Buying Bricks When You Don’t Need a Wall: Promotion and Relegation in the USA

The time: the late 1800s.  The place: England.  Association Football is on the rise.  Fans eagerly congregate to watch their neighbourhood clubs battle it out on surfaces fashioned of grass, clay, mud and asbestos.  All manner and colour of unidentifiable fog clouds from whichever toxic industrial plant happens to be nearby, float majestically over proceedings.

Fine athletes raised on pie, chips, cigarettes and beer, sport immaculately sculpted handlebar mustaches, their coifs a spectacle of center-parted wonder.

It is an age when shorts that stop above the knees are deemed unchristian; passing instead of dribbling, unmanly.  The ball is constructed of a pigs bladder, leather, lead and concrete.

It was a world where a fifteen mile radius was the universe.  The team you had was the team you watched.  As a result, they sprung up everywhere.  Every institution had a team: the local pub, the dock workers, the town leisure center.  They were the pride of the community.

When it came time for a national league to be formed, there were dozens if not hundreds of these teams across the country.  A select few would be elected to the inaugural Football League but there were many viable contenders that could challenge that collection.  Before long the Football Alliance was added.  The league was now overfilled, so a second division was formed.  Nottingham Forest, Newton Heath and The Wednesday were placed in the top flight.  The short-lived but briliantly-named Middlesbrough Ironopolis were placed in the second.

Along with this new division, came a system.  A method of determining which team ought to compete in which division.  That system was promotion and relegation.

As the years wore on, the Football League’s divisions increased as the hordes of solid, viable teams joined the structure.  A football “pyramid” was formed.  The FA saw what they had created and it was good.  This would be a rare feeling for the FA from that moment on.

Promotion and relegation: a method for shuffling teams around divisions based on merit and ability.  Ideal for incorporating 19th century England’s myriad of clubs into a central, national league system and used to good effect in similar situations worldwide.  But I ask you: at what cost?

When MLS formed in 1996, it didn’t have hordes of appropriately sized and structured football teams strewn across the USA.  In fact, rather than having a large collection of such teams to fit into the new league, they actually had to start some of their own to populate it.

Oh and the kits they wore!  “Horrible” is too gentle a term.  “Horrendous”, too vague.  I don’t think “Hellish” would be overstating it.  It was as if they were born of a satanic coupling between Beelzebub and Timmy Mallet‘s wardrobe designer.

Anyhoo, with Major League Soccer building teams from scratch, there were certainly not enough viable teams to form so much as a second division from which to pull promotees.  There still aren’t. On top of that, America still smarted from the implosion of the old NASL.  The sport was infamously underappreciated here.  For that reason, MLS decided to go with what the population were familiar with and chose the tried-and-true closed system with regional conferences and playoffs.

That in a nutshell is why promotion and relegation isn’t appropriate for MLS today.  The clubs simply aren’t there to make such a system worthwhile.  It is effectively a system designed to overcome a situation that US soccer doesn’t have.

Then there is the reason why regardless of all that, they won’t have promotion and relegation any time soon: expansion fees and owner investment.  There was a time when most teams in the league were owned by either Lamar Hunt or Phil Anschutz.  Furthermore, those fellas were basically bankrolling the league in its infancy.  Imagine telling those guys that after financially propping up a league for two decades, they could potentially wind up not having a team playing in it.  How about the owners of New York City FC who just paid a $100m expansion fee?  Or the owners of Orlando City SC who shelled out $70m?  “Thanks for the fees fellas but you finished bottom – say hi to NASL for us!”.

So at this point, promotion and relegation is something that MLS doesn’t need and MLS won’t choose to implement.  There are no current tangible problems that it would actually solve and plenty that could arise from simply trying it.  And yet, as I watched the MLS Cup final at the StubHub center on that December afternoon, I spied a plane overhead towing a banner reading “PRO/REL NOW MLS!”.

You know when I asked “at what cost?” earlier?  This is the cost.  It may seem trivial to the overseas observer but in the United States of America, the Major League Soccer “Pro/rel” debate is a harrowing entity.  From overhead planes (are there any other kind?) through self-indulgent soccer blogs (what?) to internet forums, this malevolent beast takes hold.

If Bob Geldoff was only aware of this, he would doubtless be moved to swear at people and rearrange the lyrics of a thirty-year-old song over it.

Ordinary, right-minded people lose all sense of comprehension in these debates.  People who who could stare into the depths of hell without flinching, perhaps even watch the 1996 kit unveiling without feeling nauseous, have torn their own eyes out after reading BigSoccer threads thousands of posts long on the topic.  Debaters driven to insanity is not uncommon.

It’s a bizarrely passionate subject for something that has no real practical use under the status quo.

Some of it comes from those born in nations where soccer is king and pro/rel is the familiar system and is argued from a philosophical standpoint.  That standpoint has merit but it doesn’t overcome the substantial, unnecessary risks that MLS would expose itself to by instituting the practice.

Other sources come from observing it as “the done thing” in Europe and seem to clamour for it on that basis.  To them I say: read my examples above as to why that system isn’t useful in this country right now.

Frankly, I think there’s merit in a conversation on outlawing the creation of polls on the topic.

In all seriousness, I write this because it’s a debate that rages on with little merit.  Will this post put a stop to it?  I doubt it.  It’s like the Eagle’s Farewell Tour – you assume it’s going to end some time but it never does.

I guess at least now I have something to link to, next time the subject is raised.


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