Does MLS need promotion-relegation? Part two: A way it could work

It’s our turn to weigh in. Before the 2015 Major League Soccer season starts, SoccerGods is taking its turn with the promotion-relegation trope – the interminable debate about whether the United States and Canada should fall in line with much of the soccer world and move to a multi-tiered league system.

What does that mean? Why does it matter? Should we give in and love it forever, or blow it up and walk away, like we’re Wolverine? Steve Davis may not be able to answer all of those questions, but here, in part two of three, he considers how promotion and relegation would be possible within MLS’s closed system.


It would be unfair and probably inaccurate to say that some system of promotion-relegation cannot work in the United States. Rather, what we can say is that the type of system that’s practiced in most places around the world would be a very hard sell for Major League Soccer. At this point, owners aren’t going to get on board with a format that could cost their team its place in the league.

But! … there is a variation of promotion-relegation that might, just might, function in some version of Major League Soccer’s distant future. We’re talking at least 10 or 15 years down the road, when MLS can safely reach a larger footprint of 30 or so clubs. In five years, Major League Soccer hopes to have 24 teams within its ranks. Having a league as big as the National Basketball Association or Major League Baseball may not be that far off.

More: What’s pro-rel? We explain it to you like you’re a six-year-old

Meanwhile, chew on this: The actual concept of promotion-relegation isn’t really the problem when it comes to potential adoption here. But for such a framework to function in Major League Soccer, it will require “adaption” more than simple “adoption.”

But a different model may well be possible. For it to be workable, we’d need something that includes:

– An MLS that reached 30 teams, minimum. Anything smaller, and there’s almost no use splitting teams into two tiers. And as we’ll see below, the number 30 carries a few special charms.

– All teams would need to be part of MLS, although a limited number would compete each season in the second tier. This carries all the benefits of sharing revenue, being a partner in MLS’s marketing arm, Soccer United Marketing (and getting in on that group’s payouts) and leveraging the perks that come with a single-entity structure.

– An unbalanced split between the two leagues; say, 20 teams at the top, and 10 teams in the second division. This keeps the upper league similar to what we have now, while the struggling souls of Major League Soccer can settle into a second tier and regroup.

– Movement between the two tiers would have to be fairly extensive, with four or perhaps even five moving up each year, and an equal number taking the sad tumble down. This business of teams getting stuck for long periods in a lower tier would be rare, if it happened at all. Those that do settle at the bottom (your Chivas USAs of the world) would probably have bigger problems than pro-rel.

— Teams would play “cross-over” schedules. That is, clubs from the top tier would face those from the second tier.

That’s the basic outline; here’s how it comes together:

Rather than a traditional system of more-or-less equally populated tiers, Major League Soccer could have a top tier and a smaller second-level. We might keep referring to the first division as Major League Soccer and then brand the lower level as “MLS Premier” or “MLS Select,” or whatever. MLS (the top tier) would compete for MLS Cup, while the smaller, second tier would essentially be competing only for promotion.

That may sound like a consolation prize, but have you ever seen fans celebrate their team’s promotion? Tell them they didn’t win something major:

Either way, we get the benefits of promotion-relegation: those dramatic “relegation matches” as teams battle to dodge the lesser level; the elation of that end-of-season win that vaults your team back to the top tier. And because so many teams will have a chance to swap divisions, the truly meaningless matches in both tiers will be kept to a minimum.

MORE: Lower league realities leave pro-rel warriors fighting the wrong battle

Doing things this way also avoids one of the major problems with promotion-relegation: scaring away potential ownership. In this structure, owners certainly wouldn’t want to tumble into the second tier, but the threat wouldn’t be so severe that they would run away from MLS and the potential financial blow of getting stuck in basement divisions. That’s important, because attracting and retaining the right kind of owners is critical to professional soccer’s ongoing stability and growth. If you don’t think poor ownership can be a serious drag on the league, you don’t know your MLS history.

That’s where the movement between tiers becomes important. Knowing your team can bounce back quickly makes it easier to weather the storm. So the system would have four or five teams move up and four or five teams would move down, annually. Yes, that is more movement than we see in most leagues. But MLS doesn’t have the big stacks of history to lean on. Unbound by tradition, U.S. Soccer’s designated top tier can forge a more modern arrangement.

Even more unconventionally, teams would cross over tiers in scheduling. It’s an element – perhaps one of several – that traditionalists will see as anathema. But it’s a key component. For MLS owners to buy in and to help all clubs retain fan interest in leaner years, they would need to know that the next Thierry Henry or David Beckham or Kaka would be coming to their city and their facility once every two years, at very least.

How scheduling works from there gets tricky, but it probably means some sort of regional “pods.” Maybe the top tier ends up sticking with conferences. Either way, clubs in the top tier could play twice against the nine other teams in its region and then meet the 10 other clubs once. Then top-tier clubs would meet each team from the second tier once, creating a 38-game schedule (for a 30-team league).

In the second tier, all 10 teams would meet each other twice (double-round robin). Add in one match against each member of the top-tier, and they, too, get a 38-game schedule. See how neatly that works? Almost as if it’s meant to be.

MORE, Part one: Does MLS need pro-rel?

A few other details would need sorting out – like the share of television revenue – but that’s the essential framework. It’s a system that allows all teams to remain under Major League Soccer’s single-entity structure, and one that might assuage most ownership concerns. If the benefits of promotion-relegation are deemed so valuable, this is one way to get it done.

You may not like the thought of “assuaging concerns” when it comes to the filthy rich, but that’s the world we live in. If the owners withdraw interest and investment, well, it all goes away. Then we’re back to watching minor league soccer in narrow high school stadium fields.

Like it or not, the people who’ve bought into Major League Soccer want to protect what they’ve built. That’s why any conventional idea of pro-rel maybe a non-starter. But more on that tomorrow.


Tuesday, part one: Does MLS need promotion-relegation?
Thursday, part three: Why we will probably never see it

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