Nothing sparks a good soccer debate quite like pro/rel. There are many arguments on both sides for and against promotion and relegation, some romantic, others practical.
What's case for pro/rel? Pro/rel has an intensely passionate support group on social media with a strong anti-establishment or anti-corporate bent.
Many of the arguments are purely soccer-oriented, though. Among its arguments:
1. Pro/rel will generate increased fan interest.
The scenes of fans celebrating their
favorite team's promotion or survival from relegation are among the greatest in soccer.
The case for pro/rel is that there will be increased attendance for teams at the bottom of MLS -- where teams otherwise have nothing to play for at the
end of the season -- and for teams at the top of the Division 2 league below it that are in promotion and relegation battles.
2. Pro/rel will stimulate player
development. The argument of pro/rel proponents is that MLS's existing clubs have no incentive to improve without the threat of being relegated.
The argument is that the threat of
relegation will prompt MLS teams to spend more on player signings -- often a short-term fix -- but also on player development. Ditto for teams at the Division 2 level and below.
some validity to the latter situation. Player development at the Division 2 level and below is currently limited. And American soccer is unique, lacking incentivized development mechanisms beyond MLS.
Soccer isn't like football or basketball with a giant college industry churning out pros or ice hockey with its Junior A system. 3. No pro/rel will cut off access of soccer markets to
the top. The pro/rel fight has grown as MLS moves to cut off expansion -- likely at 28 teams -- after the next wave of expansion decisions, likely finished in 2018 or 2019.
argument is that MLS's closed system will kill off soccer in other markets if teams don't get to compete on the field for spots in America's Division I league. Division 2 pro soccer is and always has
been a tough business in the United States and Canada (though that would be no different with or without pro/rel).
American pro sports with successful lower leagues -- baseball and ice
hockey -- thrive because player salaries are paid for by major-league teams or players are amateurs -- college summer baseball or Junior hockey -- and these baseball and ice hockey teams play enough
dates -- often as many as four times what Division 2 soccer teams play -- to bring in enough revenues to cover expenses.
Other American sports grew more naturally over decades, allowing
institutions like high school and college sports teams to thrive. Those are lacking in soccer, making a stronger case for the need for local pro components.
What's case against pro/rel? MLS has pushed back against promotion and relegation. MLS commissioner Don Garber rejected an analysis on pro/rel made by Deloitte last year and insisted he did not expect
to see it in his lifetime.
1. Pro/rel wasn't what MLS owners signed up for. That's true of MLS's original owners who are still part of the league -- Phil Anschutz, Robert
Kraft and the Hunt family -- and owners who bought into the league paying increasingly higher expansion fees.
Why didn't MLS start out with a pro/rel system? No modern American league
has ever dreamed of operating with pro/rel (the norm in most sports leagues around the world).
MLS's founders, led by then-U.S. Soccer president and sports lawyer Alan Rothenberg,
were keenly aware of pro soccer's past failures and crafted a single-entity structure (which has survived court challenges) in order to control spending. The nature of that single-entity system is in
and of itself an impediment to the implementation of pro/rel with annual changes in league composition.
The other point is that in the early 1990s you could count on one hand the number
of teams trying to make a go of pro soccer, compared to the dozens today and hundreds more at the amateur level (PDL, NPSL, UPSL). The NASL had collapsed by the mid-1980s, and the ethnic game that
thrived for years dwindled as immigration patterns changed in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.
2. Pro/rel isn't what MLS's partners signed up for. The strongest argument against pro/leg
is that Division I pro soccer would not thrive today without the opening of soccer-specific stadiums that have allowed owners to control and maximize revenue streams and fans to call these stadiums
their own homes.
Pro/rel would put at risk the investment owners have made or intend to make -- but just an important, the investment of their partners, in particular local governments
who have invested or are today asked to make money and resources and political capital in soccer.
Without that certainty MLS offers, that investment will dry up or be made on different
terms to hedge against the greater degrees of risk. (An example of that is "claw-back fee" -- a penalty, in essence, if no MLS team is secured -- that the city of San Antonio and Bexar County negotiated with SS&E to buy Toyota Field from Scorpions owner Gordon Hartman.)
3. Pro/rel isn't all it's cracked up to be. For all the scenes of joy by all those teams that go or stay up, there's the forgotten: those teams that went down or missed out on relegation.
Pro/rel might be romantic, but the realities are often otherwise. It's a product of another age when the gap between the have's and have-not's were not so great.
Pro/rel isn't as
critical in the MLS context, where in keeping with the American tradition there is an important playoff component driving interest down the charts, so to speak.
The list of arguments, for
and against, is indeed long.