The ownership of the NASL’s Miami FC commissioned Deloitte, an international professional services firm, to study how a promotion and relegation system could affect American soccer. The findings were nothing new. It produced the same arguments that soccer fans both for and against such a system have been using to fuel a heated debate for years.
It does say that such a system would be good for the game as a whole in the long term, but also that there are many obstacles standing in the way of it becoming a reality. The biggest factor standing in the way of an MLS promotion/relegation system is the investments of billionaires who spend hundreds of millions just to get in the league. You’ll have a difficult convincing them to accept the risk of becoming a minor league team after one bad season.
A Few Things That Must Happen to Make MLS Promotion/Relegation a Reality
However, nothing is impossible. A promotion/relegation system could come to MLS and the American soccer world eventually, as long as a few significant things change.
The Soccer Landscape Must Fill Out
All three tiers of professional soccer in the United States are constantly evolving. New cities are lining up outside MLS looking for entry seemingly all the time. The NASL is always looking to penetrate new markets, including ones that already have professional teams. The USL is adding teams at an exponential rate in a mix of smaller and larger cities. Add this to the teams lumping leagues/tiers and you have quite a turbulent atmosphere in American soccer.
If the leagues were to continue expanding, there presents a debate of where to put new teams. Should a large city without professional soccer, like Detroit, be able to bid their way straight into MLS like previous expansion teams or should they be forced to start at the bottom level? I highly doubt MLS wants to stop their easy money expansion fees from flowing in quite yet.
With all three leagues looking to add to their ranks as much as possible, the soccer landscape in this country is constantly in flux. A promotion/relegation system cannot come to be as long as all three leagues are continually trying to add teams and compete with each other for markets. They will need to reach their perceived maximum capacity before being able to go forward with the merging of the pyramid. Which leads to my next point…
All Professional Leagues Must Work Together
Ever since the NASL split of from USL Pro, the two minor professional leagues have never gotten along. They have constantly fought over arbitrary division two and division three sanctioning. NASL is always challenging MLS on their first division sanctioning, trying to earn such honors for themselves. The leagues need to stop this in order for a pro/rel system to happen.
In fact, bringing all three leagues under one administrative umbrella would probably by the best option. Whether it is MLS buying out NASL and USL (probably best from a marketing standpoint, but I doubt NASL will agree to this), or U.S. Soccer stepping in and taking control (which we know they probably can’t do), or another organization being formed out of the merger of the three leagues (the most likely of the three). it really doesn’t matter which, in the end. A pro/rel system won’t work with leagues at odds with each other. They will have to work as a team to get it done right.
Soccer Needs to Become Mainstream
Despite soccer’s television ratings and attendances rising, the sport is still sort of a niche in American society. Those of us who live in a soccer bubble on Twitter are blind to the fact that there are a lot of mainstream sports pundits out there who dismiss soccer’s existence. Just listen to New York radio personality Mike Francesa becoming baffled over what Copa America is. This is a massive voice in the sports media dismissing the game as nonsense and you can bet he isn’t the only one of these out there.
MLS still has awful television ratings compared to the major American sports. They may do well in their markets, but once you leave the confines of Portland, Seattle, or Kansas City MLS becomes an afterthought, even among soccer fans. Many still prefer the higher quality of play of the Premier League and Champions League to the less robust styles of MLS. Europe is where the stars play when they’re in their prime, and Americans love themselves some stars.
That isn’t to say MLS doesn’t have its fair share of high profile players. They have Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey, and a handful of barely relevant old Europeans. These guys aren’t Messi, or Ronaldo, or even Paul Pogba. They aren’t the best and Americans are used to being the best and nothing but.
Then there is the problem that USL and NASL may as well not exist as far as the greater sporting landscape is concerned. Their attendance numbers look bad for high school sports, let alone fully professional leagues. Pro/rel may add to these numbers, but it would have to be quite the addition in order to compete with MLS.
Soccer as a whole drives its revenue and television popularity from the large market teams like New York and Los Angeles. If those big market teams find themselves relegated, will television networks be able to recoup the costs of not having the fans in these cities around to watch? With all due respect to a club like Charleston Battery, fans won’t be tuning in to watch their matches on national television like they would for LA Galaxy.
Soccer, like any American sport outside football, is a regional game. Fans will turn up in droves to watch their local team, but ignore the rest of the league due to lack of interest. Without the high ratings boosts provided by the giant markets, the television networks would end up losing money, causing rights fees to drop. If soccer can attain better league wide popularity, at all levels of the pyramid, promotion/relegation would have an easier time becoming successful.
Overall, an MLS promotion/relegation system could be great for the game. The thrill of a promotion fight in the lower leagues and the drama of a relegation battle up top are levels of excitement that don’t show up in the USA. It can add intrigue to all positions of the table at all levels of the pyramid. However, there are a lot of obstacles to get out of the way before such a system can make its way stateside.