Pro/Rel: The case for and against

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.

There is 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.

The 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.
21 comments about "Pro/Rel: The case for and against".
  1. Kate Phillips , July 25, 2017 at 9:01 a.m.

    Thank you. Of course, even this won't shut the soccer nerds up (most of whom had never heard of soccer prior to 1994), who will still insist that if "football" is not played on a natural grass "pitch" (turf is the spawn of the devil), all of the teams aren't United, FC, or some derivative, and, above all, there is no promotion and relegation,then it's not really soccer, um, I mean, football.

  2. Wooden Ships replied, July 25, 2017 at 11:19 a.m.

    Kate, you sound like a faux fan. Ironic to be referred to as a soccer need, after dreaming of pro-rel and playing on real grass in the 60's, 70's and 80's and then retiring from Coaching in 2011. Respect your opinion though, just diametrically opposed.

  3. Ben Myers, July 25, 2017 at 9:07 a.m.

    Lack of pro/rel contributes to the mediocrity of MLS play. For example, Robert Kraft seems content with his New England Revolution's continued mediocrity. The Revs are a team full of decent players, but no game-changers. Other MLS clubs in low population metro areas have the same complacency and mediocrity as Kraft's Revs. Even tho I believe that over-the-hill marquee players from other continents playing in MLS inhibit the development of USMNT candidates, Kraft has not brought in even one marquee player in quite a few years. If done right, marquee players can serve as role models, assistant coaches, and on-the-field leaders. Many of them move on to coaching careers anyway, so playing in MLS with contracts structured around player mentoring would be a win-win. Unfortunately, the pro/rel horse came out of the barn in 1995 when MLS was formed, and MLS owners, like other sports magnates in this country, are risk averse.

  4. Paul Berry replied, July 25, 2017 at 1:45 p.m.

    No it's salary budgets that contribute most to the mediocrity of MLS play but they're necessary if you don't want 3 or 4 teams to dominate the league for years to come.

  5. Peter Collins, July 25, 2017 at 10:27 a.m. dream two cents. Take or leave.

    1. D1 soccer changes its season to be most of the year. See

    2.USL & NASL merge to form one solid Second Division League. Kill this multiple D2 garbage now.

    3. MLS & new Second Division adopt a similar season as proposed by NCAA D1 soccer (see Item 1 above). If the colleges can figure nationwide weather out, I'd guess the MLS could too.

    4. Hopefully, D1 ball starts to become "a giant college industry churning out pros" (see item two in article).

    5. With everyone on the same page, start the PRO/REL process with (maybe) one team or two teams. Dip feet into the deep end of the pool...

    6. Have U.S. Soccer open up its mouth and (for lack of better terms) force this through for the benefit of National Team development on the global stage.

    Flame away...

  6. Wooden Ships replied, July 25, 2017 at 11:22 a.m.

    Have to agree with you Peter, except I would add all 4 year Divisions to the two semester season.

  7. Peter Collins replied, July 25, 2017 at 11:36 a.m.

    Absolutely - ALL Colleges all Divisions on the proposed NCAA D1 schedule.

  8. :: SilverRey :: replied, July 25, 2017 at 11:54 a.m.

    College doesn't work for professional soccer. 22 year old rookies are too old in soccer years - they've lost 4 years of professional development. If we are going to progress we need more Academies. As it is the MLS Draft only produces a handful of viable players each year.

  9. Peter Collins replied, July 25, 2017 at 12:15 p.m.

    The point was to at least keep college, Div 2, and MLS aligned with the world stage. Keep academies too. Work towards the larger overall goal.

  10. Rusty Welch, July 25, 2017 at 10:52 a.m.

    I have to laugh every time I hear all the financial arguments against pro/rel. The 'owners' who stand to lose out on lots of money (that is, if they put a crap product on the field and their team sucks). How many of the soccer stadiums were paid entirely by these owners? Did they not get a lot of help from local municipalities to fund them?
    Does ANYONE doubt that, as Peter said above, combining USL/NASL into 1 strong 2nd division with even a 1-team pro/rel would not drastically improve the development of US players?
    While we're flaming away, how about standardizing the field size as well - what an epic joke that we have 'skinny' fields - how about you just make up your own dimensions, doesn't seem to matter to MLS.....
    Sometimes, you should do what's right - not what's expedient. Change is sometimes painful, but if we want to be serious about taking our game to the next level, we should encourage steps that will help us get there. Pro/Rel with a competitive 2nd division would help with that - because right now, college soccer and the splintered USL/NASL isn't getting it done as well.

  11. Brian Kraft, July 25, 2017 at 10:56 a.m.

    Like any fundamental change, pro/rel must be introduced -- planned and announced -- several years in advance of implementation. That will go a long way toward easing, or even eliminating, the major concerns. I love the idea so much that I favor it even though DC United is my team!

  12. Bob Ashpole, July 25, 2017 at 11:35 a.m.

    On the con side you left out the economics. Soccer is a growth industry in the US, not so in Europe. London for instance has 13 professional soccer clubs, 5 of which play in the top division (EPL).

  13. Chris Wirth, July 25, 2017 at 12:24 p.m.

    Maybe I missed it in the article, but one of the best arguments for a pro/rel system in the US is simply for the growth of the sport. The country is large enough to support hundreds of pro clubs in several tiers (ten at least), which could pull in soccer fans from every corner of the country. But, in order to galvanize their interest, there has to be a path to the top that can be decided on the field and not at the whim of a boardroom. No fan would choose for their team to be minor league, and so will likely never be as invested in one that has no hope of better things.

  14. Paul Berry replied, July 25, 2017 at 1:34 p.m.

    There are 60 professional clubs in the US and Canada. In 2018 there will be 68, There are 2 D3 proposals plus the Canadian Premier League. There's every chance that by 2022 there will be over 100 professional teams in North America. That's a very healthy rate of growth and I don't see any reason why it would stop there.

  15. Paul Berry, July 25, 2017 at 1:17 p.m.

    - "Pro/rel will generate increased fan interest".

    Attendances plunge at relegation threatened teams during most of the season. Any excitement is generated in the last couple of games for the 2 or 3 teams still battling to avoid relegation.

    - "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"

    Half the teams in the Premier League have nothing to play for at the end of the season. Stoke City find themselves in that position every year.

    - "Pro/rel will stimulate player development".

    Seriously? How many top Premier League stars can you name that have been signed from the lower divisions?

    I'm all for promotion and relegation, my team, Notts County has been promoted or relegated more times than anyone. But pro-rel advocates, please stop peddling incorrect assumptions as facts.

  16. Kevin Leahy, July 25, 2017 at 1:45 p.m.

    Don't believe American owners will ever buy into that. I am ok being different from the rest of the world. Don't believe it has an effect on development has long as the pro clubs have junior teams. There are baseball fans all over this country that go to minor league games.

  17. Brooks Cochrum, July 25, 2017 at 2:44 p.m.

    In the USA, Pro/Rel is a much better case for Major League Baseball.

    Due to the wild labor agreements in the MLB splitting it into two levels would generate the kind of buzz it always seeks. Since there are so many it would also be easy for them to modify and include games against the upper level for each team just like they do now without harming anything.

    There are plenty of have-nots and rarely cans in MLB that usually actually have a chance to complete for about 3-4 weeks of their very long season.

    There are wild disparities in finances in the MLB just like there is in the EPL and other Euro leagues...The MLS is so similar between clubs that there isn't really an obvious fair split at this time...That said if ever done I wouldn't include the lower leagues in it...I would have an A and B and add to the B from the lower leagues as applicable.

  18. miguel abisaab, July 25, 2017 at 5:40 p.m.

    Hello my good man,long time not commenting. I am still enjoying retirement.
    Twenty one years later, MLS and US soccer still have a long long way to go.
    Many of the comments that I read have valid points. Amrican owners at this time may not go for it, however since the MLS original Big 3 owners, there are new ownership groups that do embrace the Promotion and Regulation.
    American and Canadian soccer fans that have followed soccer prior to and after the 1994 World Cup and start of MLS are aware of the Pros and Cons of Pro/Rel.
    The Canadian Soccer Association would need to add MLS teams in Edmonton, Ottawa, and Winnipeg. Should Montreal,TFC or Vancouver were ever regulated they still would have a Canadian MLS team in the top tier, but the possibility also exists that all Canadian based teams could be in a MLS second division, it can happen. So would Canadian teams opt out and form a new CSL maybe, but in the US at this time with the growth of marketing soccer through ICC,Champions League,EPL, La Liga, etc.. then look to Germany with the Bundesliga.
    If we follow a sound Pro/Rel plan in the United States, The Bundesliga is probably what's been on the minds of those who would argue for the implement of Pro/Rel.
    The creation of MLS 1 and MLS 2 with a USL 1 and USL 2 would need to have strong ownership group/groups,strong local economic stability, fan base and stadiums that are soccer specific.
    A 28 team MLS like a 32 team NFL may not be in the best intrest. However changes in the future of soccer in the US could possibly see Pro/Rel after the 2026 World Cup, the more soccer is seen on TV, the more educated people become with soccer, more will embrace the Pro/Rel like we see overseas, the drama that EPL and Championship promotion and regulation matches provide one would like to expirenace that feeling in the US and Canada.
    If done correctly the format would work, Bundesliga 1&2 since 1963 has brought 3 World Cup championships,7 World Cup finals appearances for the German Men's National soccer team, the EPL/Championship 0. Dosen't hurt to try. All the best to all enjoy the summer! back to retirememnt!
    Take care,

  19. Fire Paul Gardner Now, July 26, 2017 at 10:32 a.m.

    I think pro/rel can work but not yet. We probably need another generation worth of growth in the sport before it makes sense. 40 teams in 2 20 team divisions (MLS and MLS2) with 3 up, 3 down. It can work.

  20. Fire Paul Gardner Now replied, July 26, 2017 at 1:45 p.m.

    Unconvincing. Please try harder. Expansion fees keep getting higher so what do you think sounds more appealing: stopping that gravy train after expansion to 28 teams or get 12 more expansion teams and go to 40? Plus you also seem to forget that relegated teams can get promoted back again. Happens all the time!

  21. Brian McLindsay, July 28, 2017 at 10:15 p.m.

    Pro/rel will come in time, but first some of the crazy transfer fees flying around the rest of the world will need to come toward the MLS.(Chelsea is on the brink of signing [a] Juventus' £60 million left-back Alex Sandro) 1. At this time U.S. Soccer is not allowing training or solidarity payments to go to any of the thousands of independent youth soccer clubs for player development. 2. You are seeing a development pyramid created at the lower level with the DA program at the top of the youth ranks. 3. Most of the MLS teams are starting to focus on their DA programs (maybe in hopes of developing quality first team players). I would guess Pro/rel will only come to MLS when owners are able to mitigate any possible reduction in the $180 million dollar average franchise valuation, like when they start generating international trade deals regularly and receive some solidarity payments!

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