Soccer (you better prepare yourself for a lot of use of the “S”-word) in the United States has seen various booms and recessions throughout the years. The years of Pele and the New York Cosmos are well known, but it could be argued that we are currently in the years where ‘soccer has made it’ in the United States. It is not only expected that the US National Team qualifies for each World Cup, but that they reach the knock-out rounds of the tournament. The various domestic leagues have seen unprecedented growth in attendances, ratings, revenue, and perhaps most importantly, quality on the pitch on numerous levels. The game has stabilised in an unprecedented way and it is safe to say that soccer now has a permanent place in the sporting landscape in the United States. However, with that increased public presence previously unanswered questions about the future and structure of the game are now coming to the forefront.
While soccer seems to have ‘arrived’ it cannot be ignored that it is still a relatively new phenomenon in the States. More people are interested in soccer in America than ever before, but it still trails American football, basketball and baseball in terms of popularity – an important consideration when discussing soccer in the US. More particularly, it is important to note the structure of these different sports. While these sports have historic clubs that are known around the world, they have always been involved in a “franchise” system; the teams in these leagues share revenue and work together off the field (or court) to earn more money and raise the profile of their league. Barring financial collapse, the Boston Celtic, New York Yankees, and Dallas Cowboys will always be part of their various leagues, no matter how bad a season they have. Simply put, you will never see any of these teams relegated.
When Major League Soccer first kicked off in 1996, the league envisaged a similar system. MLS wanted to both avoid the mistakes of the Pele-era NASL and cater to the ‘typical American sports fan’. MLS was set up similar to the other American sports leagues at the time, where you bought a “franchise”, rather than a club. Owners would share profits (or more realistically in those early MLS days, losses) equally, trying to avoid a system where there were financial super clubs. On the pitch, MLS tried to attract the legions of young people playing youth soccer, but more importantly their parents as well. They focused on a family friendly product for the army of mini-van driving, orange-slice-for-half-time cutting soccer mom. They even had a hybrid penalty kick shoot-out more similar to ice hockey than football at the end of any draw, catering to the red-blooded American football watching tie-hating father.
This, of course, was not very successful. Not American enough for a soccer-sceptical public and not authentic enough for fans of the beautiful game stateside, the league languished in a soccer purgatory and faced financial issues nearly from the start. The league lost an estimated $250 million the first five years. These issues culminated in two clubs, Miami and Tampa Bay, being contracted and ceasing to exist. MLS realized something needed to change.
While MLS struggled, the cable and satellite TV boom meant that anyone willing to pay for the corresponding TV package could access seemingly any soccer league in the world. Champions League matches started being broadcast on basic cable in the United States, with American sports fans able to see the best in the world live and in colour. Perhaps most importantly, the EA Sports video game franchise FIFA became a sensation for millions in the United States. Americans who may not have known Roy Keane from Roy of the Rovers before FIFA came into their lives could now manage a European club to glory. They became familiar with the best players in the world, though perhaps at first the pixilated version, and soon wanted to buy their jerseys (American for kit), hang their poster on their walls, and most importantly watch their FIFA heroes pull off the same heroics in real life.
With this surge in interest in European soccer in the United States, MLS pivoted to try and attract a soccer-smart crowd instead of the soccer-mom crowd. Middle-class America’s increasing interest in the game, combined with the ever-increasing Hispanic population in the US meant there was a growing group of Americans wanting to spend money on soccer. With this change, MLS not only stabilised but flourished. When Tampa Bay and Miami left MLS the league only had 10 teams remaining. That has now risen to 22 teams with a list of cities vying to get a MLS team of their own. Away from MLS, lower soccer leagues have grown as well, with both the USL and NASL leagues drawing good crowds and expanding by adding teams to their leagues.
It is within the division between MLS and these lower leagues where we see the most divisive issue in North American soccer currently lies. There is no mechanism in place to promote lower league clubs to MLS and relegate MLS clubs to these leagues. US Soccer and FIFA would say there is a ‘pyramid structure’ like in most countries around the world, with MLS having ‘top tier’ status, with USL and NASL the ‘second tier’, and a host of smaller leagues falling below them again. Yet, with much of the interest in soccer in the States interest to the influence of European leagues, there is a groundswell of support to install a promotion/relegation system into the league structure. Like politics in the United States these days, the ‘Pro/Rel’ issue is divisive with cartoon character type figureheads and debates that often lead to name calling and personal insults. What is it that makes a system that is commonplace in football leagues across the globe so controversial in the United States?
When you look on twitter for those who are in favour for promotion and relegation in United States soccer, they generally fall into a few camps. One part would like to see a truly open pyramid system installed in the US because they believe it to be the best option for the game, while still being able to have a calm, rational discussion about the pros and cons of it. Then there is the side that is brash, loud, often insulting, and use ‘facts’ that are often cavalier with the truth (gosh, that sounds like someone else currently in power in the US) when discussing the Pro/Rel debate.
The most famous of the latter camp is Ted Westervelt or @soccerreform on Twitter. Westervelt is by far the loudest proponent of Pro/Rel on Twitter. If you have ever tweeted the words “soccer, relegation, and MLS” in the same tweet, you have likely got some type of response from Ted. However, Ted has been accused of racism, misogyny, and was a proponent of Donald Trump’s election as president. Many people feel uncomfortable associating with someone like Westervelt and his views outside the game. This is something he’s seemingly recently realised, urging others to look past those views in order to help pressure US Soccer to implement the Pro/Rel system.
Yet, despite the vocal minority like Ted Westervelt, there are numerous reasonable and rational proponents of the Pro/Rel system in the United States. One of these rational voices is Kenny Rowland. Kenny was an immigrant to the United States from Japan as a child. A football fan for most of his life, Kenny’s time in the US has mirrored the start and rise of MLS in the US. However, he was more drawn to follow his footballing heroes, such as Shunsuke Nakamura’s exploits in the green and white hoops of Celtic, than his ‘local’ (in a country the size of the US, the closest MLS club could be a day’s worth drive away) club.
When asked why he feels promotion and relegation in the US would benefit the game, Kenny says “mainly because I think it would force every team, from ownership down to the players, to show more ambition and take every game seriously. I also feel it would make for a better product, with the stakes and the importance behind every game becoming higher.”
Kenny’s justification for Pro/Rel is a common one. Currently, MLS does have a playoff system to decide its champion. Twelve of the twenty-two teams qualify for those playoffs, so a team who was not the best in the league over the course of a season could end up as champions. Teams can also hover around mediocrity all season but still qualify for the playoffs and take home the MLS cup if they start performing above expectations (which we know teams can do in small samples). Furthermore, even if a team fails to make the playoffs, there is no punishment such as relegation, so if a team has been eliminated from playoff contention before season’s end one could surmise they would not have much motivation in the rest of their matches. Pro/Rel is also believed to be something that would help US Soccer as a whole. If more American players are playing more meaningful matches in MLS, the idea is that US Soccer will improve from this, from the National Team down.
Kenny also shares the view that MLS and US Soccer are stopping Pro/Rel because of financial reasons. Understanding US Sports franchise model and the MLS’ subscription to that model is vital to the Pro/Rel debate. When asked why he thinks Pro/Rel has not yet been implemented, Kenny says “franchise model, franchise model, franchise model and the [MLS] ownership groups, both the old guard and the new blood, that seem hell bent on protecting it. A lot of ire seems to be directed at Don Garber, but he’s just a fall guy for the likes of [MLS franchise owners] [Bob] Kraft, the Hunt Family, [Stan] Kroenke, [Arthur] Blank, etc.” MLS being in the black in the financial ledger is a relatively new phenomenon. These owners who invested millions in a franchise fee would certainly not be happy about having to go down to a second tier after relegation, having invested their millions in having a team in what they thought was the highest tier of American soccer. Kenny and many others see them and their greed as why an open Pro/Rel system is not yet a reality in the US.
For there to be a controversy surrounding an issue, there of course need to be opposing sides. MLS has grown from fearing its own survival to having its pick between major metropolitan cities jockeying to give the league bags of money and build (rightly or wrongly, but probably wrongly) soccer specific stadiums with public tax dollars in order to have an MLS franchise. Clearly these millionaires believe MLS is doing something right since there is such a demand to be involved in the league and Don Garber has been the one to usher in this age of prosperity. Appointed Commissioner of MLS in 1999, Garber has become a figure of scorn for many in the pro-Pro/Rel debate. However, he would not still be employed if he was not first making money and growing the league, and second and most importantly, carrying out the wishes of the franchise owners of MLS.
Garber and his ownership group are the ones that ushered in the era of the “Designated Player”. This mechanism allows global superstars such as David Beckham to come to MLS. It has not only raised the profile of MLS domestically and internationally, but also improved the playing standard in the league. Along with brand names like Beckham, other “DP’s” such as Cuauhtemoc Blanco, Guillermo Barros Schelotto, and others brought improved play. Along with these stars, Garber and co. led initiatives in MLS to develop American talent. Soon, every MLS club had a development academy similar to European clubs and we are starting to see the results of that talent not only in the MLS, but also in the US national team. That national team is expected to progress past the group stages of the World Cup and MLS fans expect the league to entertain and play a higher brand of soccer than ever seen in the country before. All of this development on the pitch has occurred without a promotion/relegation system.
Would this improvement still have materialised if there was Pro/Rel? It is difficult to answer such a hypothetical question, but would clubs have been able to set up a proper youth system from scratch while worrying about relegation? Furthermore, knowing what we do about the variance in the game, is it worth possibly hindering a developing player or developing team with relegation over a possible string of bad luck?
Along with being an expert in corgi’s wearing pants, Danny Page has been involved in the public discussion of both analytics in US sports and soccer in the US in general. When asked about his thoughts on Pro/Rel, Page says “Generally I’ve never been convinced how the sport or league would benefit from an unlucky team going down after thirty-something games. I am against hard Pro/Rel, especially 3 up/3 down for one year’s worth of results… [3 up 3 down] discourages experimentation and punishes bad luck, not bad teams.”
Danny’s last point is an interesting one; if there is no possible relegation and no loss of income and prestige that come with relegation, MLS clubs are both more able and more likely to try new methods on and off the pitch. Numerous MLS clubs have been among the pioneers in football analytics, while off the pitch both clubs and the league have invoked creative marketing campaigns not seen elsewhere in the world. Would clubs take such risks if relegation was a possibility?
Off the field, MLS owners are starting to see what the FIFA executive committee know all too well, that if run correctly, soccer can be big business. This, of course, was not always the case. In MLS’ dark days, there were only a few big buck owners (such as the Hunts and Anschutzs) who had control of multiple teams and kept the league afloat simply because no one else wanted to. Now flourishing, the need for mega-wealth owners to own multiple teams to keep the league alive has, although a few still remain.
Many would see Pro/Rel it as a slap in the face to these families who kept the league’s lights on in its darkest days. Even if you emotionally detach those that helped MLS survive when it was not assured it would last, those now making an investment in MLS to buy a franchise does so to be part of the top tier of soccer in the United States. When asked about why he thought there was no Pro/Rel in MLS currently, Danny Page says “MLS owners are rightfully protective of their investment and didn’t buy into the league as an open league.” It is often said “it is easy to spend other people’s money,” and applying this to MLS seems apt. Would the league be able to attract such an interest in investing in MLS if your potential team is no longer in the top tier?
One of the biggest stories in US Soccer this year has been the Open Cup run FC Cincinnati has made. The second tier club is in their second season of play in the USL and averaged over 18,000 people attending their home matches since they have begun play. With these packed crowds, FCC has advanced to the US Open Cup (The US equivalent to the Scottish Cup) semi-finals, beating two MLS clubs in route and becoming the first non-MLS club to make the semi-finals since 2011.
Many proponents of Pro/Rel point to FC Cincinnati and their success as proof there should be promotion and relegation in the US. Danny Page sees it differently, saying “I have been to packed lower division stadiums in America and abroad. I know a fan of Fulham or Rangers would be understandably mad if the opportunity was closed to them. The difference for Americans is that we realize we buy tickets knowing that promotion isn’t the goal, but the game itself and hopefully the playoffs at the end of the season.” As we see in other American sports and specifically with teams like FC Cincinnati, fans still attend minor league sports in the United States and soccer games like for FC Cincinnati. These fans know their teams will not be promoted to the top tier even if they won every game in their season. Yet people still attend games. Danny continues, “Players still get to move up and down as their talent permits. The organizations do not, but that hasn’t stopped the NHL or MLB from being the best leagues in the world. I think soccer in America can still do well, with or without open movement.” Sports in the US on different levels have thrived for years without promotion and relegation.
The biggest story related to the Pro/Rel debate recently has been the “$4 billion media deal” offered to MLS by international media company MP & Silva. The deal would have run for 10 years, beginning in 2023 which is when MLS’ current media deal expires. MLS made headlines when it rejected the deal and responded publicly saying “As was stated to [MP & Silva Group’s founding partner Riccardo] Silva both in person and in a subsequent letter, Major League Soccer is prohibited contractually from engaging in discussions about our media rights with other distributors. We are not in a position, nor are we interested, in engaging with Mr. Silva on his proposal.” Any money total that starts with the letter “b” will draw a lot of attention and proponents of Pro/Rel for the US point to this resistance of the deal as another move by the MLS administrators to keep Pro/Rel out of league.
However, not only those who are against Pro/Rel were sceptical of this deal. Most just see the bid as a promotion stunt, with Riccardo Silva being both a founding partner in MP & owner of the second tier USL club Miami FC. Silva would certainly stand to benefit from a Pro/Rel system in MLS and is likely to have known that the league would not be able to accept any deal while still under a separate contract. Deals like this are not a serious attempt at bringing reform to MLS but rather some mix of trying to serve someone’s own self-interest’s and/or insert someone’s name into the headlines.
While passions are high on both sides of the Pro/Rel debate in the United States, it seems those who are able to express their opinion in a rationale and calm way don’t expect much to change. When asked about the future of Pro/Rel, proponent Kenny Rowland says “I feel less and less confident about ever seeing it here with each passing year. Every season that goes by without it even being taken seriously is another season where the status quo becomes even more deeply entrenched. On the other end of the debate, when asked the same question, Danny Page remarks “We are more likely to see it in baseball and hockey where there are tiers of stable clubs at every level with long histories! While MLS is doing well, the lower tiers are still shaking out. Most teams that would do well at the top flight, well, they’ve already purchased promotion into becoming an MLS expansion team.”
Danny’s last point is an important one. While lower league clubs often bang the Pro/Rel drum when they are in lower divisions, if the club is continually successful on and off the pitch, they more often than not have found their way to joining MLS. Seattle, Portland, Minnesota, and others took successful second division clubs with large followings and turned them into MLS franchises. The only reason a city of Cincinnati size, the 65th largest city in the US population wise, is among the running for an MLS franchise is the large crowds and impression it has made on the US Soccer landscape.
Since there does not seem to be an end to the Pro/Rel debate in site, the fight will rage on and the ammunition will be spent over 140 characters. Like most things on twitter, this debate’s volume is more often than not turned up to the metaphorical eleven. While reasonable people like Kenny and Danny populate both sides of the issue, most will continue to associate the Pro/Rel issue with polarising figures such as Ted Westervelt. However, yelling at the top of your twitter lungs may get you lots of followers, but it will not influence the people who could actually achieve change. MLS, its owners, and partners have no financial incentive to switch to a promotion/relegation system, with the historical context of the league also warning of such a risky manoeuvre. MLS needs financial incentive to change, and while the MP & Silva “$4 billion deal” may be mostly a PR stunt, it is a signal such incentives might well materialise. Until then, promotion/relegation in American soccer will just be another twitter argument.