Pro/Rel: The Numbers

So I finally did it.

After weeks of squeezing statistical analysis and data gathering into lunch breaks, evenings and the occasional bathroom visit, I’ve finished!

I’ve collected all manner of stats and info on leagues around the world, with a view to seeing the impact of promotion and relegation.  The nations “studied” (for want of a better word) are as follows:

USA
Austria
Belgium
Croatia
Denmark
England
France
Germany
Netherlands
Hungary
Italy
Poland
Portugal
Scotland
Spain
Turkey

Brazil
Russia
Australia
China
Japan
Mexico

First a few pointers:

When I started this task, we were several weeks away from the end of the European seasons.  Therefore, anything from 2016 is based on averages around mid-April.  Not that I expect anything happened to radically skew these figures but bear in mind that I didn’t go back at the end of the season.  Just didn’t have time.  Also, not all seasons have finished yet.

Similarly, title counts are as of the end of 2015.  Again, don’t have time to go back, so Leicester’s title win doesn’t feature here, for example.

MLS is early season and Mexico uses the “Apertura/Clausura” (“Opening/Closing”) short-season format common in the Americas.  For those unfamiliar with the latter, it basically results in two seasons per calendar year.  Relegation in Mexico is based on a three year points average and one team per year is relegated.

Or in Queretaro’s case, they finish bottom, purchase a surviving Liga MX club, relocate it to their home stadium, rename it “Queretaro” and have it sign all their players, thus negating relegation.  Yes, that really happened.  It wasn’t the first time a Mexican team had done it either.

The figures I collected were as follows:

All time title records – Basically the number of champions since the inception of the league, along with number of multiple time winners, winners of ten titles and above and winners of twenty titles and above. Also the club with the most titles in each nation and as time and info allowed, percentage of times that team won the title.

Title records since 1996 (incs) – Same as the “all time” but cut down to cover the duration of MLS’s existence.

League Attendances for top 2-3 divisions for the 2015 (or 2014-15) season – Just as it sounds, the average attendance for the top two or three divisions in each nation.

Pro/Rel Club Attendances – A list of clubs from each country that were relegated in the year 2013 and where available, their subsequent attendances to the current (ongoing) 2016 season.

So what did we find?

Well staggeringly enough, it turns out that the closed parity-based leagues of Australia’s A-League and MLS were the most competitive (and for those who are thinking “Playoffs”, MLS also had the same number of Supporters Shield (#1 in table) winners as MLS Cup champs).  MLS has had 10 champs after 20 seasons, while Oz has 6 in the A-League’s 12 year history.

Adding to this “no shit, Sherlock” section of the post, are the facts that Benfica, Porto and Sporting have gathered all but two of Portugal’s titles since the league began, Turkey has a similar arrangement between Galatasaray, Fenerbahce and Besiktas and Scotland’s Old Firm (Celtic and Rangers for the four people that don’t know) have a ludicrous number of championships both individually and between them (about 100 combined).

Of the “big four” European Leagues it should come as no surprise that Spain’s La Liga was the least competitive overall since inception. 9 champs in 86 years with Real Madrid racking up 32 titles, dominating as the former alleged Franco propaganda vehicle “heels”, alongside historic rivals, the “heroic” Catalans of Barcelona (there’s a reason people are keen to see Messi as an angelic purveyor of integrity and loveliness & Ronaldo as an arrogant, pretty-boy scumbag, even if those characterizations are massively exaggerated caricatures).

Germany managed the most champs with a highly respectable 29 in a mere 52 Bundesliga seasons. Of course FC Bayern still managed to grab 25 of those titles, illustrating that Germany has an amazingly open, strong league so long as the Bavarian’s aren’t punching at anything close to their rather ample weight.

For reasons I can’t recall, I made a point of including the Netherlands relatively recent amateur era in the stats. Whether I had an analytical reason, or that’s just how Wikipedia listed it, it gives Dutch football a healthy outlook, also clocking up 29 champs. Of course this is utter tosh because since going pro, the Eredivisie has been thoroughly dominated by Ajax and PSV with just 6 champions overall.

The theme of top-heavy leagues is prevalent throughout most “open” leagues checked here.  Of the 20 leagues included that have pro/rel, 14 of them featured one or more teams that had broken the 20 title threshold.  In terms of each nation’s most successful club, 8 of those front-runners had over 30 titles.  Of the 10 open leagues I had time to calculate approximate percentages for, 7 had won at least a quarter of their nations league titles.

I know, I know, so far this thing is rivaling “Super Size Me” in terms of predictable conclusions.  Football leagues being more top-heavy than Dolly Parton wearing a concrete hat, is no revelation.

It does however, suggest that MLS and the A-League’s attempts to maintain parity are successful.

“A-ha!” I hear you exclaim, “but these other leagues have existed for decades… in some cases a century-and-a-quarter… of course their top teams are going to have lots of titles!”

That of course, brings us conveniently to the “MLS Era” portion of the data.  Since 1996, the only league that has crowned more champions (or Supporters Shield winners) is Mexico with 14.  As pointed out above though, they have actually had double the number of titles up for grabs.

The A-League of course, matched the MLS average ratio of champs (1 every 2 years).  France and Brazil were close behind with 9 title winners, though the former saw a gargantuan 7-year winning streak by Lyon, which makes takes the shine off and it’s starting to look like PSG will rule the roost going forward.

Brazil’s Corinthians matched MLS’s most successful club for the period in LA Galaxy, with 5 titles each.  MLS and Australia again matched each other and were the most competitive in terms of winning streaks, with no team winning more than 2 in a row.

Those clubs racking up more than 10 for the period (and thus, at least 50% of the titles available) were Croatia’s Dinamo Zagreb (12, featuring a 10 year streak), Bayern Munich (12), FC Porto (13), Celtic (11) and Manchester United (11).  Yup – after years of being one of the more competitive leagues in Europe, England actually saw fewer different champions between ’96 & ’15 and more titles for a single club than La Liga.

Even among the newer leagues, Guanzhou Evergrande of the Chinese Super League (which has existed the same amount of time as the A-League) have won 42% of the titles, while Japan’s J-League has seen Kashima Antlers take about a third of the titles.

In fact, outside of Mexico, the US and Australia, every league in this study has had at least 35% of the last 20 titles won by a single team.

“Yes Baz, we get it, the open leagues all have very dominant teams – what of it?  How does this relate to pro/rel?”.

You know, it’s actually a common misnomer that pro/rel causes dispartity.  If you look at US closed systems prior to parity measures being introduced, there were dominant forces there too.  It’s largely the parity measures that keep things competitive.  Even Mexico, while not using a salary cap, switched from the single table method of determining the champion, to playoffs. This was because Chivas Gualalajara were so dominant in the 50s, 60s & 70s that it was effecting the financial viability of other clubs.  The change was implemented basically to give other teams a better shot and revive flagging interest.

That’s not to say that promotion and relegation doesn’t have an impact however.  It can certainly exacerbate existing disparity.  For example, figures were released recently which showed that in the 24 years of the Premiership, 14.8 billion quid had been spread across the 49 clubs that have participated.  A figure that wasn’t actually highlighted in the stories on this was that of that astronomical sum, 23% of it was shared between just 4 teams!  All four have been ever-present since the dawn of the EPL: y’know, the days when Andy Gray was known for using bizzare, OTT halftime analytical gadgetry and Richard Keyes was known for the terrifying tufts of body hair creeping from under his apparel, instead of both being known for accidentally broadcasting twattish, sexist banter to the nation.

Prior to the advent of the Premier League, England saw more champions (7 in the 20 years prior, vs 4 in this 20), more second placed clubs (11 vs 6) and more third placed clubs  (12 vs 8).  Promoted teams also stayed up at a higher rate.  Roughly one-in-six went down in the couple of decades prior to the Premiership, whereas nowadays the rate is more like fifty-fifty.

Given the sheer difference in cash a club will clear between being in the Premiership and the Football League Championship, as well as the resultant parachute payments that are received by those facing the drop, teams that remain perpetually in the top flight can become exponentially richer than those yo-yoing back and forth, not to mention those getting there for the first time.

This ladies and gentlemen, is the crux of the matter when it comes to the demand from some following America soccer to “take off the training wheels”, “bust the system open”, “embrace the free market”, “scrap the salary caps” and “introduce pro/rel”.  Without parity measures, universally the strongest predictor of success in an open football league is resources.

Sometimes those resources come about organically.  There’s a reason why Scotland has been dominated by two teams from Glasgow and Portugal sees all the silverware going to two clubs in Lisbon and one in Oporto.  These regions are by far the most heavily populated in their countries.  Other times, they come from external factors such as TV and sponsorship revenue or an outside investor.

In any case, what we have seen typically in the “football eco-system” that exists around the world, is the gradual creation of an environment where the rich tend to get richer.  Having the resources brings success, which in turn brings popularity and prize money.  Over time, this success translates into fame, while the growing resources if handled effectively, can lead to the capacity to attract stronger players and coaches and bigger stars.  This builds yet stronger teams, more success, greater fame, greater support, more prize money, attracting more lucrative sponsorship, ultimately creating national, continental or even global “super clubs”.

Now some will tell you that’s okay. An American equivalent of Barcelona or Manchester United would likely attract some attention. However, America’s closest example to this – the New York Cosmos of Pele and Beckenbauer fame – are frequently held up as one of several contributors to the old NASL’s demise. Their own free-spending ways caused others to follow suit in a bid to keep up; often with catastrophic results.

Then there’s the philosophical elements and realities of the existence of super clubs. Many a pro/rel advocate will tell you that it is simply a mechanism for a key principle of the game: meritocracy.

We’re told that pro/rel, continental qualification, the Club World Cup are all part of an intricate structure designed to see the worthy rise and the wretched fall.

The problem is, when financial resources are the strongest determinate of success, how much is truly being won “on the field”?

Granted, when you splurge half a billion on a squad, they still have to live up to their outlay. That aspect of “sporting merit” is technically intact.

However, when one club has enough money and influence to outbid an opponent for talent, to buy a squad three elite players deep in most positions and woo the most talented coaches available, it’s a tad churlish to dispute the size of that advantage.

And yet it goes deeper. As these clubs grow in power and influence, they start developing power beyond the field and playing staff.

For many years, the Scottish Premier League had a “11-1” voting rule. For a change within the league to pass, at least 11 of the 12 clubs had to vote for it.

Rangers and Celtic, bitter rivals on the field, would routinely work together on such votes to create an effective veto. If they both voted something down, the 11-1 rationing wasn’t met. It took the other 10 teams eventually threatening to resign to force reform and even that wasn’t enough to garner a full concession.

Similarly, when the new “Elite Player Performance Plan” (EPPP) was being discussed in England, one controversial point was the abolition if the 90 minute rule (basically, clubs could only recruit domestic youth from within 1.5 hours of their home stadium – not that it was fool proof). The EPL ultimately used their financial clout to force the point.

More prominent is the UEFA Champions League and the reserved threat of a breakaway Super League that certain clubs start mumbling about whenever they want UEFA to make qualification, financial considerations and other rule changes favourable to them.

Unrestricted, open systems typically result in money and power travelling up the pyramid, to the point where the freedom and opportunity to actually win a title, has more to do with bank balance and fortune than smart squad-building and coaching.

A well known pro/rel advocate often says that he’d like to see what Bruce Arena could do with an unrestricted budget. Personally, I’d be fascinated to see how Pep Guardiola would fare without an astronomical financial advantage.

The perceived “freedom and opportunity” of the global structure for the overwhelming majority of clubs involved, amounts largely to an opportunity to be part of the rotation of clubs that periodically gets to host the big guns once in a while, rather than actually competing with them.  Anyone thinking about Leicester City right now, should ask themselves why that team started the season with odds of 5000-1 and why it was such an incredible story.

Another way in which parity interacts with pro/rel, is in the very validity of the mechanisms.  Parity acts specifically to keep front runners from pulling out of reach of the chasing pack in the long term.  It also by design, means that advantages and disadvantages that do emerge in the short term, can have far greater repercussions.  With standards being relatively close, an injury crisis or simple lack of form can be the difference between a winning and losing streak.

With that in mind, relegation based on a single seasons results can be both harsh and questionable in qualitative value – you could be relegating a club that may challenge for a title the following season.  As I keep saying: until we hit a point where MLS is effectively “full” with numerous competitive teams outside it, pro/rel isn’t really required.

This brings me to my next finding and this one is actually more interesting and possibly surprising: football outside the top flight, isn’t actually that popular.

A common issue with the pro/rel debate and indeed any comparison between US soccer and “Europe” is that “Europe” doesn’t actually mean the continent to the east of the Atlantic ocean.  It usually means the countries that house the big UEFA leagues: namely England, Spain, Italy, Germany and if we’re feeling generous, France.  It doesn’t mean Belgium, Austria, Denmark, Cyprus, San Marino or Armenia.

In fact, to be blunt, when making comparisons, the focus is very often just England.  This is problematic.  England you see, are not actually that typical.  Along with Germany, they were one of just two in this study in clocking up five-figure average attendances in their second tier.  Furthermore, these attendances were well above 10k, with England boasting a 17.9k average and Germany leading with 18.7k.  Incidentally, both were the most strongly attended in the top flight, with 36k and 43.5k averages respectively.

Rather surprisingly (or maybe not when considering their huge population) the closest league to these folks in terms of second tier attendance, with roughly half their average, was China with 9k.  Scotland were next in 2015 with an impressive 7.5k.  Unfortunately for our Northern cousins, this figure does nothing more than show how incredibly dominant the Old Firm truly is.  Remember that this was one of the past two seasons where the Rangers “Newco” played in the second tier.  When Rangers were last in the SPL, the D2 attendance averaged a mere 2.3k.  Likewise, that season saw an SPL average of 13.8k, whereas 2015 saw an average of 8.8k.

The better attended top flights outside England and Germany ran from 20-25k.  Spain in 3rd (not including Scotland) sat just above this with 26k.  China were interesting again.  They pulled 22k for 2015, which is around the Italy, France and MLS level, though it should be noted that they’ve pulled in an average of 27k so far in 2016.  This is likely due to their recent glut of spending and ongoing reforms against corruption and match-fixing.  It will be interesting to see what they do going forward.

I guess at this point there is something I should address about attendance stats.  On my own figures, as I pointed out, this was a “spare time” endeavour, not the most scientific in approach and figures were pulled from where I could find them.  I did spot-check totals but it’s entirely possible not every figure I found was 100% accurate.  However, I’m comfortable that they give a decent gist of the status quo.

More importantly however – and this circles back to pro/rel debate politics – is the means by which clubs report their attendance.  MLS is often pilloried by detractors for basing reported attendances on tickets distributed, versus bums-on-seats.

However, as often is the case, this attack, while not entirely invalid with regard to the practice, is not especially fair when leveled specifically at MLS.  Why?  Simply because basing reported attendance on tickets sold is a relatively common practice in sports globally.  It certainly happens in top soccer leagues and it certainly happens across major sports.  I’m sure in some cases it’s done to paint a best case scenario.  I’m sure in others it’s done for convenience.  Most of all, I’m sure it’s done because from a business perspective, it’s probably more useful to know how many tickets you’re selling over weeks and seasons, than whether the buyer actually wound up attending.

Point being: whatever theories there may be about MLS’s attendance figures, they’re unlikely to hurt the comparisons made here because most of these totals were probably gathered in the same way.

So back to those totals: where top leagues average over 30k (England and Germany), we’re seeing 15k+in D2 & around 7k in D3.

Where we see 18-27k, we tend to see 5-7k in D2 & 1-3k in D3.

When we get down to 6-11k, we’re seeing 1-3k in D2 & 500-100 in D3.

The lowest attended were Hungary and Croatia, presumably owing to population.  They averaged 2-3k for their top leagues and 500-700 for D2.

While an approximate 70-80% difference in attendance was common bewteen D1 & D2 (aside from Scotland’s “Rangers-juiced” numbers, no league had a difference of less than 50%) the most remarkable difference was in Portugal.  Their top flight pulled an average of 10k, which is reasonable for the size of the nation.  Their second tier rarely breaks 1000.  Trust me, I double and triple-checked this based on a number of sources and seasons.

There is a genuinely, a 90+% difference between D1 & D2 attendance.

Interestingly, MLS averages were in line with other leagues of similar top-flight attendance.  MLS pulled 21.5k for 2015.  NASL (designated as D2) pulled a little over 5k.  USL, though designated as D3, pulled over 3k.  This is especially interesting as they do have some particular anomalies: they have recently started housing a number of “MLS2” teams.  These are basically the equivalents of Real Madrid Castilla, Bayern Munich II or Athletic Bilboa B – reserve clubs that play in competitive lower leagues.

Typically, as most of these teams’ fans are already following their parent clubs, they tend to get pretty low attendances compared to the rest of the league.  By that reckoning, it’s safe to say that the average minus these teams in USL is much closer to NASL.

I have a theory on this: the current NASL (not to be confused with the 70s version, though it uses similar branding and considers itself a continuation) was born from owners breaking from USL.  If teams move “up” from either (such as Minnesota or Sacramento are respectively slated and hoping to do) they move into MLS.

Both leagues actually offer a similar level of soccer to one another.  I would suggest that the attendances reflect that perceptions of the leagues are similar. For want of a better description, I’d say we’re looking at two leagues seen as being roughly “D2” standard in American terms.

This is just an opinion but I feel that if NASL (or indeed USL) were able to raise their standard of play to something closer to that of MLS – especially if this translates into Open Cup or even CCL results – NASL’s stated concerns over their D2 designation may be marginalized.

Stepping outside soccer, it’s also interesting to note that Minor League Baseball has comparable attendances to NASL and USL (and indeed Italy’s Serie B or Spain’s Segunda Division) at the higher levels (AAA and AA) and not too much lower down the pro tiers.  Even the “Class A Short Season” divisions are averaging 3.5k a game.

With this in mind, I see little reason to doubt that the affiliations MLS is creating with USL can ultimately translate into a hybrid of the MLB-style farm system and “B/II/Reserve” approach seen in places like Spain and Germany on top of the usual academy systems.

This could grow into the type of development and scouting coverage that advocates expect to emerge from a pro/rel system, along with the central management and focused purpose that is common in running successful youth systems.  Going further and forming affiliations with existing youth clubs (such as that recently established between the incoming Atlanta United and Georgia’s top program) could produce a major turnaround in talent production.

Something that is clear from these attendance stats is that globally, you’re always going to draw a lot more fans if you’re perceived to be in the top division.  With this in mind, especially given the format and organization of MLS, the continued expansion that Don Garber has confirmed will happen, actually makes more sense at this point than implementing pro/rel.

If you can give a team expansion, you can almost guarantee attendances of 10-20k at least, whereas placing them in a second division will likely chop that in half and needlessly remove the opportunity to play for the national title.

If NASL ever gets its act together and obtains D1 status, this too may actually be better than pro/rel for the clubs involved.

Even “he who shall not be named”‘s (I’m sorry, I’d love to cite this person but when you accuse honest journalists of being paid shills or just plain not existing, or twist a persons words to falsely smear them as racist, I’m not prepared to give them direct attention) “dual pyramid” idea, could be easily modified into this set-up, with yet additional leagues expanding horizontally instead of vertically.

Perhaps an effective approach could be expansion to regional major leagues, with the playoffs becoming some kind of USA Champions League?  Just a thought.

I guess that brings us to the final set of stats: the attendance of clubs relegated in 2013.  The theme of lower leagues not being that popular somewhat continues here.  In all, 45 clubs were looked at – though finding figures for all, throughout the following seasons wasn’t possible.  Luckily, this only impacted a few clubs.

All but one team saw attendance drop in the season after promotion.  That one was Mersin Idman Yurdu of Turkey, who averaged 5.8k for the season where they were relegated, increasing to a little under 7.5k the following season, as they won the second division and secured an immediate return.

Others that fared relatively well in the wake of relegation were QPR who only saw a 7% drop from 17.8k to 16.6k as they also returned immediately, Brazil’s Ponte Preta who lost just a couple of hundred (6.4k to 6.2k) while France’s Nancy dropped from 15.6k to 14.6k.

GKS Belchatow of Poland saw their already-small 1.9k attendance drop by less than 100, however their immediate promotion saw an attendance of over 3k back in the top flight, dropping back to 1.6k when they yo-yoed straight down again.

Unsurprisingly, attendance tends to do a bit better when a relegated team is in immediate contention to return.  Likewise, further relegation typically sees attendance drop even further.

Most others saw a drop of at least 15%.  All but 7 of the 39 clubs included in this section saw a drop of at least 20%, while 18 saw a drop of more than 30%.

Most damning of all is that 8 clubs saw a drop of 50%.

So much for supporting your club through thick and thin.

Those seeing such staggering drops were: Istanbull BB (Turkey, 80%), Portuguesa (Brazil, 80%), Polonia Warsaw (Poland, 68%), Alania Vlaikavkaz (Russia, 62%, followed by another relegation, an 87% drop, bankruptcy and reformation), Real Zaragoza (Spain, 56%), Qingdao Jonnon (China, 57%), Mattersburg (Austria, 57%), Mordovia Saransk (Russia, 54%).

You’ll notice that Alania went bust.  They were one of six included here that either went broke and/or were relegated due to dire financial situations (along with Beerchot (Belgium), Egri (Hungary), Siena (Italy), Polonia Warsaw (Poland) and Beira-Mar (Portugal)).  Given that this is a relatively small sample size in football and that we also had Rangers go bust in the same period, this throws mud in the eye of those declaring that open leagues are a bastion of financial security.  “Open leagues don’t fold”, they claim.  They might not but their clubs certainly do.

I’d also like to quash another smokescreen fallacy that exists regarding such scenarios: the reformed club, the phoenix, or the “newco”.

Often in football, when a team goes bankrupt, it is quite common for a band of fans to rally behind the banner of their ruined team and form a new version, usually having to start lower down the pyramid or often even from scratch.  For this reason, I’ve seen a number of pro/rel advocates argue that these clubs still exist.  Spiritually, philosophically and emotionally, perhaps.  Sympathetic federations may even acquiesce to applying the history of the old club to the new version, sometimes even recognising the new team as a continuation of the old.  Technically however, this does not erase the death of the previous entity.

This is important because the prime driving-force in these reformations is something that a lot of US clubs do not have – generations of support and connection, sometimes stretching back well over a century.

It’s also a (shock, horror) double-standard because many arguing this “continuation” point, are loathe apply the same logic to the new incarnations of the likes of the Seattle Sounders, Portland Timbers or Vancouver Whitecaps.  I’ve even read the claim that the current NASL New York Cosmos, despite sharing some ownership with the ’70s & ’80s version, are nought but a “cover band”.

The fact of the matter is, plenty of clubs go bust in open leagues across the world and revived incarnations don’t hide that.

So that’s that.

I guess our findings overall are that open systems without parity measures, lead to dominant clubs in top-heavy leagues, leading to increased and disparate power and leverage over their competition and in some cases, even the governing bodies that are supposed to preside over them.

We’ve seen that the spectacle of pro/rel isn’t really that much of a draw when it comes to the “pro” side of the equation.  Sure, attendance might spike towards the year end as anticipation turns to realization but the prospect of starting fresh in D2 with a freshly-relegated club, its fans rallying behind them from day one, eager to see their team battle to go up, is apparently far less compelling a concept than we’ve been led to believe.

As I’ve said all along, none of this is intended to tear pro/rel down or portray it as a bad system.  It was invented and adopted for valid reasons and those reasons remain valid.  It has met its aims most of the time and often to good effect.

However, it is not a panacea.  It has its drawbacks and soccer globally has its problems.  Pro/rel has done nothing to fix the issue of progressively dominant clubs or the disparate power of wealth.  Even a Premiership title isn’t enough to stop Jamie Vardy from considering an offer from a richer club that last won the league in 2004.  In that particular story, we’re seeing some of what I’ve argued here at work.

We’ve seen that American soccer doesn’t need pro/rel.

My stance remains that until MLS is fully expanded, that the top level of US soccer is fully populated and that the various levels see a clear overlap in standard, resources, support and infrastructure, the problem that pro/rel really was conceived to fix, doesn’t exist.

*Thanks to @ata_dizdar for clarifying the proper name of Mersin Idman Yurdu of Turkey – corrected accordingly.

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