It's time to give pro/rel a rest

By Paul Kennedy

In retirement, Landon Donovan, it seems, has too much time on his hands. If you follow him on Twitter, you were bombarded by the conversation he touched off when he asked, "Should we have pro/rel in MLS?"

Pro/rel, urgh!

Nothing divides soccer fans quite like the topic of promotion/relegation, specifically whether MLS should have promotion and relegation, as used in the rest of the soccer world.

The first thing to understand is that promotion/relegation isn't just a soccer concept. It is used by professional basketball and ice hockey leagues abroad. You'll even find it in the Dutch pro baseball league.

But it is not an American concept, wherein lies part of the problem. No other major team sport is structured to promote the best teams from minor leagues and relegate the worst teams from the top league. I've never heard fans of the Toledo Mud Hens or Hershey Bears clamor for pro/rel, nor did, back in my youth, the Pottstown Firebirds think their minor-league football juggernaut should get a shot at playing in the NFL.

Creating a new league is another matter. The success of the AFL, pioneered by Lamar Hunt, the father of American pro soccer, and others eventually resulted in a merger of the NFL and AFL. Teams from the ABA joined the NBA and teams from the WHA were absorbed in the NHL.

The pro/rel debate in American soccer is recent. In the 1970s, as the old NASL began to take off, I never heard Bob Cousy, commissioner of the ASL, argue pro/rel. (I doubt he ever heard of the term.) But the ASL teams did have a role in saving the NASL as the Rochester Lancers and Washington Darts joined the league in 1970 and won their respective (three-team!) divisions.

The closest thing we have to pro/rel in MLS is the granting of expansion franchises to teams in Seattle, Portland, Vancouver, Montreal, Orlando and Minnesota that had teams in the NASL or USL, or their precursors.

What do I think of pro/rel in MLS? It will never happen. End of story.

The pro/rel train left the station the day Hunt and other investors launched MLS in 1996, so I was frankly a little peeved that my Twitter feed was jammed up yesterday with many smart people weighing in on the pro/leg debate. (Thanks a lot, Landon.)

Still, the debate rages. And it is divisive. Fans will debate the merits of any number policies of other American sports leagues -- MLB's pace-of-game rules, legal and illegal hits in the NFL -- but they don't question the integrity of the leagues themselves like many pro/rel proponents will do when it comes to MLS.

The argument you'll often hear against the current single league format used by the other American pro soccer leagues but by MLS in particular is that there is no incentive for teams to get better or for fans to come out and watch at the end of a losing season. The same thing could be said for a team having a lousy season in the NFL or NBA, but you'd never hear anyone argue that pro/rel would make it better. (Watching an NFL relegation battle would certainly be dramatic, but I don't know what's fun about watching someone throw several hundred million dollars down the tube.)

The pro/rel talk does American soccer a disservice because it distracts attention from legitimate questions like why can't we produce another Landon Donovan. MLS's four conference finalists are all deserving of their success and produced two good matches in Sunday's first legs, but everything they have achieved has been in spite of the failures of the American youth soccer system.

It's easy to dismiss pro/rel as a social media phenomenon -- soccer Twitter can be a very ugly and depressing place -- but some of the resentment against MLS stems from legitimate uncertainty in the marketplace. Could an ABA or a WHA enter the American soccer marketplace? That's hard to know. Soccer's problem is its own success and how to channel it. Soccer as a spectator sport is growing, and we're not just talking about MLS. Or the NASL or USL for that matter. Soccer is growing organically in ways one could have never imagined 10 years ago with clubs like Detroit City FC and Chattanooga FC

Detroit City FC outgrew its old home and has launched a “community investment campaign” for its new stadium. Chattanooga FC was in the news recently when MLS commissioner Don Garber used the NPSL team as the butt of his argument against pro/rel at the recent BlazerCon. It just so happened that Chattanooga FC drew 18,227 fans for the 2015 NPSL final, almost 1,000 more than the Hunt family's FC Dallas drew for the second leg of its Western Conference semifinal series against Seattle.

Pro/rel advocates are wrong to tear down MLS, just like Garber was wrong to rip Chattanooga FC, and he apologized for his "inappropriate comments." What separates owners in the NFL or NBA or MLB from owners in MLS is that football or basketball or baseball doesn't have to worry about promoting itself outside the markets in which its owners have put down stakes. That work has been done for a century.

MLS owners would be wise to help the Detroit City FCs and Chattanooga FCs of the world flourish and see how others can follow. Let's just give them a little credit and give pro/rel a rest.
17 comments about "It's time to give pro/rel a rest".
  1. James Madison, November 24, 2015 at 9:33 p.m.

    Good argument well put. We have enough to do to cement the existence of MLS and status of professional soccer without getting into the complications the single entity concept poses for relegation and promotion.

  2. Joey Tremone replied, November 25, 2015 at 11:29 a.m.

    It's a double-standard argument. If one can argue that pro/rel isn't coming, therefore shut up, then one can also argue that the debate isn't going away, therefore the author should shut up too.

  3. Stan Banks, November 24, 2015 at 9:38 p.m.

    Debates regarding relegation do not detract from other issues surrounding American soccer. It is an interesting discussion with serious merit which is why it does not go away and why you can provide no evidence for your assertion. Fans are not ignoring debate over player development because they are preoccupied with relegation. Seems disingenuous to complain about it while devoting an entire post to the topic. Is this really supposed to be the final word? I think not. And "never" is rarely accurate.

  4. Allan Lindh, November 24, 2015 at 9:47 p.m.

    It's much simpler than portrayed here. American Pro soccer will continue to expand. At some point MLS will get too large, may be getting close already. Very nice if every team plays every other team twice -- home and away. Beyond 20 teams the numbers don't compute. And 2nd Div teams will start building Soccer stadiums. And eventually some of them will be better than the worst MLS teams. At that point reality will rear it's ugly head, and the billionaires who own the league will have to find a way to let the worst MLS team, and the best 2nd Div team swap places. After all, these guys are billionaires, and by then soccer will have made them all even richer, and some clever economist will find a formula to reconcile the nasty money question. The real problem will be the billionaire sized egos of the MLS owners.

  5. Thomas Weber, November 24, 2015 at 11:25 p.m.

    Has the author ever watched a late season NFL game with 3-12 vs 5-10 teams playing each other? Unwatchable as they both try to lose for better draft picks. Ever watch a MLB team who is 47-75 go through the motions for their last 20 games? As a native of Cleveland I've seen both and I passionately believe relegation would improve the product. The author does not give any real argument against pro/rel --- just "it will never happen" so lets concentrate on what can happen. That sort of dictatorial non-logic will not help soccer become the sport it can be here in the USA. Allan's comment above sets a reasonable framework and there is little doubt the USA and Canada couldn't support 40 teams. Relegation keeps coming up because it is good for the sport and good for the fans. MLS should be a leader in the USA and make the decision for pro/rel to become reality by 2020/22. That would give owners that are afraid of competition the opportunity to sell and give the league 4-6 years to get to a 20-team Premier and 20-team 2nd Div. organized. Starting with a 1 team pro/rel (copying the Mexican leagues) would be a great start. Competition at the top AND the bottom is one of the big reasons why soccer is the biggest sport on the planet. If the author and current owners want to think small, so be it. Build a legal and rhetorical fence around the top league. The fans will continue to push for the pro/rel feature and won't be hearded into being the sheep of the other USA sports leagues.

  6. R2 Dad, November 25, 2015 at 12:38 a.m.

    Teams facing relegation will do anything to stay up. In MLS, teams will do just enough to make the playoffs. They will add one extra player in the calculation they will slip into the playoffs, claim "victory" and go home in the first round (and Drogba doesn't count--he's a complete anomaly, the Earthquakes are more typical). MLS has mitigated the pain of the owners and fans by bloating the playoff pool. So there are more "winners", more money for mid-table teams, and almost everyone goes home with a ribbon. We just have to wait for the MLS equivalent of Marge Schott to understand the benefits of pro/rel. MLS cleaned up Chivas in short order, but imagine that management team hanging around LA for 15 more years to get a sense of what a bad team can do to the league's reputation, their TV ratings, the whole soccer food chain. Pro/Rel is the cure, we just haven't had the infection yet.

  7. Diego Escalera, November 25, 2015 at 12:07 p.m.

    Pro/rel was invented in a time when a club with a small budget could still assemble a talented group of young players, develop them, and *keep* them.
    When we look at the Premier League champions of the last 20 years, Arsenal and Man U were minor clubs for decades until they were built up by Chapman in the 20s and Busby in the 40's into national powerhouses. OTOH, Man City and Chelsea were only recently brought up to their current level by new owners investing huge amounts of money.

    The difference is the Bosman ruling. Small clubs with small budgets in pro/rel leagues have lost the ability to compete and the soccer world weeps but has no cure for this.

  8. John Soares, November 25, 2015 at 1:21 p.m.

    Never is a long time. But certainly not in our life time...even if you are very young:)True teams will do anything not to be regulated. Guess what it's because of the money in the first VS second division. MLS playoffs are "our" Pro/Rel. Throughout Europe SELDOM does a second division team make it out of the bottom 50% and never to the top.
    Unless BIG money comes in. OH YEAH! It's about the money. In Europe as much as in the MLS.

  9. Fire Paul Gardner Now, November 25, 2015 at 1:43 p.m.

    The most ridiculous part of the anti-pro/rel argument is when people (like the author of this article) argue that if a team is relegated that team's owner has lost his $100m investment as though the relegated team can never be promoted back. Nonsense. All over the world, teams are relegated and then promoted back. Even if we assume MLS can function with 30-32 teams, eventually this country can support more teams than that. Why not MLS and MLS 2 with 2 20 team divisions and 2 or 3 teams promoted/relegated every year? Why is that unworkable?

  10. Bob Ashpole, November 25, 2015 at 2:02 p.m.

    Pro/Rel is a good concept for amateur and youth teams where a large number of teams are in the same location. That is where the practice originated and where it still exists in the USA. It is a bad concept for dispersed teams and for large corporations and clubs with big budgets and long term financial obligations. The reasons are obvious.

  11. beautiful game, November 25, 2015 at 2:08 p.m.

    This Pro/Rel debate is a dead horse. It would behoove the MLS to get its house in order and refrain from signing foreign players who bring nothing to the table. There are too many of them throughout the league, i.e., Asprilla, Jackson, Filipe, etc. I'd rather see an American player get and chance than these mediocre signings.

  12. Wooden Ships, November 25, 2015 at 3:01 p.m.

    I'd like to see it. If its tried and then fails, oh well. I'm from the old NASL and ASL days and the author is incorrect, it was dreamed about back then. It was the logical evolution of the sport in this country. The player participation numbers alone demonstrate the committment if more ambitious thinking. We can witness in our other pro sports that money doesn't guarantee championshiops. In the mid 80's as part of the SISL management, we evolved to the USISL. The explosion of teams is only going to continue and for a variety of reasons. How refreshing and exciting would it be for those of us who love the game to see a multi tiered competition. It would absolutely work.

  13. Ric Fonseca replied, November 25, 2015 at 3:31 p.m.

    Iw: Well said!
    I think it will work if we put our collective minds together and GROW the league!!! And what's wrong with looking at the other sport models, e.g. baseball, A, AA, AAA, etc., summer basketball leagues, "lower tier" leagues, football beginning with Pop Warner, high school, rec-park leagues, community-junior college and eventually NCAA and the "pros" One thing for sure, just 'cause it was supposedly tried back in the 80's, well, mu MUST accept the fact that since then our sport's numbers HAVE grown, witness the huge numbers of players at virtually all levels, and those guys playing in the 80's are now themselves coaching with a different sport (read soccer) mindset. It will happen, and the nay sayers such as the author of this article will need to chill a bit and get and support the program. And YES SI SE PUEDE!!!

  14. Michael Polonski, November 27, 2015 at 5:37 p.m.

    Pro/rel within MLS itself would work. Instead of two geographic conferences, we would have two divisions based on competitive results. Designate 2016 as the last season for playoffs to determine the league champion. Final regular season standings will determine the new setup for 2017. The top 10 point totals in 2016 will comprise the MLS First Division in 2017 while point totals 11-20 will comprise the MLS Second Division. Expansion franchises will start in the second division and earn the right to make it to the first division. The league champion will be the team who finishes atop the first division at the end of the season. Top four earn CCL berths, last place finisher is automatically relegated while 7th, 8th, and 9th place play two leg playoffs against second division 2nd, 3rd, and 4th place for promotion/relegation to the other division for the following season. Winner of the second division earns automatic promotion to the first division. Play each team in your division four times (two home and home). No games between divisions. Let competition be the barometer for excellence. Playoffs only determine who is the hottest team in October and November; nothing else. 2nd division teams will still reap the benefits of the TV contract but will not be eligible to win the title until they qualify for the first division. Its time for our beloved league to a fairer system of competition.

  15. Phil Hardy, November 27, 2015 at 7:05 p.m.

    I know this post is old and my comments will probably be read by no one, but I have to get this off my chest. PK is mostly right, but I hope he’s wrong. Soccer in America is in its infancy and part of the definition of infancy is if the parent doesn’t protect the infant, it will die. MLS would die or be crippled by pro/rel at this stage. Investment would dry up and who, in their right mind, would build a $50m to $250m stadium (and let’s pretend there is no franchise fee for the sake of argument) if they knew they could spend the lifetime of that stadium in the minor leagues? Sir Jack Hayward dumped over $125 million into Wolverhampton Wanderers and got to see them in the top flight one year as its owner. Who would pay $125 million to play forever in the NASL? I lived in Fulham from 1995 until 2008. As the nearest club to me, I went to see them the year they were promoted from what was essentially the 4th division into the 3rd. At that time, we could see somewhere in the region of 3,000 to 6,000 fans. Our stadium (or ground) was, and is, the oldest ground in London. I have no idea who paid for it in the late 1890’s. Once promoted into the next division, Mohammed Al-Fayed bought the club. I think he paid $1. He cleared the debts and started to improve the place, including the grass on the pitch, which was just a puddle of mud. I remember being told there was no money for good seed, no money to take care of the grass, until Al-Fayed arrived. He also gambled at least $200 million getting us into the Premier League. So let’s talk pro/rel. Can someone tell me how many minor league grounds are currently available to support a D2 or D3 with no less than 15,000 seats? Which clubs can sell them out week and week out? MLS teams inflate their attendances. Every Red Bull game I see on TV, it seems half the stadium is empty. Is ESPN going to broadcast Rochester vs Bethlehem? No wait, is anyone going to WATCH Rochester vs Bethlehem? Look, once MLS gets to 40 teams, as it could and should, then maybe there will be enough TV demand, and fan demand, to broadcast more games. Last year the Columbus Crew had 9,000 people at their playoff game! I appreciate fans are fans. But I am more interested in having a viable, popular top division team in North America than having investors cut and run because there are one or two teams in the NASL and the USL that could support an MLS team. Once the league gets to 40 teams, we can have MLS1 and MLS2 with pro/rel. But to think it will happen before 2035 or 2040 is just plain silly. And Landon Donovan, for the record, would never play for a relegated team.

  16. Ric Fonseca replied, November 27, 2015 at 7:47 p.m.

    Phil H, I don't agree with your comment, which is OK, right? Reason is that you're comparing apples and oranges, that is illustrating the millions of bucks spent in already established UK/EPL teams, and IMO you're cutting your nose to spite your face saying that pro/rel will not happen by 2035 or 2040. Further it is IMPERATIVE that we ALL put our collective soccer brains together and help the league grow, 'cause whenever I see nay-sayers of this and similar topics, to me that sounds like there are blocks of non-soccer believers out there that just don't want to see our sport grow and prosper. And as I've said before, we seem to wallow in nostalgia, whether it is former NT coaches, or "back in the day" dreamers, who just cannot see the soccer trees for the forest. Consider pro-football here in the US, remember when it was just a few teams during the 50's, and then saw it grow to having two conferences, and into this century to where now the NFL is even scheduling games in the UK, and have even played in Mexico City! Now with a strong concerted effort, I believe that MLS can get that big, all one must do is to look at the MLS Glass as being half-full, and yes it will encounter growing pains, and we must get our collective heads out of the sand so as I said before SI SE PUEDE!!!

  17. Mike in SoCal, December 1, 2015 at 2:31 p.m.

    Those of us old enough to have lived through the fits and spurts of the original NASL and have maintained a love for this sport (that unfortunately isn't shared by many others in this country) can be guarded with a certain selfish desire to see the game survive and hopefully soon thrive over any other concern. That should be the overriding desire no? To ensure the sport will survive before we can think of how it'll thrive.

    It's important to point out the fundamental difference between us and much of the rest of the world: soccer is the primary sport elsewhere. We lack the organic and naturally occurring groundswells of local support that comes with soccer being the most important thing in life for them. It's cradle to grave.

    That is just not the case here, wish it was but it isn't.

    Therefore while as a concept pro-rel is outstanding and I fully support it - but it doesn't mean we're at the point that implementing it at this time is wise to do. I hope it'll happen in coming years, we're just not there yet.

    It all goes back to what is more important, to see the game entrench itself using concepts more familiar to American fans, such as playoffs, pro-leagues, drafts, etc... or to establish an ideal system from the start. We've already learned lessons from NASL's first go-round, the sport needs time to grow roots and win broader support. I trust it'll happen, it's the best and most beautiful sport, but may take a generation or more.

    So if that means MLS is top of the pyramid at this point, lacking relegation pressures, lacking a FIFA schedule, lacking some of the other things that should and could be implemented, warts and all - it's about maintaining the bigger picture. Not ideal and not the end point, but reality is that it's where the most financially-committed owners and ownership groups are currently invested, with by far the most eyeballs too even if ratings haven't been there. So it is what it is, it's reality and I don't think soccer supporters should put purity above all else.

    If investor-owners are more willing to invest in infrastructure, academies, SSS's, etc and promote the game because they are guaranteed to remain 'top-flight' for the time being then it's a trade off those of us that love the sport like myself are willing to make.

    The USSF just can't keep moving the goalposts as to what constitutes the top of the pyramid. Because there is a real prospect of current-day NASL meeting those standards soon and as soon as they do then they should also be considered and designated top-flight soccer here. Therefore there is a mechanism to push the envelope that can be triggered and I hope they do, more power to them.

    In the end the sport will survive, that is what matters most. Pro-rel is a question we should be having, but let's have it when it's being pushed by the Cincinnati's, Albuquerque's, St. Louis's, Boise's, Edmonton's, etc. It's a conversation we should have but let's have it when we're realistically ready.

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