Riccardo Silva’s Pro/Rel Power Plays

On one hand, it felt like a vindicating blow had been struck for the cause of Promotion and Relegation in the USA.  A bold and mighty mace falling heavily, cankering Major League Soccer’s reticence.

On the other, it underscored the league’s defiant resolve against the grand concept of pro/rel.

At least, that was the narrative.

The blow came in the form of news that Riccardo Silva – MP & Silva founder, and owner of NASL’s Miami FC – had made a bold and extravagant offer for their media rights. It would be a $4bn ten year deal with one contingency: MLS adopts pro/rel.

Reportedly, MLS turned the offer down flat.  Immediately, Pro/rel advocates and MLS detractors gathered in social media hordes to condemn this move.

Who were MLS to turn down such an enormous sum!?

Surely this proved once and for all, that MLS was determined to keep the US Division 1 locked down for all eternity!?

It was a veritable orgy of angst, fury and hyperbolic tweeting.

Then the news broke today that once again, Silva, this time standing in support of the ownership of NPSL’s Kingston Stockade FC, was involved in another shot across MLS and USSF’s bow.

They had filed a claim with the Court of Arbitration for Sport, against USSF, CONCACAF and FIFA no less.

The claim seeks to push FIFA to enforce it’s own “Statute 9”, which they interpret as promotion and relegation being a requirement.

It certainly looks the fight is being brought to those who would stand in tyranny over American soccer.  Pro/rel has found its champions!

Or has it…?

I’m put in mind of a hypothetical scene.  Most of us have encountered one similar.  I’m referring to the theatrical pushing and shoving that occurs between two testosterone fueled males, on the precipice of a violent confrontation.  Physicality has been engaged but the actual fight hasn’t quite broken out yet.  Indeed, the keen observer might be able to detect the merest hint of trepidation in the eyes and vocal tones of the would-be combatants.

“Come on then…!”

“Wanna start…?”

They both exchange these hollow invitations, the unfolding scene gradually becoming less Herculean and more Harry Enfield.

Inevitably, supposedly calmer heads prevail, friends from either party step in to break it up, and at this point, safely in the grip of their mediating brethren, the bravado spills forth…

“Let me at ‘im!!”

“Don’t hold me back!!”

“You’re lucky this time mate!  Lucky!!”

Both men walk away, secretly relieved that they managed to get out of that situation, with minimal damage to either their person or ego.

That’s what Riccardo Silva et al’s actions truly feel like to me.  It’s Grandstanding on a Des Lynam scale.

You see, MLS actually has media rights deals in place until 2022.  They are contractually prohibited from discussing deals with anybody until 2021 at the earliest.  This is no secret.  As founder of a media rights agency, Silva must certainly be aware of that.

So yes, he made an extravagant offer.  One that he knew wouldn’t be accepted, or even discussed.

As for that CAS claim, here’s what CONCACAF’s statutes say about that organisations jurisdiction:

Article 55. Common provisions
CAS is not competent to deal with:
a) matters related to the application of a purely sporting rule, such as the Laws of the Game or the technical modalities of a competition;

Hmm.  That reads to me like CAS isn’t in a position to do much on this.

So Riccardo Silva has been involved in offering a deal to a party that was legally prevented from discussing it, let alone accepting, and filing a claim with arbitrators that falls outside their purview.

On the surface, it all looks very aggressive.  Look beneath the muzzle and you’ll find a whole lotta gum.  Hard sounding threats, with minimal risk.  It’s actually a pretty clever PR move.

On the more negative side, the whole thing smacks of an attempt to get in on the hard work of others, rather than putting forth the effort yourself.

There are so many things that we’re told by pro/rel advocates, that beg the following question:

If these people believe so strongly in the power of promotion and relegation, why don’t they just build it themselves?

I’ve lost count of the times I’ve seen or heard the following arguments put forth:

  • Promotion and relegation will attract the millions of American soccer fans, put off by MLS’s “unauthentic” brand of soccer.
  • Many billions of dollars in untapped investment will grow domestic US clubs into the best in the world.
  • Incentive to move up will breed elite nationwide youth systems, where currently untapped talent will thrive, turning the US Mens National Team into a global power.

If these things are true, then surely an open league system, backed by all of this prospective investment, would ultimately either absorb MLS or sweep it aside?

Of course, a common attempted rebuttal to this is that it would be hard to get investors to take the risk while MLS is perceived as the top flight in the US and Canada.  Interestingly, when I point out the risk to clubs if pro/rel is adopted prematurely or implemented poorly, I’m frequently met with the a terse “So be it!  Clubs should not be immune to the risk of competition and market forces!”.  Yet somehow, this doesn’t apply to leagues?

Then there’s the overarching specter of “D1 status”.

Many claim that MLS is squatting on the designation and therefore, no league can compete with them.

First of all, I doubt the average punter knows about that designation.  I’m sure if your league put a strong product on the field, that would feed perception far more effectively than a divisional label.

Second of all, D1 status is not exclusive.  The USSF has outright stated that if a league meets the necessary requirements, it is obligated to award D1 status, regardless of who else already has it.

Some may claim that those reqs are prohibitive and difficult to achieve.

But are they?

Essentially, they require the league to have a minimum of 12 clubs, 75% of which are situated in MSAs of over one million people, each having a 15k capacity venue at their disposal and demonstration of each club’s financial viability.

Well another argument I’ve made for not adopting pro/rel is a lack of infrastructure among lower league teams.  The common response I receive, is that the US has many sizable venues that could accommodate football clubs.  So we should be okay on that score, right?  Indeed, we already have six clubs outside MLS meeting those reqs.  If the prospect of joining a national top flight were there, surely we’d see investment enough to bring another half-dozen teams up to snuff, right?

Yet instead, Silva and co seem more interested in forcing MLS to abandon its existing model and just let them in.  Forget the eye-watering levels of investment that MLS owners have poured in just to keep it around, let alone setting it on a path of continued, sustained improvement.  These guys don’t want to pay an expansion fee* or go through the vetting process, so change the mechanism.

*And to clarify: the Expansion Fee isn’t just some arbitrary admission fee that MLS profits from.  It’s actually a byproduct of the revenue sharing mechanisms within the league.  When a new team enters, it gets a slice of the pie.  The expectation is that over time, the pie will growas a result of the expansion, but in the short term, the existing teams will see a decrease in their share.  The primary purpose of the expansion fee is to compensate for that temporary shortfall.

To the leagues and clubs who believe in pro/rel, how about standing behind your faith and spending this time and effort building the pyramid you want under your own steam?  If you’re right about pro/rel, then ultimately you will thrive and US football will be better for it.

If you’re wrong, you’ll fail nobly and we can finally come together and build US soccer in a way that fits its unique needs, embracing its differences rather than using them to shun it in pursuit of a pipedream.

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