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The case for and against promotion and relegation in American soccer


The debate has raged for many years with no consensus, and has absolutely no chance of changing the existing system - yet it continues to be raised almost every week in the replies to articles on every site that publishes articles on the state of MLS/US Soccer. So what exactly is Pro/Rel and the arguments for/against?

Promotion/Relegation (Pro/Rel for short) in short is a way to reward good teams, and demote bad ones. Many countries use Pro/Rel, although in the debates those in Europe are primarily cited as examples. For Pro/Rel to work properly there must be a minimum of 2 leagues; one to allow promotion FROM, and the other relegation TO. Using England as an example:

Level 1: Premier League (20 teams) - lowest 3 teams relegated to Championship
Level 2: Championship League (24 teams) - 3 teams promoted to Premier, lowest 3 relegated to League 1
Level 3: League 1 (24 teams) - 3 teams promoted to League 1, lowest 4 relegated to League 2
Level 4: League 2 (24 teams) - 4 teams promoted to League 2, lowest 4 relegated to Conference Premier
Level 5: Conference Premier (24 teams) 4 teams promoted, 4 teams relegated
below 5 conferences split into regional teams, pro/rel continues accordingly...

What this does is reward the best team in each league by raising them to the next level. This allows those teams to have access to more revenue, better players, more publicity, etc... for those teams relegated however it means they often have to cut back in may areas due to loss of revenue (most notably shedding player salaries). Many teams do eventually regain promotion, but sometimes it can take a few years. Seems like a good idea right? So what exactly are the arguments for/against?

First the arguments "for" (this is by no means all, just an overview revealed by quick Google search).

  • US is the 'oddball' by not adopting Pro/Rel - most countries with professional leagues use it!
  • US needs to adopt it to reward lower division teams that perform well.
  • US needs to adopt it to provide growth of Soccer in the USA.
  • To become a top league in the world (not to mention top National team) we need Pro/Rel.
  • Pro/Rel would increase interest and investment in US Soccer.

Arguments "Against" (again not all, just an overview revealed by Google search).

  • Pro/Rel developed due to too many teams competing at different levels - the US does not have that problem (yet...).
  • The lower divisions in US aren't well organized, and decidedly 'amateur' for the most part.
  • Lower division US teams don't have stadiums large enough to be promoted to the MLS.
  • Existing MLS owners have put millions into their teams, they won't allow Pro/Rel.
  • US needs to develop infrastructure for lower divisions before Pro/Rel is possible.
  • Due to large size of the US, travel expenses become prohibitive for promoted teams.

Before I continue, perhaps we should look at the current state of US (Men's) Soccer's divisions.

Level 1: MLS (19 teams, 20 in 2015 with perhaps more in the near future?)
Level 2: NASL (8 teams, 11 in 2014, 13 in 2015)
Level 3: USL-Pro (13 teams, 15 in 2014)
Below 3 the leagues divide into regional conferences.

From this it's obvious that the state of US Soccer is FAR below the English example cited above - by 2015 there will be a total of 48 teams in the top 3 levels in the US. The other big problem is that for the most part the leagues are not affiliated with each other. The MLS and USL-Pro created an affiliation at the start of 2013 allowing reserve players (I.E. the 'extra' players on the team roster that don't often get to play in regular games), to either be loaned to 3rd division teams, or for the MLS team's Reserve Team to play against USL-Pro teams. But as yet the NASL has no affiliation with either MLS or USL-Pro.

You may well ask what my take is on all the debate?
Well, I do like the concept of Pro/Rel. But I think the US is a very long way from being able to use it. I've read various proposals over the years that show how it could work, but for the most part few address what I see as three of the main issues.

If Pro/Rel is to have any hope of being implemented the first thing that must change is for ALL leagues at ALL levels of the US hierarchy must be brought under one 'umbrella' of sorts - there needs to be some form of affiliation between each division so that teams and players don't have to adapt or conform just to change leagues. For example - league Seasons:
*MLS plays from March-October.
*NASL currently uses a split season May-July / Aug-Nov. Unknown if that will continue after 2013.
*USL Pro plays from March-Aug.
Each league also plays a different number of total games. This is due in part to the number of teams in the league, and well as distances between other teams and related travel expense, among other reasons...

Next, the distribution of lower division teams is predominantly East of the Mississippi River.
*8 of 19 MLS teams are West of the Miss. (8 of 20 in 2015)
*2 of 8 NASL teams are West of the Miss. (3 of 13 in 2015)
*2 of 13 USL-Pro teams are West of the Miss. (4 of 15 in 2014)
Obviously the 4 teams in NASL/USL-Pro are at a disadvantage when playing other teams in the league since they have to travel greater distances. Even within the MLS it's been a matter of record that teams traveling to the opposite coast have struggled getting results, so much so that last year the MLS implemented an imbalanced schedule to compensate for the east/west divide and related travel problems.

Thus the Second issue facing Pro/Rel in the US is creating enough lower division teams in the west to create a fair balance. It may be asking too much that every region in the US is represented in one league, but between the top three it should be possible.

Lastly infrastructure. For the most part lower division teams play in college Football stadiums or older stadiums originally intended for Football, very few were designed (or refitted) with Soccer in mind. The capacity of the vast majority of these stadiums is well below 20,000 which is considered 'average' for the MLS - thus if a lower division team is promoted they'll be losing out on significant revenue unless they can either expand their stadium capacity or find a larger place to play. However this goes along with average attendance at lower division games -
Average attendance for MLS (as of July 20th 2013): 17,991
Average attendance for NASL (spring season): 4,803
Average attendance for USL-Pro (per wikipedia, no timeframe listed): 2,743

Direct comparison of attendance is flawed since there aren't the same number of teams in each league. We can look at the best/worst crowds for a slightly better example. The largest crowd at an NASL game this year was 8,177; for the USL-Pro it was 9,589. The lowest MLS attendance this year was 6,801 (Dallas vs Chivas), and it remains to be seen if Chivas will remain in MLS after 2013...

The upcoming expansion in the lower divisions will help to boost the averages as new fan bases are added, so it will bear watching over the next few years. But even with the new teams it's a catch-22 situation - teams can't afford to do extensive advertising/publicity, but they can't increase attendance without it. They can't afford (and have no reason) to expand stadiums if they don't draw the larger crowds, and in some cases they can't draw larger crowds without expanding.

Thus if lower division teams can't attract new fans they can't improve their infrastructure, and without improving the infrastructure AND fanbase promotion is out of reach. Many lower division teams will need help to overcome these hurdles.

Those are the three main reason I see why it's going to take quite a while before the US is ready for Promotion/Relegation. Could it happen? Sure - but a LOT of things have to fall into place before we get to it. Given the current state of things, I'm not going to hold my breath on something that is decades away at best.