The Case for Promotion and Relegation in the U.S. Soccer League System
Los Angeles Football Club (LAFC) will join Major League Soccer beginning in the 2018 season, and a Miami-based David Beckham-owned club will become the 24th MLS club shortly thereafter pending a finalized stadium plan. MLS commissioner Don Garber has also announced that he plans to cap the total number of MLS franchises at 28, which would make MLS the largest domestic soccer league in the world.
However, Garber’s announcement was met with considerable backlash by many US soccer clubs, especially those lobbying for one of the four remaining MLS expansion slots. While there are roughly only a dozen or so current clubs that have a realistic claim to those bids, countless lower division teams and their supporters have attached themselves to the #ProRelForUSA Twitter campaign that calls for a promotion/relegation format in the US soccer league system, while several other clubs took it one step further.
On August 3, 2017, two American soccer teams – Kingston Stockade FC of the National Premier Soccer League (NPSL) and Miami FC of the North American Soccer League (NASL) – filed a claim with the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) to require the US Soccer Federation (USSF) to adopt a promotion and relegation system across all divisions in US soccer.
Explaining the Promotion/Relegation System
For those not familiar with the “promotion and relegation” system, it is a tool used in many global domestic sports leagues wherein teams move vertically between divisions based on where they end each season in the standings. Teams that finish at or near the top of the lower leagues are rewarded through upward “promotion” to the next division, while the teams that finish at the bottom are relegated downward to a lower league.
Take the English football league system, for example. In England (including some teams from Wales), there are 140 individual soccer leagues that hold almost 500 divisions. The system is organized into a pyramid-shaped hierarchy with the absolute lowest tier of the league system featuring the largest number of divisions, while the popular English Premier League stands alone at the top.
So what exactly are the incentives for a team being promoted? Money, mostly. Teams receive monetary awards in promotion that can be used for various purposes. For starters, travel is obviously more expensive as your team works its way up the ranks. Top divisions have greater travel demands because they feature the best teams in the country–a big change for a London-based club that may have spent the last five seasons traveling within the city limits for its matches. Your team will grow in popularity with greater exposure in the top divisions, so that Division III college football-sized stadium just won’t do. You’re going to need something that can accommodate a growing fan base and the massive traveling crowds from other teams. Smaller clubs also need to invest in more talented players with top-level experience to compete with teams that already have considerably higher payrolls.
Promotion increases a club’s overall value too – a key factor for owners and stakeholders. In addition to the revenue share the club receives from the league at season’s end, assets like player contracts or a state-of-the-art stadium factor heavily into a team’s monetary valuation. A soccer club that receives several promotions over a relatively short period of time can improve their financial position significantly.
The earlier-referenced claim filed by the two American clubs contends that the USSF should be required to adhere to FIFA guidelines, which strongly suggest that countries with World Cup hosting aspirations utilize the promotion and relegation system in their domestic leagues. The clubs believe that a favorable ruling would open US Soccer to better teams, fan excitement, and greater financial success. Otherwise, their claim states that American teams are illegitimately blocked from the same opportunity afforded to clubs around the world where results on the pitch define which division a team play in.
An Overview of the Current American Soccer Landscape
The US features a three-tiered league system that is divided into Division I, Division II, and Division III. These top three divisions are all sanctioned by the USSF, which also defines the league levels and does not recognize a promotion/relegation format. MLS is the lone Division I league and has grown from 10 teams in 1996 to 22 in 2017.
The North American Soccer League (NASL) and the United Soccer League (USL) are the two Division II leagues, while the National Independent Soccer League (NISA) and USL Division III (USL D3) will start in 2018 and 2019, respectively, and make up the Division III tier. There are additional amateur divisions below these three, but they are not governed by the USSF.
The sport of soccer has grown significantly in the US, especially over the course of the past twenty years. The US Women’s National Team is the class by which other international programs are judged, and while the Men’s side has yet to break into the world elite conversation, the US has managed to develop a domestic men’s league in MLS that has become both financially viable and a destination for world talent in a relatively short time frame.
The success of the MLS coupled with a genuine growing interest in the sport by Americans has served as a foundation upon which other professional and semi-professional domestic leagues have been built. But it has also facilitated the growth of countless amateur clubs with passionate supporter’s groups, many of whom are looking to make the case for a domestic promotion/relegation system that would provide their clubs with the same opportunities enjoyed by similar lower-division clubs around the world.
Would Promotion and Relegation Work in the US?
The million-dollar question. But before we explore the topic, let’s first acknowledge what the MLS and US soccer league system are not: US Soccer is not England. It isn’t Italy, or Germany or Spain or even Mexico. The social economics and infrastructure of these countries can support a complex, multi-tiered soccer system in a way the US quite simply cannot.
Let’s look at England for an example, which is forty times smaller than the US. The city of London alone will feature seven Premier League clubs this season, meaning those clubs can travel by bus to nearly one-third of all away matches this season. Can you imagine if the Giants/Jets, Eagles, Patriots, Redskins, Ravens, Steelers, and Bills all had stadiums built in an area roughly two times the size of New York City?
In the US, the northeast is the most densely populated region and features the largest concentration of major cities in a relatively restricted area, but it still takes several hours to commute between even two of the closest ones. I don’t imagine that teams promoted from lower divisions into the MLS would be impacted much by the travel if the promotion monies they received would be significant enough to offset the costs.
But what about the clubs in the lower tiers that will now have the relegated MLS teams moving down to compete in their divisions? Can those clubs be expected to survive financially when forced to adopt a more demanding and frequent travel schedule?
Another hurdle in the promotion/relegation discussion involves working around the current MLS buy-in cost for expansion sides. All current MLS clubs were, at one time or another, required to pay the league’s entrance fee–a fee that has grown from the $10 million paid by then-expansion club Toronto FC in 2006 to the $100 million fee that clubs like NYCFC, Orlando City SC, Minnesota United FC, and Atlanta United FC paid a decade later. And the buy-in costs are simply that: a one-time entrance fee to secure an open expansion slot and join the league’s revenue sharing program. It doesn’t account for other obvious expenditures like player and coaching staff salaries and a stadium. Garber has suggested that when all is said and done, a new MLS franchise could expect to spend upwards of $300 million before ever setting foot on the field.
How exactly would the USSF justify implementing a promotion/relegation system that ignores the hundreds of millions of dollars already paid by the league’s current participants? It’s no secret that expansion clubs are traditionally weaker in their inaugural campaigns (with the noted exception of Atlanta this year), so how does the league go about relegating a future MLS club just one or two years after having paid close to $200 million for a seat at the table?
Promotion and relegation systems have been in place for nearly 100 years in other countries–countries that don’t face competition from other professional sports leagues like the NFL, NBA, MLB, or NHL. In the early MLS years, clubs played in local NFL arenas where even 25,000 fans in attendance (a very respectable turnout by MLS standards) felt more like a 2011 New Jersey Nets home game by comparison. Soccer-specific stadiums were eventually constructed to create intimate atmospheres between the players and the fans. And while many MLS clubs boast impressive sellout streaks and feature truly passionate fanbases (Seattle, Portland, Toronto, Los Angeles, Orlando, etc.), actual MLS stadium capacities are half that of most Premier League clubs.
I also know that a handful of MLS clubs currently have a difficult time selling out even the most high-profile regular season or derby matches. What happens when a club like DC United or Columbus Crew gets relegated? What percentage of the fans who may have already been “on-the-fence” decide that they’d rather stay home and watch an MLB or NBA game than attend a lower division match? Is it fair to the ownership groups that paid entry into the league?
With all of that said, the pleas from cities like St. Louis, San Diego, San Antonio, Charlotte, Nashville, and Cincinnati are not without merit. Most of these clubs feature supporter’s groups that are equally if not more passionate than many current MLS clubs. FC Cincinnati, for example, will be hosting MLS club New York Red Bulls in the semifinal round of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup next week. The Division II USL side confirmed that their electronic ticketing system crashed several times last week when fans tried to secure seats for the August 15th clash at the University of Cincinnati’s Nippert Stadium. Team officials later confirmed the sell-out and indicated they expect nearly 33,000 fans to be in attendance.
And it’s not just Cincinnati. There are a number of lower division soccer clubs in the US that could transition seamlessly into MLS next season–I truly believe that. But demanding “equal opportunity” for your club or league based on another country’s resoundingly dissimilar league model is silly, and a decision made in arbitration court alone will not bring promotion and relegation to US Soccer. There are so many factors working against such a system–many of which are unique to the US model–and not until we can address solutions to each of these individual roadblocks will US Soccer be any closer to installing the promotion/relegation model here.