Promotion and Relegation?
The debate for the ages within the North American soccer landscape and specifically in relation to the MLS
The great debate of North American soccer enthusiasts: Promotion versus Relegation. Arguably since the early days of pro soccer the idea within the North American soccer landscape has been an ongoing debate (I’m talking specifically in reference to USA/Canada). Yet, roughly 100 years later North American soccer still does not have promotion and relegation at any level. This is made all the more curious by the fact that the pro/rel system is a system of league organization that is widely used throughout the world. Further still the fact that it is not part of MLS league makeup makes MLS one of the few first-division professional soccer leagues in the world where clubs don't have to fear of getting dropped to a lower league. But the question is why the resistance? Sports after all feed on drama and what better way to add drama than to include a tried and true method to a league looking to attract more fans. The way I see it promotion and relegation is not some monumental hurdle that can’t be overcome but one that has too many excuses as to why it can’t be accomplished.
The biggest hurdle many skeptics point to has to do with the MLS league structure. MLS, is rare in that the league is structured as a single-entity league. What does that mean? To those not familiar with the term it means that the league and all the teams that comprise it are actually considered and are formally defined as one company. This in turn means that teams within MLS essentially functioning as distinct offices or branches of the league. In turn the owners of these teams are given the exclusive ability to license and operate a club as a subsidiary of MLS. The owners then in effect act as shareholders of MLS.
However, for many within the anti Promotion/Relegation camp this organizational structure is viewed as positive. Those who are against promotion/relegation use the main point of entry costs. Pointing specifically to the towering cost of the Expansion Fee (currently set at $325 million) as a road block to installing pro/rel structure. They back this up by going on to say that the idea would undermine those teams who paid these fees. But using these points as away to prove pro/rel can’t be done is a soft point at best. Promotion and relegation is more than that. It is about expanding competition and allowing the minnows of a league to have a chance to slay Goliath’s and be rewarded. It’s about not limiting entry to the top flight of a country’s soccer league pyramid to only the ridiculously rich who can afford the exorbitant expansion fees but opening the prospect of playing at the highest level to all teams and cities down the lower rungs of the soccer league ladder. I know that in the last five years alone there has been numerous articles that detail the Pros and Cons of Promotion and relegation format but I don’t intend to cover all those traditional points. Instead I wish to share my vision and possibile solution to the issue. My goal in this article is to lay out how the perceived hurdles to installing promotion/relegation can be overcome in away that could potentially benefit all parties. And how the obstacles aren’t in fact as Mount Everestesque as the leadership would like you to believe.
The Common Ground
Let’s get a few talking points out of the way. The ones I think every one can agree on.
- The USSF structure is a colossal mess and needs to be addressed and cleared up in order for more progress can be made in regards to soccer gaining further popularity.
- Promotion and Relegation works in the rest of the world.
- Money distribution is the crux of the issue to promotion and relegation getting adopted.
- The MLS expansion catters to the extremely wealthy and leaves those teams unable to fork up the expansion fee on the outs. I.e USL teams in smaller markets.
So when it comes to Promotion/Relegation there are two main systems that most leagues emulate. The English system and the German System. That is not to say there aren’t others but they tend to be more complicated. The Spanish System is a complicated one and far to lengthy to go into detail. But for the most part the other major football leagues of Europe, South America, Asia and Africa follow the a similar format to the two formats mentioned. So, for simplicity sake I will focus on the two mentioned above.
The English Way
- Premier League (aka level 1): The bottom three teams in the league table at season end are relegated to the English Football League Championship (aka level 2)
- English Football League Championship: Top two clubs in the league table at season end are automatically promoted; teams 3 through 6 in the table compete in a promotion playoff.
- The team in the third place on the table plays the sixth placed team in a two leg (2 game) series. With the first leg being held at the home of the lower placed team (6th place) and the second leg being held at the home of the team that finished highest 3rd place). This is repeated for the teams that finished second highest (4th place) and second lowest (5th place).
- The winner of these series is decided by the team's aggregate (combined) score after the two legs. If the score is tied on goals at the end of the 90 minutes of the second leg, then an additional 30 minutes of extra time is played to try and ensure a winner. If the score at the end of extra time is still tied then the game goes to penalty kicks.
- Once a winner is decided. The two winning teams play in a Final game to decide who gets promoted to the higher league.
The German Way
- The bottom two finishers in the Bundesliga are automatically relegated to the 2nd Divsion (2. Bundesliga) with the top two finishers in the 2. Bundesliga taking their places.
- The third-from-bottom club in the Bundesliga plays a two-legged tie with the third-placed team from 2. Bundesliga, with the winner taking the final open place in the Bundesliga for the upcoming season.
The New MLS Structure
Now that you have a picture of the two systems you might be wondering where do we go from here? Well, the solution has to be as unique as the MLS. So, I propose a hybrid of the English and German systems. A blend of the best attributes of both formats. But what would that be and how would it be implemented?
Since the MLS has two conferences (West and East) I suggest the following as far as the new format. The top seven teams in each MLS conference would still remain eligible for the traditional playoff spots. However, the top two teams in each conference would gain automatic berths in the CONCACAF Champions League. The rules for qualification for both competitions remaining the same as before. So, no feathers ruffled just yet. But here is where I diverge from the norm. The combined bottom six teams (3 lowest from each conference) would play a short two leg playoff.
The bottom six teams (bottom three from each conference) would play a head to head two leg series to decide their fates. With the rules following the same line of thought as the English Relegation. The six teams would be seeded based on their respective positions within their conference tables with goal differential being the deciding factor who gets a higher seed.
The highest seeded team would play against the lowest seeded team. With the first leg being played at the home of the lowerst placed team and the second leg being held at the home of the team that finished highest. Just like in the English promotion scenario. The three losers of the two legged ties would then end up getting relegated to USL Championship.
Which brings us to USL Championship promotion. Since this league is set up like MLS in that it has two conferences it would make sense to follow a similar line of succession as that which I laid out for relegation from MLS.
In my scenario the top teams from each conference (Western and Eastern conferences) in the USL Championship would be granted with automatic promotion. Since the hard work of being top of the league should be rewarded and incentiveized. Those teams in the 2nd and third spots in their respective conference would then play a home and away series for the final two open MLS spots. Promotion from USL Championship would therefore have a playoff type feel to it which caters to the current MLS post-season format.
The benefit of both of these setups is that the additional games would generate income for the clubs in the Relegation Zone through additional ticket sales and TV revenue. With the idea that the income could lessen the blow for each of the franchises should they end up going down. But many might ask what about the loss of money for owners? (I of course have an answer for that. 😄)
The Money Issue
Unlike many I don’t think relegation has to mean that MLS teams have to necessarily lose a ton of money. The scenario could play out as follows. The MLS could make promotion payout for teams be let’s say $5 million. No small drop in the bucket. And for those teams that do end up getting relegated the loss in revenue could cost a team -2 million. Let’s chalk that up to TV money or something of the sorts. But if a team is unable to stave off relegation the league awards them say 1.5 million. This payment would allow the relegated to be compensated with a series of parachute-payments, like in the English system, to help ease the blow of dropping down a tier.
Something along these lines might make the whole idea more attractive to all owners but still have some kind of cost for tanking. The promoted would reap the rewards of increased visibility and revenue. In addition, new regional rivalries might be born as teams from the lower tier slay their regional giants of MLS. The possibilities of dramatic late comebacks and agonizing defeats is endless. And I can only see the clubs and media alike benefiting from this new drama. Because after all what do North Americans love more than freedom but a story of an underdog beating the odds!