Okay, here is some new vocabulary for the unsoccery people:
Promotion and Relegation, often used together and sometimes abbreviated Pro/Rel. It is a pretty contentious point in American soccer fandom.
So, over in þe olde Ængaland and – well – the rest of the world Association Football uses this system that would be completely alien to Americans: promotion and relegation. What it means is that the soccer season doesn’t end in a championship (there are cups for that) it just ends. Someone comes in first and someone comes in last and there are teams inbetween. What happens is that the lowest ranking team(s) get sent down a tier (relegation) and the highest ranking team(s) get sent up a tier if possible (promotion).
Now this means a lot: first it means that minor teams with enough cash and support can grow and spend even a season or two at top-tier earning extra TV cash. It also means that for weak teams every match is a battle and it ensures interest remains in the club through two general means: first if you lose everything, there is a good chance next year you’ll have a better season (because your opponents will be weaker) and it also means that up to the end fans are watching and praying that you don’t get relegated.
A lot of American soccer fans grew up not watching MLS, but EPL (English Premier League). Now that America’s MLS is picking up in popularity EPL fans are calling for their beloved pro/rel to make the jump across the sea.
People are very divided on this issue and some people (myself included) are divided even within themselves because pro/rel isn’t all good. So lets talk pros and cons and then move onto how I think America can realistically adopt pro/rel.
First, like I said, it makes smaller clubs viable. It encourages people to root for more than just the big team from the big city 500 miles away. In the USA in every sport there are 20-ish teams and that is it. You have to pick the one closest to you, or the one that your father’s brother’s wife’s cousin played for that one year before blowing out his knee.
If done correctly this means MORE not less money for the the league. FC Butte is almost assuredly NOT going to be a power player. But the people of Butte are probably also not going to too many Sounders matches. They are passively watching on TV or the internet. Stick FC Butte into the picture and likely they’ll go to a few games a year. A supporter or ultra will go to quite a few more. And then they’ll still probably watch the Sounders game on TV. In economics terms: we are far from true market saturation in the United States.
Next – it stops stupid one sided and worthless matches from becoming common OR forces owners to actually invest in their teams. Basically it helps “settle” the market and encourages more investment. A team with an owner who is risk-adverse might settle into a lower tier. If the owner wants to keep challenging other local clubs they’ll have to invest. No more owners taking supporters for granted. If they don’t invest the team might slide and that might mean fewer tickets sold. So in a city like Cleveland, with only the Browns, tier 2 might not be a bad idea. People will still go, the Browns might do better with teams of similar stature and everyone wins. On the flip side the Cubs now need real investment, their in-town rivals the White Sox might steal fans away if they get relegated. That means this whole mentality of “as long as Wrigley is filled” undergoes a drastic change – win or die. That’s good for fans and supporters.
This also could potentially add space for talented players who are not necessarily great. So long as lower tiers pay living wages it means the fear of “do I play the sport I love and risk starving” or “do I get a job I hate and eat every night” sort of vanishes and that might be good for developing talent. However, it means we as Americans have to reevaluate how we look at sports as a career option, which I’ll discuss in the cons.
So as I just said, this requires a HUUUUUUGE change in how Americans view sports as a career option and how players should develop as well as tiered leagues.
Right now in America it is essentially pros or nothing. Yeah yeah, minor league baseball. You know who watches minor league baseball? No one.
What about minor league soccer, Nick? You know who watches minor league soccer? Hipsters and soccer purists. Sorry to say it, but that is sort of it. I know at least one fireman who is likely ringing his fists waiting for a chance to put my neck in there. There isn’t really a market for low tier soccer in the USA. Not enough to guarantee TV spots.
But Nick, Indy 11 is on TV and sold out every game. First: yeah, their stadium is tiny. Second: that really just goes back to what I am saying: the soccer market in the United States is far, far from saturated. So call it the exception that proves the rule. Indianapolis is exactly what MLS should look for in a tier 2 city. Big-ish. Passionate. Lacking in a lot of other sports (they have the Colts and they have minor league baseball IIRC).
A huge drawback is America is HUUUUUUUUGE. Like gargantuan. Germany is one of the larger states in Europe and it is half the size of Texas. HALF! This makes travel really hard and really expensive. Small teams will probably need to have travel subsidized, which no league wants to deal with. In lower tiers, with regional play, travel is no problem. But what happens when our hypothetical FC Butte is promoted to a non-regional tier? Now they are flying to Tampa and El Paso and shit, none of those teams want to fly to fucking Butte (sorry Butte, I’m sure you’re beautiful but I’m not queuing to visit your lovely vistas).
There is also the potential to introduce yo-yo teams. This isn’t necessarily bad, but it can be annoying. Usually when pro/rel supporters talk about their system it is this beautifully fluid system with all sorts of teams floating around. But its not. The cream floats to the top, the shit sinks to the bottom. Manchester United is not being relegated any time soon without something cataclysmic happening. Rangers from SPL got sent to (what?) tier 4? And they are rising back to the top with a nearly unprecedented speed. Why? Because the quadruple relegation was unprecedented.
A yo-yo team is a team that is too good for tier n but not good enough for tier n-1. That means one season they are #1 and promoted, the next they are #20 and relegated. Repeat forever. FC Augsburg over in Germany used to be a good example of this. They are actually currently #4 in Bundesliga as of my last update. So I guess a good example (according to wikipedia) is Norwich, I’m sure some Norwich fan will correct me. I don’t see Americans dealing with yo-yo teams. But that goes to the first point: the mentality as a whole is not ready for this system.
So to wrap up this rambling with the biggest con: lower tiers have to fight college sports. Americans love a few things (in no particular order): Guns, Jesus, Reagan, Boobs, and College Sports. Unless you went to Purdue and gave up ever winning a bowl, you fucking love college sports. Fuck I did go to Purdue and gave up ever winning a bowl and I FUCKING LOVE WATCHING ME SOME COLLEGE SPORTS!
A low tier is going to have to fight college sports first for viewers and then for players. The NCAA is a big monster to fight. But this goes back to the very top of the cons pile: we see sports as pros or nothing. These kids HAVE to go to college. They cannot all be super stars, right? They need to have a back up! That is not a mentality or a societal norm that is going to change overnight because someone paid $500 to fly a banner over a single MLS match. That is an Olympus Mons sized hurdle we will have to climb.
So? Where do we go?
So? How does America catch the pro/rel fever? More cowbell? More left-over European players? Jürgen Klinsmann?
No. First there are bigger hurdles to handle. First we need to stop the cluster fuck of trading and DPs and regulations concerning the movement of players between clubs. This is necessary so we mesh better with other leagues. Then we need to adopt the same trading windows. HOWEVER. We should not adopt their calendar. This is mostly because Europe is a lot warmer than the US in the winter, so while they can still reasonably move around in December/February, we cannot. Storms and freeze-ins is a real thing.
I think that We should use the winter as our “off season” period. Summer can be our mid-season break for trading. This gets players out of the sun when the heat is at the worst in places like Texas and California. This way our trading windows sync up with Europe better and we don’t have to travel in the snow. Both wins.
Once we get better trading and a better transfer window the USSF (US Soccer Federation, our version of the FA) will have to work with the existing leagues to be open to the idea of pro/rel. They are going to want to see cash, cold hard funbucks. This means all those people clamoring for pro/rel need to get out to and watch some low tier soccer now. If the MLS/NASL/USSF sees the money at the bottom, they’ll want a piece.
Once they’ve been shown the potential for income they’ll have to restructure themselves. MLS is a “single entity” meaning the owners are actually investors, they don’t own their team they rent it from the MLS. The MLS will have to devolve into a standard league structure within the USSF. This can actually happen over night. The actual guts of the issue is simple – give the people in control actual control. The hard part is getting the MLS to want to let go.
Then after that the USSF needs to come up with a real, official structure. This means a) drawing a concrete line between pro and amateur, no more semi-pro on the pyramid. It also means b) getting these leagues to play along. Same schedule, same windows, same pool of players, and very real lines of promotion and relegation. Then throw in some cups to have fun. The Lamar Hunt Cup is our “Open Cup” and then throw in a few more, one for the lower leagues, one for everyone but the top. That’ll be nice. Cups, for the uninitiated, are tournies that run alongside the season. They are knock out and they let teams play teams they might not normally play as well as funnel some cash into the lower leagues when teams like FC Butte play the Chicago Fire.
I imagine it like this: the NASF (North American Soccer Federation) has four tiers:
- Tier One – The NAPL
- Tier Two – The NACL 1
- Tier Three – The NACL 2
- Tier Four – The RPSL
- Under this is amateur
The MLS is renamed the North American Premier League, encompassing both the United States and Canada under the newly minted North American Soccer Federation. The NASF will NOT govern the national teams for either country, which is not how it usually works but I think the USA and Canada are best when their sports leagues work together – however at a national level we shouldn’t ever compete together.
This league would be the cream of the crop, 20 teams and no regional divisions. Once you get this high, you are in, you are the best, you got the cash to travel. Teams aren’t promoted from this league, but they can be relegated.
The NACL 1
The North American Champion’s League 1 is tier two. Their best go up to the NAPL and their worst go to the NACL 2. I like the British style of best/worst 3 with a play off for the fourth spot. This means the teams ranked 20, 19, and 18 in the NAPL are always relegated, 17 and 16 play a two-game series with the loser being relegated. The same applies here for 4 and 5 for going up. There are 20 teams here as well.
This league will also be non-regional, perhaps needing some about of subsidizing of travel costs. Teams here should be from medium to large markets like Cleveland from the beginning of this rant.
When a team is relegated into the NACL 2, it goes into its respective conference automatically. This means all teams (even those far from the threat of relegation) need to be pre-assigned a region.
The NACL 2
Things get complicated here. This is the first regional league made up of two leagues of with 20 teams each, divided east and west. This should NOT be based around “well two teams in Texas should be in opposite conferences” but rather travel costs. Each region plays their season in parallel. Their respective champions are both automatically promoted. Then the next four teams play parallel tournies to fill the second spot.
I’m just going to copy-paste the wiki article for the English pyramid (with changes as necessary):
The bottom three teams in each division relegated to the proper region as appropriate. If, after promotion and relegation, the number of teams in the East and West divisions are not equal, one or more teams are transferred between the two divisions to even them up again. This should start with teams previously transferred to the “wrong” side, then go go to teams closest to the other league.
The Regional Professional Soccer League rises out of the ashes of the NASL. It is divided into four regions: NW, SW, SE, NE of 20 teams each. Done. NPSL is nearly there as-is.
Six teams are promoted (each of the champions and then the top two from a play-off). There is no more relegation. Teams that fail economically have their place in line sold. Since the league doesn’t own the club, the club’s owners are economically liable as any company would be depending on structure and tax filing status and the league can easily wash their hands of the failure. Not their problem.
Like the above, if after the promotions leave and the incoming relegations arrive the regions are not even, they should be rebalanced as appropriate taking into account the same ideas as above – first move teams that have been moved into the “wrong” region into the “right” region, then start moving teams based on proximity.
So there. This is not as easy as most supporters of pro/rel would claim, but I also think that those in opposition aren’t in opposition for the right reason. As usual, the real reasons (cultural, economic, societal) are probably the real root causes of why pro/rel isn’t happening tomorrow.
From a business perspective, a bigger pool of players and a bigger pool of teams in a system that essentially automatically sends them to the level best suited for owners should be pretty attractive. the USSF/NASF has a lot to earn with so many more teams it just needs to stop being the dog wagged by the MLStail.
But the hurdles in the way are gargantuan. Breaking down the monopoly of the NCAA is an unspeakably difficult task. I think that a market for both can exist – with the NCAA encompassing the spirited amateur, people who are good but not looking to be pros and the actually pyramid holding those who are good and want to do it for a living.
The hard part will be getting the lower leagues to generation enough income to pay their players a living yearly wage. That isn’t necessarily hard either, but it does mean that people cannot just ignore their local NASL/USLPro/NPSL teams anymore. If you want promotion and relegation in the USA/Canada you HAVE to support your local teams. HAVE to. Stop traveling. Stop supporting a big team because they are closest and biggest. Support what you got. You cannot say: I support pro/rel and I’m a Chicago Fire fan from Indianapolis who has never been to Chicago, been close to Chicago, or have family from Chicago. Because you are shooting yourself in the foot.
So, I hope this was enlightening and look forward to all the good this will do for my traff- I mean standing among people with opinions about sports.
It has been pointed out to me that relegated teams are given a “parachute” fund to help lessen the blow of decreased TV revenue. This can actually make relegation lucrative if done “correctly.” I don’t really want to talk numbers or money – first it is easy to get wrong, second I don’t want people thinking I crunched the numbers. How you split TV profits and assist teams being relegated is up to organizations like the USSF and might be handled differently depending on where you go. For example – a big benefit from going from the NACL 1 to NACL 2 in my examples is a big decrease in travel costs, which can help off-set a loss in TV profits.
If you haven’t picked up the nuance and difficultly surrounding adopting a new system from everything above, I’m sure this isn’t going to help it any.