a high school field in front of a few friends and family.”

Ok, teams like AFC Bournemouth in England, who are NASL-esque, made it work. They climbed up the divisions and brought along a dated ground with them to the Premier League. But they didn’t have to rely on gate receipts. The amount of money they got for being promoted is substantial. The pittance teams would get from getting promoted from USL to NASL to MLS would be laughable. And where would the parachute payments come form? TV money?

MLS has come a long way with securing decent TV deals. Fox, ESPN and Univision pay $90 million a year, which is a huge amount compared to what MLS was getting in 1996. But compared to the Premier League’s shiny new multi-billion dollar TV deal, well, the MLS TV deal looks pretty puny.

For all the reason stated above, and many more I left out, I don’t see promotion and relegation happening in my lifetime. But there’s a good argument for it to happen sooner than later. One anonymous MLS player put it this way when talking to ESPN: “Whether you’re playing for promotion or to avoid relegation, it makes every game that much more important. In MLS, if you’re having a bad season, some guys just ride out the last couple [of] months because they know they’ll be in the league next year.”

MLS is two decades old, so maybe it’s just too early for such a radical change. But to truly be accepted as a top league in world football, it probably has to happen one day. There’s just too much at stake.

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4 Comments on Getting stuck in: Could MLS survive with promotion and relegation?

  1. One possible way it could work – and I’m sure Garber is already thinking this – is if NASL folded and “MLS2” (a la 2.Bundesliga) were proposed as the new Div2 league. MLS owners might be far less spooked of relegation if they were still technically in MLS despite dropping down a level.

    Even then, the real sticking point would be in how player contracts would be managed once you leave USL’s multi-entity structure and enter MLS’ highly controlled single-entity structure. Would every contract need to be ripped up and re-signed? Could the league assume ownership of all contracts and, indeed, the team itself? How about in reverse – once a team is relegated out of MLS (or MLS2), who’s in charge? Who’s paying for what? Who’s technically under contract and who isn’t?

    Maybe in 50 years or so they’ll figure it out. Or never. I’m content either way; my enjoyment of top-level North American soccer isn’t affected by the existence or lack thereof of pro/rel.

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  2. Or top 12 teams can make a premier MLS league, with the other temas remaining in MLS.

    Like

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