Did MLS need to draw a line in the pro/rel sand?

Remember back there in June when all of America was firmly behind the United States Men’s National Team? The viewership was huge, the public watch parties were rocking, and we had plenty of headlines about how soccer in the US has finally made it.

The World Cup now over, and lots of friendlies with big turnouts to see European teams since then, and it seems like the rift between the Europhiles and the MLS lovers is as wide as ever. And Major League Soccer has a good way of squelching the positive momentum, too.

Yesterday, MLS President and Deputy Commissioner Mark Abbott spoke to reporters about whether promotion and relegation would come to MLS. The answer — “Never” — was not surprising, but the absolute nature of it will do nothing to bridge the gap between the current MLS supporter, and those fans in the US who only like European leagues.

Pro/Rel – a perpetual hot button

The idea of promotion and relegation in soccer leagues is intriguing. I also understand that the current state of the sport in this country would likely cause massive shockwaves, unsettling the top league without an easy way to predict the ultimate ramifications were pro/rel adopted now,. Negative outcomes seem more likely than positive ones, at least for the foreseeable future.

Right now, for example, MLS is trying to find a buyer for Chivas USA. They also need another owner to round out the set of 24 teams that the league will expand to by the end of the decade. Franchises don’t come cheap, so Abbott saying pro/rel will never happen is perfectly in line with what MLS needs to portray to potential owners and current owners alike.

Perhaps there is some uncertainty with the upcoming collective bargaining agreement that things could drastically change in the league. Saying pro/rel will never happen assures prospective owners that their upfront investment will not be put in jeopardy by a system that punishes the worst team.

Many MLS fans and media are sick of the whole pro/rel topic. It can be assumed the league is as well, and that may be part of the genesis of Abbott’s assertion. There are a few people out there that take an all-or-nothing approach to their advocacy of promotion and relegation, with Ted Westervelt (@soccerreform on Twitter) being the lead figure in this movement. His approach turns off many in soccer media, making the mere mention of the topic a surefire way to light up your own Twitter account.

Can this debate ever return to civility?

The absolute nature of Abbott’s declaration will be a talking point for pro/rel supporters, but it may also put off people who see a movement towards European ideals as the only way for MLS to gain stature. Many of those people were among the millions that supported the USMNT two months ago.

This is a time when MLS needs to convince viewers of European soccer that the domestic league has merits. There are more high-profile Americans. The new teams joining in 2015, New York City FC and Orlando City SC, are already splashing on well-known European players. Seattle, Portland, and Kansas City are excellent draws on television, and great viewing for people who are on the fence.

But there is Abbott to thrust a wedge between those inroads. Saying the league will never institute pro/rel takes one of the main selling points in soccer leagues around the world right off the table. In most league systems, any team has a chance, given the right performance on the pitch and investment, to rise to the top.

Take Saturday’s Manchester United vs. Real Madrid friendly at Michigan Stadium. 109K+ tickets were sold for the match. There are absolutely zero MLS, NASL, or USL-PRO teams in the state of Michigan and yet nearly 110,000 spectators can pack Ann Arbor’s Michigan Stadium for two European teams. (Maybe its time for Detroit’s inclusion in expansion discussions to be more than occasional.)

The point isn’t that pro/rel is right at this time

I’m not advocating promotion/relegation in the current state of soccer in this country. The lower divisions have the monumental feat of gathering the required momentum to ensure that relegation from MLS doesn’t lead to insolvency.

But my point is that American soccer didn’t need Mark Abbott cutting off the leg because a scab was taking a long time to heal. With a new TV deal and heightened expectation heading to 2015, MLS needs to be accommodating, not alienating.

Of all the places for MLS to bring forth transparency and honesty, this isn’t the right one. Spend time, for example, ensuring fans that MLS will work towards more competitive salary structure, or ironing out the oft-confusing roster/DP rules. But pro/rel is a controversial stand to take, and time will tell whether fans of the Beautiful Game who have snubbed MLS in the past will appreciate that line in the sand.


  1. Not to take us further away from Civility, but the pro/reg dicussion is the stupidest talking point regarding soccer in this country. Seriously, the average american is still a straight out soccer “lol what a boring sport for pansies” hater. The last thing we need to be doing is entertaining the asinine thought that America in anyway can accomodate pro/reg, even in a generation or two.

    “In most league systems, any team has a chance, given the right performance on the pitch and investment, to rise to the top.”
    u srs? For every Southampton there are (3 * x# of years)-1 teams that fall into relegation and are never heard from again.

    To act like the relegation system is anything other than a rotation system of crap teams that 80% of the time suck a lot and get relegated the very next year is being pretty optimistic.

    • kingkowboys says:

      Never heard from again = ask a Wolverhampton fan!

    • John O'Donnell says:

      Well said. I don’t think we have to worry.

    • +1. Earl, I enjoy your pieces very much, but this is a silly thing to make an issue of. Pro/rel is so completely anathema to American sporting culture that I find Abbott’s comments refreshing in their honesty. Nor do I see why we have to pretend otherwise in the interest of cultivating EuroSnobs. They will come when the quality on the pitch is sufficient for them to be interested (if ever).

    • +1. Adding to the stupidity of the pro/rel discussion is sheer geography. Cross-country travel is a much more expensive and complicated undertaking in the United States and Canada than it is in England, Italy, Germany and Spain. Look at the lower divisions in this country. The NASL in no way can be said to have a truly nationwide footprint. USL Pro is getting close, but that’s only happened over the last year or two, and it’s happened with the financial support of MLS teams paying the salaries of four of most teams’ best players, and with travel schedules that double or triple up games against far off clusters of opponents in just a few days. PDL and NPSL consist of regional clusters that never cross paths except in the postseason. Look at the difference in facilities between MLS and the lower divisions. If you’ve been to PPL Park, go to City Island and tell me you still think pro/rel is workable. Promotion for lower division teams is a death sentence.
      What is slowly evolving in soccer in this country is what has evolved in the other major professional sports and is the only arrangement that makes sense given distances in this country: a regionally based minor league affiliate/farm system model. In fact, if you see a lot more teams of the LA Galaxy II mold enter USL Pro next year, in addition to the expansion teams we already know of, I guarantee that league is going to have a much more regionally tilted schedule next year, more like the PDL and the NPSL. It’s what works for minor league sports in this country given the geographic distance factors at work.
      In fact, I’d further argue that it’s those factors of distance and geography that have led professional sports leagues to emerge along a centralized, franchise-based model (which makes pro/rel impossible in addition to impractical) here rather than along the more ad-hoc league/tier model in the more compact countries or countries with less widespread distribution of major population centers like most of the rest of the world.

  2. For me personally, promotion/relegation is the least important thing that European leagues offer. Its highly unlikely that ManU, ManCity, Liverpool, Barcelona and the other high profile teams will ever come close to relegation, so the teams that most people follow are never affected by pro/rel anyway. For it to work the NASL and Usl Pro not only have to get along, but they have to follow the same salary and roster rules as MLS, or else the ex-MLS team will have better players and more money and routinely promote back. Just my personal opinion.

    • old soccer coach says:

      I disagree that the current European high flyers are invulnerable to relegation. Rangers in Scotland was excellent on the pitch but insolvent in the board room. Many major European teams practice deficit spending that makes the Greek government look responsible, depending in the final analysis on the general population’s willingness to pay anything and do anything to follow their teams. Were some upheaval to break that willingness, those clubs would crash as badly as did Rangers.

      • Fair point, but I was speaking more to on-field than off-field, and at least in regards to the BPL it’s a much stronger league sponsor-wise so a financial gaff seems less likely. But yes a major financial downfall could doom those teams, but MLS is trying to avoid that as well with the salary cap.

  3. I think there’s nothing wrong with honesty here. If they’re not going to do it, which they’re not, might as well say it. There’s too much doublespeak and not enough straight answers in this league as it is.

  4. I love pro/rel in other leagues, but I’m ok with the current MLS structure for now.
    Pro/Rel is vital in leagues where the minnows can’t compete with the big boys. It is the only thing that makes the bottom of the table worth watching. In a single-entity salary cap system with decent parity, it’s not as vital to the success or interest of the league.
    The only way I would see it working in the early stages is if MLS acquired a lower division, or had enough teams to break into two division AND convinced the owners to accept equal revenue sharing between the top and lower divisions. The advantage of this system would be that it could create more interest and investment in the smaller markets and lower division clubs, potentially helping out the wallets of everyone– “A rising tide lifts all boats.”
    Of course it comes down to dollars and cents. And when the dollars make sense, it could happen…

    • I have been thinking about this for some time, and actually see a benefit for the teams involved in a very strange way. If we consider a situation like where the Phillies find themselves, out of contention with the end of the season facing them, the relegation risk might be enough to bring some fans to the ballpark. Further, in the following year, with the potential to play themselves back into the upper division, the attendance might again be helped. Bouncing over to the EPL, how many times have Wolves, Reading and a few others ridden the elevator up and down over the past ten years? Obviously, it isn’t ideal for the clubs involved, but it gives them something to bring people to the park. It prevents the tanking that the Sixers did this year, and apparently plan to do for the next couple of years. As a result, while I agree with much of what you say, I don’t see the system as being without benefit to the teams. In MLS, I don’t know enough about the benefit that the teams get from television money after it filters through the league office, but it seems that there could be an equalizing calculation to prevent the big fish from remaining big fish without others getting some benefit.

  5. kingkowboys says:

    Did they need to draw a line? No. But that doesn’t mean the line can’t be erased. I think this answer has some ulterior motives to assure would be owners that the don’t have to worry about Promotion/Relegation.

    • It’s definitely about reassuring the owners. No potential owner, Arthur Blank in Atlanta for example, would want to lose money on their investment and that is a likely occurrence if a new team is relegated after a few seasons. It could easily damage a new and developing casual fan base

  6. Who cares? It’s not like pro/rel is going to convert anyone anyway

  7. I don’t think pro/rel is impossible in the US. Especially if it’s only 40 teams in 2 divisions. Problem is an MLS club would be completely financially devastated if it were relegated to ‘MLS 2’ or whatever. Fans would hop off the bandwagon in a heartbeat when their team is relegated. That doesn’t happen so much in England because clubs are much older and have dedicated fan bases.

  8. Jeremy Lane says:

    My issue here is that Earl is saying this will turn off soccer fans who love foreign footy but aren’t interested in MLS. Maybe it will. My response is, who cares? Eurosnobs aren’t the people MLS needs to convert. And those folks won’t be converted because of promotion and relegation, anyway. They will be converted by overall quality of play. You can make the argument that introducing promotion and relegation will improve play, but it certainly won’t do the job on its own, if it helps at all. And for people who are not Euro- or otherwise snobs about soccer don’t even understand what this conversation is about, so the statement from MLS saying it will never happen is meaningless to them. In short, this is a tempest in a teacup.

    • I just made the exact same comment up thread, without having read this far. I wouldn’t have bothered had I read your comment first.

    • And maybe MLS takes that very attitude, that they don’t need the “Eurosnobs” as you call them. I’d be interested to read about whether it is easier to a) convert a “Eurosnob” to an MLS consumer, or b) convert a non-consumer to an MLS consumer. Maybe MLS has done this focus group work…

  9. I never understood the attraction of watching lousy teams battle it out to see who is the least sucky. And at the end of the year it’s basically trading the suckiest teams for teams who will probably be next year’s suckiest teams. I don’t get the argument from the Eurosnobs that pro/rel would make MLS a better league.

  10. The Chopper says:

    Dear Owner:

    Thank you for investing 50 million dollars to be a part of Major League Soccer. Your expansion fees are greatly appreciated. By the time you are done developing your club and it’s facilities you will have spent 100 million dollars to grow our league and sport.

    As a reward, we are installing a relegation system. This way, if your new club sucks, we can send it to a lower division. Here you will have the benefit of not being a part of the massive multi network television package we just signed and the advertising revenue that comes with it. Also you will have the simple task of filling the seats in your shiny new stadium without appearances by Clint Dempsey, Thierry Henry, Landon Donovan and our other first division stars of MLS. This way you can invest a few million more dollars to hopefully rejoin our top ranks.

    Welcome again to MLS.

    Mark Abbott

    (So of course he will say never)

  11. Atomic spartan says:

    I know a few baseball teams that deserve relegation to AAA right now. Yeah, that’ll happen.

  12. Really. This is a discussion for twenty to thirty years from now…and then it would take a five to ten year period to sink in for the owners who want a profit over competition.

  13. old soccer coach says:

    The debate is moot until there are lower divisions that are robustly profitable businesses. Right now, the lower division teams with healthy sustained attendance are being absorbed into MLS. In our sports culture we tend to focus on the top league to the exclusion of all else, e. g., why did the new soccer league in North America choose to call itself “Major League” Soccer? The only robustly profitable minor league on the sports scene in the United States is NCAA football, and its profits are based on the historically classic strategy of heavily regulating the labor market and ruthlessly exploiting that labor.

  14. Personally I find the MLS system vastly better than that in Europe. In those leagues, no team but the 2-5 best ever really have a chance to compete. Even in the biggest difference from top to bottom in our country, baseball, the lower teams still have a shot. I know many disagree, but for competition and performance sake, the nfl has the best model. Salary cap, revenue sharing, non guaranteed contracts. It exploits a lot of areas, but it all but ensures the best quality on the field at all times, plus the sense that you can win any year.

  15. So sick of this topic.

    I’m an Englishman – I’m not against a promotion / relegation league.

    However, I have the sense to know that every league has a way that it develops based on what it best for the league. MLS is fine how it is – and I think it’s refreshing that MLS has come out and just simply stated that they will never do promotion / relegation. Move on and accept or get out of the way.

  16. Whaat an fantastic mountain house!

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