Pro/Rel: The Politics

The politics of promotion and relegation in the USA.

At times they can be uglier than a “United Passions” review.

I’ve already covered the basic premise for why many believe the system will never be adopted in America.  I’ve also posted my own thoughts on some of the more prominent arguments for it.

This time, we delve into the dark underbelly of the “debate” and touch on the reasons why many feel the well has been poisoned and why many others would rather actually watch United Passions than ever discuss the topic ever again.

The most political arguments against pro/rel are that the concept is somewhat foreign to mainstream America, that the domestic top flight (let alone the rest of the structure) is not quite out of the woods in terms of permanent viability, that the landscape is simply not ready and perhaps most important of all, MLS owners would not easily accept it.

Pro/Rel advocates are given to shooting down the “foreign concept” argument without a second thought.  Their argument is that large scale viewership in the US for the Premiership and Liga MX, means that soccer fans are certainly au fait with the concept.  Furthermore, they claim that the football-watching community is sufficient enough that we don’t actually need to woo mainstream America anymore.

On the former argument: fair point.  If you’re watching those leagues or indeed any outside the US, you’re likely familiar with pro/rel.

On the latter: Betty Swallocks.  In soccer terms, Liga MX & EPL viewership are indeed doing well in the ratings.  Then again, that’s like saying that next to Billy Gardell, I’m trim. In the grand scheme of things, soccer ratings are generally still mediocre.

This also runs into the nonsensical proposition that many of these fans are only failing to watch because of “MLS and its oddball, Americanised rules”.  A point I’ll be touching on later on is that many of these people in my honest opinion, use the quirkier aspects of MLS as an excuse to put it down.  Adding pro/rel is not going to directly address the real reasons that many of those people aren’t watching.

The prospect of MLS not being necessarily here to stay and the fact that obstacles remain, is something of a double-edged sword for either side of this debate.  If MLS still needs protecting, is it truly viable in the long run anyway?  Conversely, if there are financial issues, then it’s no time for opening it up to the uncertainty of pro/rel.

The truth is, it’s not that easy to know exactly how healthy MLS truly is.  Commissioner Don Garber certainly played up the financial issues during the last Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations.  Then again, that statement was specifically made to leverage the MLS owners’ stance against massive salary increases.  There are also other factors that I’ll come back to that actually offer significant assurance that MLS has a solid measure of security.

The landscape not being ready, is an argument I strongly subscribe to.  I’m not seeing major overlaps in terms of playing quality, resources and infrastructure between MLS and either NASL or USL.  Where minor overlaps may exist, those clubs are regularly in the conversation for expansion and would certainly seem to be under very serious consideration.  Detractors will tell you this is simply MLS being “predatory” and “poaching” the best bits of rival leagues.  I’d argue that access for such clubs is precisely what they claim to fight for and that “rival leagues” would be the antithesis of an appropriate environment for pro/rel.  Not to mention that new NASL and USL owners (even NPSL & PDL owners on occasion) will quite regularly claim that they’ve started the team with MLS expansion in mind.

The existing MLS ownership is a practical issue and one that pro/rel advocates are often dismissive of, almost to the point of negligence.  The broadest school of thought from such groups is that governing bodies, such as the USSF, CONCACAF and FIFA decree such things and the owners have no say.  Technically, that’s somewhat accurate.  Practically… well where did MLS come from in the first place?  For those that don’t know, the award of the 1994 World Cup to the United States came with a stipulation from FIFA.  The stipulation was that they once again set up a major football league; something they hadn’t truly had since the NASL collapsed in 1984.  MLS was the result and USSF courted a number of owners, some of whom are not only still in-house today but have poured hundreds of millions into not only setting up the league but at times, into just keeping it afloat.  Indeed, back in 2002, MLS avoided folding by the skin of its teeth.  It was reportedly the late Lamar Hunt (also the man who coined the term “Super Bowl”) who persuaded the other owners to keep it going.  Hunt himself and Phil Anschutz actually owned multiple MLS teams simultaneously for a time, as they, along with Don Garber and his SUM initiative (more on that later), coaxed the league back from the brink.

There would almost certainly be serious fallout if the USSF, CONCACAF and/or FIFA simply thrust pro/rel onto the owners.  For a start, they could claim that MLS under the close watch and endorsement of the USSF, sold them a permanent place at the top table and that pro/rel could be seen as a bait-and-switch.  The large capital calls, expansion fees, shared revenues and who-know-what-else would be pointed to and questions asked as to why other clubs could now be admitted without comparable outlay.

Simply put, it would be ugly and potentially damaging.  This is why any realistic approach needs to take this group into account and no, I don’t think that giving them the option of joining a mandated pro/rel pyramid, losing D1 sanctioning or being bought out, is going to do it.  Not least because it is basically passive-aggressive coercion to compliance, omission or a hostile takeover.

The political arguments for pro/rel are many and varied.  A popular one is the ethical argument, the principal of “sporting merit”.  This is often accompanied by reference to FIFA Statute #9, conveniently titled “The Principal of Promotion and Relegation”.

Statute 9.1 calls for access for clubs to a national title, either by way of participating in a national competition (as far as I know, every nation uses a league system currently), or theoretically having the opportunity to participate in it, via a process such as pro/rel.

Sounds pretty damning, until you read 9.2, which allows for provisions regarding financial, stadium and infrastructure requirements.  Just about every league on the planet has entry requirements. Only last season, Elche got relegated from La Liga despite finishing midtable, for failing to sustain financial requirements (as an aside, a team that the pro/rel advocacy group have been championing recently – Eibar – would have been relegated had this not occurred… sporting merit?) and Bournemouth had stadium-related worries that may have prevented their recent promotion to the Premiership had they not been resolved.

As it stands, MLS is actively admitting or considering just about every team that meets certain criteria, anticipating going to at least 28 teams and many assume they will eventually go to 32, which is in line with other US leagues.  It can be strongly argued that even without pro/rel, MLS is giving annual access to the title by admitting teams as and when they become viable.  In fact, it’s anticipated that by the end of the decade, they’ll be providing that access to more competitors in a given year than most leagues, who of course rarely give the opportunity to more than 20 at a time.

Then there’s the more simplistic answer: FIFA won’t necessarily hold the USA to these statutes.  The body along with other football confederations, has a track record for making exceptions, particularly when a cultural norm is established.  The most famous of these is the status of the UK’s home nations participating as individual countries.  The same can be said of Welsh clubs playing in England, at least one English club playing in Scotland and the principality of Monaco playing in the French league.

Closed, regionally divided leagues, where all teams participate in a single tier, with playoffs and parity measures, are about as American as Hulk Hogan’s entrance music.

That seems a good place to bring up one of the nastier asides: the practice of some “Advocates” to declare the closed, collaborative nature of MLS, as “socialist”, “Un-American” and even “communist”.  Laughable and knowingly misleading.  It should be enough to point out that this system was popularized in the US.  Beyond that, while the layout of the competition is somewhat parity-based, this is in order to create a theoretically more entertaining product, that engages more of its followers on a regular basis, so as to make the league more commercially appealing to a wider audience.

You can question whether it meets those aims.  Using support of the system as a way to accuse US citizens of political leanings that may make them uncomfortable (as an Englishman, I personally believe that the ideal political system would take the best of both right- and left-wing philosophies), shows an insincerity towards true discussion. But more on these tactics later…

Another popular assertion is that by instituting pro/rel, opening up the structure and giving everybody an opportunity, we create a free market eco-system that will ‘without doubt’, lead to investment, youth development, innovation and goodness-know what other benefits.

I of course, covered those suppositions in my prior entry but the free market concept is worth revisiting.  It’s actually one of the more compelling of the arguments.  However, free market principles, while relatively straightforward to grasp, are not components of a crystal ball.  There are economics experts in this world, some of them bona fide geniuses who are employed to monitor and advise on economies and markets across the globe; people far more intelligent than you or I or possibly anyone on any side of this debate.  Even those people, with all their experience, intelligence and talent, can get it wrong.

Declaring that pro/rel is a no-brainer that would create all-of-the-above, is a tremendous fallacy.  As I pointed out previously, US soccer isn’t actually starving for investment.  It isn’t struggling to attract teams.  While the market may well encourage innovation and ideas, not all of those ideas are going to be good.  As Jorge Vergara and Chivas USA seemed to make a point of proving, some are absolutely atrocious.

Of course, the knowing response to all this is that the system doesn’t and won’t sustain all comers and that an opportunity available isn’t automatically an opportunity taken or even well-utilised.  That’s their point you see: when mistakes are made and incompetence is uncovered, there are consequences, repercussions, that’s the supposed beauty of it.  Except there’s more hanging in the balance than the occasional badly run club, or out-of-their-depth chocolate teapot owner.  There is stigma.

It has been claimed – as we all know – that soccer isn’t America’s game.  It doesn’t work here.  It always fails.  Well the components of failure are failed clubs.  When a certain leading light in the realm of pro/rel advocacy proclaims once again that we’ve had a hundred years of closed systems and they always fail, while elsewhere there are open pyramids that have never collapsed, it frustrates the hell out of me.

They aren’t the same animal.  Closed leagues tend to be more “hands on”.  More cohesive and symbiotic with their teams.  They aren’t really set up to have clubs rotate in and out of them.  That’s not what they’re there for.  Open leagues tend to be more passive in nature.  Clubs cycle in and out of them and they mainly provide a place to gather.  Neither is doing it wrong; just differently.  A key difference is that when teams in a closed league fail, the league loses its purpose.  It can incorporate new teams just like the open system if it wants but typically, unless there are like-for-like replacements standing by (rare) it doesn’t.  When the old NASL went away, there was no point in just populating the old frame with amateur teams or indoor teams.  It was meant to be a major sports league, so when it ceased (or failed period) to be one, it just shut it down.

Had the NASL been “open”, it would probably have ‘survived’.  However, it wouldn’t have likely made much difference to the history of American soccer. The teams that failed would have failed for the same reasons and been replaced with the same teams that ultimately populated the A-League that USSF decided not to go with in fulfilling FIFA’s mandate.

So failed clubs being components of failure.  A hypothetically relegated Chicago Fire may fail to retain its MLS support and fold.  It would be added to the list.  Not the list of semi-pro or lower league clubs in America that come and go without much fanfare.  This would be a former MLS club.   A former MLS champion.

When a team gets promoted only to discover it’s out its depth and folds (a common occurrence when promotion is adopted without a fully fleshed-out pyramid) it becomes another failed MLS club.  Suddenly the old familiarity of a struggling American top-flight and folding US soccer teams, has the market losing its faith.  A rotation of new teams in former top-tier markets smacks of the old NASL.  If you let the market decide, only for it to decide you implemented pro/rel too soon, it may be US soccer that feels those “repercussions”.

There are of course a few other angles here.  Some feel that the “D1” desgnation that MLS holds is baseless, as they aren’t a “division of anything”.  NASL in particular, have grumbled that being designated “D2” hurts their ability to compete with MLS.  This is in fact a common argument when it’s suggested (and I’ve suggested this myself) that if their commissioner Bill Peterson, truly wants as he claims a)Pro/rel and/or b)Equal footing with MLS, he should build his league and force whichever of these issues is convenient to him this week.

I for one, question the power of the D1 tag.  If you’re a fairly casual soccer fan in the US, you probably don’t even know about it.  If you know about it, you’re probably into the sport enough to know that it doesn’t really adorn MLS with any magical powers.  It’s simply a FIFA/CONCACAF requirement that a league (or leagues) be designated as the top tier for continental competition purposes.  Right now, a cyclops taking an Optrex bath (other eye-cleaning products are available) could see that MLS is stronger than NASL, so it actually benefits US soccer to have CONCACAF Champions League teams come from that league.

NASL are also perfectly welcome to apply for D1 designation themselves.  In fact, I think Mr Peterson may have already applied.  Furthermore, a leaked list of proposed changes to the D1 requirements had NASL upset enough to start talking about lawsuits.  Truth be told, all it turned out to be was a proposal and to date, those changes haven’t been adopted.  All of which is moot because NASL are currently complying with just a little more than the D2 requirements.

However, the episode was enough to have critics accusing USSF & MLS of moving the goalposts on NASL.

The fact that NASL (who themselves splintered from USL and aggresively shoved them down to D3 status) has had beefs with MLS and USSF (so that covers most of US pro soccer – be afraid ASL) has made them somewhat awkward darlings of the pro/rel crowd.  I’m a little surprised that in the few interviews I’ve heard or read with Commissioner Bill, nobody has actually asked him if his league’s owners would be up for letting their clubs relegate to USL.

They are though “the lesser of two evils” for some, what with them not having single entity and feeling besmirched by the USSF/MLS/SUM contingent.  Oh yes, SUM… Soccer United Marketing.  I guess now is a good time to go back to that.  SUM is the marketing wing of MLS.  It was started in 2002 by Don Garber in a bid to make money for MLS via… well, marketing soccer, basically.  And that it does.  Its clients if I recall correctly include Chivas Guadalajara, Barcelona, the Women’s and Men’s US national teams and (here’s the juicy bit) the USSF themselves.  This has allowed SUM to package USWNT & USMNT games with MLS games, to get the league a paying TV deal.  I don’t know all the details but because of this arrangement, MLS technically makes money when these teams play.

Remember I said there were certain securities that MLS has?  Well this is largely what I’m referring to.  Just like MLS, SUM’s cash-flow isn’t publicised and with good reason.  It seems to be estimated by those that care to comment, that whatever shortfall MLS may have in revenues, their SUM wing makes up for it, perhaps even pushing them into profit.  This seems like a smart and sensible arrangement between a federation and its major league.

However, the accusations of collusion and monopoly are focused here by MLS’s detractors.  Not only does the NASL (or any other potential competitor) have to “struggle” without D1 designation, it’s also claimed that MLS are being “subsidised” via their relationship with USSF – who should surely be an impartial mediator.  The suggestion is that the SUM/MLS/USSF relationship is a conflict of interests.

There may be something to this.  There may not.  You see, until such time as NASL meets the D1 requirements and becomes a co-D1, all USSF are doing is helping maintain and build their top tier.  Furthermore, MLS has a relationship with USL which they had previously offered to NASL.  NASL simply turned it down.

Of course NASL also don’t have pro/rel right now and I’m certain that if it were they at the top of the US soccer pile, the advocates would be railing against them.  However, they are convenient lightning rod to use for fleshing out MLS conspiracy theories.  The approach is simply to point at the one technical difference between the two: single entity status.

I once described this to my brother as “MLS is a thing and it owns everything”.  That was a terrible explanation.  Basically, for various legal and practical reasons, MLS is technically a single organization and its clubs are franchises.  The team owners (or franchisees) share a 50/50 cut of their team with MLS while also being major shareholders in the league itself with a vote in how things are run.  Like many legal set-ups, it’s just a corporate structure.  However, detractors like to read too much into this.  The most scathing characterization is that MLS is really just one club with various squads that puts on exhibition games in the form of a league.

My rebuttal is simply that this is pure spin, made to make the whole shebang seem much more sinister and/or fake than it truly is.  Remember that when Robbie Rogers came out of retirement the league wanted him. LA wanted him so his rights-holders Chicago (often accused of having apathetic owners), played hardball to the point that Rogers suggested he wouldn’t return if it wasn’t in LA, so the Galaxy gave up league MVP-in-waiting, Mike Magee to make it happen.  I doubt the Fire would have done that if it was all a happy gathering of exhibition clubs selling a WWE-style sports entertainment product.

Now by this point, is goes without saying that I am anti-pro/rel to the USA at this time.  I’ve also established (hopefully) that I am not against the concept or its application elsewhere.  In most places that use it, it does a fine job at fulfilling its purpose.  As I’ve said multiple times, if and when MLS is full and there are a decent number of viable teams outside it, pro/rel will be a sensible option and well worth considering; but not before.

While there is a clear bias here, I feel it is warranted.  The main reason I’m writing this is in reaction to what I see as a lot of hyperbole and misinformation about what pro/rel is and what it does and a lot of smear aimed at MLS and USSF.  It’s also in reaction to the tactics of some of the pro/rel movement.

As I alluded to earlier, there is a certain degree of nastiness and malice to these tactics.  In a number of exchanges, I’ve flat out been accused of lying about qualifications that I never claimed to have, not really being English, being an idiot, being a “bot”, not being a “proper” football fan and even having certain political leanings assumed.

The individuals in question frequently swarm any soccer topic on twitter that has even the most tenuous link to the subject.  They frequently impugn people’s integrity and enact smear campaigns against those who don’t share their views.  My theory is that they use twitter as their medium of choice because “jump higher, scream louder” approaches are more effective there.

That’s not to say that there aren’t good, rational people taking part in the discussion on either side.  However, the aforementioned parties and their chosen tactics, tend to eclipse and drown out sensible discussion most of the time.  This is how the well has been poisoned and why many choose to simply avoid the debate.

I’d like to wrap this up with a belief I have developed.  It’s far more than a theory and it seems to play out pretty often.  Something that frequently comes up in these engagements is the accusation that MLS is a very poor league.  Some argue that pro/rel will fix this while others argue that MLS should be pushed aside altogether and replaced with a separate pro/rel structure.

My usual response to the criticism of the standard of MLS is to ask what they consider to be an acceptable level.  More often than not, the answer is the Premiership, La Liga, the Bundesliga or Serie A.  This is an unreasonable demand.  Those nations have generations of history in the sport, huge revenues and the best players in the world.

In the “vibrant global soccer eco-system” that these folks claim to champion, there are hundreds of professional leagues.  MLS is easily within the top half of those leagues and in the grand scheme of things, of a very reasonable standard.

If MLS isn’t good enough, than neither is 90% of this vast system of leagues and clubs that they want the USA to be part of.

That gets me to the crux of my theory: these folks when pressed will often inform you that they want American “super clubs” that can compete globally, as well as a national team that can win the World Cup.

This flies in the face of all their other claims about Amercian lower leagues, opportunities for smaller clubs, the spirit of competition and so on.  This vast, open eco-system, has ultimately lead to a global hierarchy of haves and have-nots.  If you’re concerned that MLS has too much power over what happens to the domestic game, consider that the same could be said for the top leagues and clubs around the world.

Read up on rule changes within the English football and the Premiership’s influence on them.  Look at the TV deal in Spain, not to mention the periodic “Euro Super League” rumblings that occur whenever the “elite” want UEFA to restructure the Champions League for their benefit.

In world football, the most consistent predictor of success is relative wealth.  Before anybody cries “Leicester City”, note that they are the exception that proves the rule.  So entrenched are the biggest clubs that Leicester’s title win was unthinkable.  Don’t forget though that their success came in a season when the top clubs had uncharacteristically bad years.

Rich clubs can almost go out and cherry-pick players from around the globe.  Chelsea, Man City and PSG have proven that by having vastly more money than your opposition, you can effectively “buy” a title.  Yes, the teams still have to “do it on the field” but when you can just recruit the top managers and players by simply outbidding your rivals, it stands to reason that this is far easier to achieve.

It certainly doesn’t seem like the purest form of “sporting merit” to me.

While I’m sure some pro/rel advocates simply like the system and do believe in the suggested benefits, I believe that many more just resent that their nation and domestic league isn’t top of the pile.  I’m very sure that if MLS teams were competing strongly in the Club World Cup and fielding the best players in the world, many of these people wouldn’t give pro/rel or lower league US clubs a second thought.

The trouble is, “we want super rich clubs that dominate world football” isn’t that noble a cause to rally behind.  I feel that the gripe is actually that MLS, with its parity measures and salary caps limits the capacity for such clubs to emerge.  Campaigning for pro/rel is merely a political tool for tearing down what MLS is and reforming it into something that they feel will deliver what they want.

Painting MLS and USSF as monopolistic and predatory tyrants, while extolling the virtues of freedom, opportunity and sporting merit, will garner a lot more support and sympathy than campaigning for an American Real Madrid.

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2 thoughts on “Pro/Rel: The Politics

  1. These are all very good points, but also left out a couple of (IMO) key issues:

    1. TV contracts: Granted, the landscape of cable television is changing with cordcutters, etc., so the current setup may prove unsustainable in the long run, but for right now a paying contract with national and local networks is the lifeblood of professional sports in North America. Is ESPN going to be interested in a league that theoretically could have no New York teams? (and before you say “LA didn’t have an NFL team for 20 years”, the NFL is pretty much the exception to the rule; plus it allowed them to subtly threaten cities that didn’t want to pay for a stadium out of tax money. “Well, second largest TV market in the country just happens to be vacant.”) Is a regional sports network willing to pay money to televise a team that could be relegated? (they barely have any interest in paying for MLS clubs, save hypercompetitive markets like LA where a startup RSN needs content)

    2. Stadiums: This connects to the NFL point I made above. We have a number of MLS teams that received public financing for stadium projects on the grounds that it would house an MLS team. If, let’s say, Chicago were to be relegated, would the Fire suddenly have to repay the public financing? Could Bridgeview seize the stadium on the grounds that the Fire were in breach of contract by not playing in MLS?

    A couple of addendums to points made in the article:

    1. “The same can be said of Welsh clubs playing in England, at least one English club playing in Scotland and the principality of Monaco playing in the French league.”

    Or Liechtenstein’s 7 clubs playing in the Swiss system, and San Marino Calcio in the Italian system (despite San Marino have a 15-club/2-division league).

    2. “Read up on rule changes within the English football and the Premiership’s influence on them. Look at the TV deal in Spain, not to mention the periodic “Euro Super League” rumblings that occur whenever the “elite” want UEFA to restructure the Champions League for their benefit.”

    Or the “11+1” rule in the SPL that effectively gave the Old Firm veto power.

    Liked by 1 person

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