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?"
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
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
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.