Promotion/Relegation in the United States

PAtlanta United vs NYCFC (Bobby Dodd Stadium, Atlanta, GA) — May 28, 2017

Atlanta United vs NYCFC (Bobby Dodd Stadium, Atlanta, GA) — May 28, 2017

Earlier today, Miami FC of the NASL and Kingston Stockade of the NPSL sued the US Soccer Federation in the Court of Arbitration for Sport over the lack of a promotion/relegation system in American soccer.

Soccer fans in the US have debated the feasibility and validity of pro/rel for decades. Pro/Rel supporters argue that USSF’s organization of the American soccer pyramid and the lack of pro/rel limits the growth of the sport in the United States and is arbitarily different from the ‘globally-accepted standard’ of pro/rel leagues. They point to FIFA regulations that demand the implementation of such a system in any FIFA-sanctioned federation and argue that USSF (through Major League Soccer) is in violation of said regulations, adding that the USSF unfairly discriminates against other domestic leagues (NASL, USL, etc.) through the creation of arbitrary league requirements for top-flight status, such as market size and stadium capacity, knowing full-well that only MLS meets said requirements. USSF is also said to “move the goalposts” to satisfy MLS’s monopoly on the American soccer market and endorse potential owners to pay “ransoms” of expansion fees in order to be in the top-flight. Detractors emphasize that at a time when American interest in soccer has skyrocketed, USSF can not squander the opportunity to plant soccer firmly into the American sports consciousness by creating a system that punishes teams for doing poorly instead of ensuring that all ships rise with the tide.

There’s been discussion of the merits (and pitfalls) of pro/rel in America in the Reddit thread for the tweet above. But instead of providing a hot (well, more lukewarm) take in the comments there, I wanted to share my thoughts here. In short:

Pro/Rel is not gonna work in the US in the short term.

Why is this? Well, there are a few reasons:

1. It limits the earning potential of league (read: MLS) owners.

This is the obvious point, right? If a team gets relegated, they are going to lose revenue - less gate sales, fewer merchandise sales, etc, etc. That’s just a fact of the market. Why are they going to lose revenue, you might ask?

2. American sports fans are not interested in watching minor-league sports.

That’s simply another fact of the market. The phrases “Division 2” and “Minor League” instill a certain level of apathy in sports fans across the States. As fans, we want to see the best of the best compete, but unfortunately, that’s not possible in American soccer without the gross overspending the original NASL suffered from before its collapse in the 1980s. College football might be a “lower-division” sport and thriving, but most would hesitate to call such an amateur sport “minor-league”. The most common and accurate analogy for lower-division soccer is Minor League Baseball, which only averages a few thousand in attendance per game. Rarely do stories from these leagues ever hit the sports page on your local newspaper, make it on ESPN, or get a segment on local nightly news (unless, of course, the minor league team is hosting a big-name prospect for its major-league affiliate).

3. There is not enough interest for American soccer in the United States to make pro/rel viable.

Soccer is (maybe) the 5th leading sport in the US behind the “Big 4”: football, basketball, baseball, and hockey. That sliver of popularity can further be subdivided into factions that support other global leagues, like Bundesliga in Germany, the English Premier League, or La Liga in Spain. Once you remove those so-called “Eurosnobs” from the equation, you have only a small percentage of over 300 million people in the United States that want to watch American soccer teams. If we look at MLS attendance, half of MLS teams are 3rd most-attended or worse in their home markets, overshadowed by the popularity of the Big 4. MLS attendance has increased in recent years, growing over 13% since 2014 but is still only 7th in average per game attendance worldwide. Additionally, the league isn’t well-respected by fans of European leagues both at home and abroad, chided for its physical, rougher, and more raw style of play than the fanciful, technically-adept soccer seen in England and Spain. Yes, MLS (and American soccer as a whole, though I’ve neglected to mention lower leagues) is growing, but until American soccer begins to draw 25,000+ to games in every market and sway fans who would rather watch a foreign team at 7am than their home teams at 7pm, there is simply not enough baseline interest to establish a pro/rel system that would end up throwing relegated and existing Division 2 teams to the dogs.

Most of my thoughts on the Miami/Kingston arbitration case are summed up pretty well by /u/Coltons13 on Reddit here. With this case, Riccardo Silva and Dennis Crowley (owners of Miami FC and Kingston Stockade, respectively) aren’t playing a long game to improve American soccer; they simply want a piece of the very lucrative pie served to MLS. As /u/Coltons13 points out:

Pro/rel will eventually come. When teams can survive being dropped a division. When teams can survive the added costs of moving up. When public interest isn’t so fleeting. When the lower divisions stabilize. This is just the old NASL policy of suing their way to get what they want all over again. And it’ll fail just as badly. So much for doing things differently, the only difference is it’s Silva and Miami FC instead of the Cosmos.

I agree with his sentiment; this is a clear case of the desires of the few being put ahead the needs of the many. It could be argued that MLS is also that way, but I dispute that - MLS owners have invested fiercely in their teams, academies, facilities, and the league in order to grow the sport (and pad their pocketbooks along the way). Silva has shown to be a shrewd businessman that takes after the owners of the original NASL - high-spending and thinking solely about the short term. Today’s iteration of the NASL is filled with these types, and it’s likely that it will fail just like the original did, leaving some of America’s most historic and iconic soccer brands in the dust.

Pro/rel is the future of soccer in the United States. I’m convinced that once the sport is popular enough here in America and we have just as many fans watching their local teams here as other countries do, pro/rel will be a viable venture for owners. But until then, it’s just not feasible for USSF to push pro/rel on to a fledgling American soccer culture.