MLS's pro/rel dilemma

These two things can both be true:

As time passes, it's less and less likely that MLS will ever adopt a promotion-relegation system.

But adopting pro/rel would address growing problems — good problems — MLS faces.

Pro/rel touched a nerve somewhere in MLS's world this week.

An interview with Inter Miami head coach Phil Neville that was part of coverage that ended up with the two reporters from The Athletic being banned from an Inter Miami media day event included relatively measured comments from the pro/rel proponent: "I think some kind of reward, or promotion or relegation, is not a daft idea to explore."

An editor's note was later inserted about Inter Miami's "concern about Neville’s comments" on promotion and relegation and offered the “proper context” for his thoughts: “To clarify, this is my personal feeling based on my previous experiences. With that being said, the single-entity format has contributed towards the league’s position on the world stage, has enabled the sport to grow enormously in this country, and has allowed it to become the highly competitive and exciting MLS that we enjoy so much.”

That's the crux of the issue: MLS would have never gotten where it is today without its single-entity format or closed system, but how does it ever change its format or open its closed system even if there are benefits to pro/rel?

In the NASL's 17 seasons before its collapse after the 1984 season, I never once heard anyone even mention pro/rel as an alternative. If it was to organically grow, the time was after the 1994 World Cup, but it was never going to happen. The outdoor soccer landscape — outside the college game — was at its lowest point in decades and the idea of a tiered system — perhaps great on paper — was not FIFA's or U.S. television networks' idea of a pro soccer league taking off in the aftermath of USA '94. And it certainly wasn't that of the investors who started MLS in 1996.

Almost three decades later, investment in MLS is not an issue. But expansion groups and their municipal and commercial partners aren't putting down upwards of $700 million in total start-up costs (expansion fees, stadium construction and training facility development) for the bottom to fall out in one year, five years or 10 years.

What do I think of pro/rel in MLS? Here's what I wrote in 2015: "It will never happen. End of story."

Since then, a legal challenge to the U.S. system of closed leagues — none of the six U.S. pro leagues currently operating has a pro/rel system — came and went in the form of Miami FC & Kingston Stockade FC v. FIFA.

The plaintiffs hung their hats on FIFA Article 9, which requires promotion based “principally” on sporting merit. It was a position I argued would be rejected, and the Court of Arbitration for Sport indeed did, finding that Article 9’s FIFA authors did not intend to require open systems in all countries, only in those that “traditionally and consistently” used pro/rel and were faced with issues of clubs trying to "purchase" promotion that led to the article's adoption at the 2008 FIFA Congress.

Even if FIFA wanted to rewrite Article 9 and enforce pro/rel, it would likely face legal challenges so great that it would never risk the legal precedent of losing its authority over the operation of domestic leagues.

Still ...

Pro/rel has merits in regards to fostering an open system and strengthening competition.

Perhaps the best opportunity MLS has ever had is its partnership with Apple and the launch of MLS Season Pass. When it was introduced, the emphasis in "Every Game. No Blackouts." was on local — no annoying blackouts — but the coolest thing about the new Apple channel is how it will treat MLS as a national sport.

No longer will MLS be limited to the games networks decide to carry three, six, even nine months in advance or the golazos so special producers can't ignore them on sports news shows. MLS and Apple can choose each week the biggest games to send their top broadcast teams to and to cut in on live with their "MLS 360" whip-around show. "MLS Countdown" and "MLS Wrap-Up" won't focus on a single game but all the upcoming action and the day's biggest storylines.

But in listening to Apple execs over the last nine months, I suspect they might overestimate the level of interest MLS fans have for watching games involving teams other than their favorite team. MLS's in-stadium fan experience has been consistently rated among the best in U.S. sports — the payoff on the investment of owners in soccer-specific stadiums — but it has made no in-roads in developing a national television audience even as rapid expansion has created the national footprint MLS lacked in its early years.

Building a national television audience will take decades. Does anyone really expect fans will have much interest in teams that were only formed a few years ago? Or in players (mostly imported) whom they've never heard of? That MLS has done as well as it has in the face of competition from leagues and tournaments around the world is amazing. But MLS would create a whole new potential audience by opening its closed system. It wouldn't be a quick fix — but it would reinforce MLS Season Pass's national appeal.

Neville isn't the first MLS coach to advocate for promotion and relegation. In his 2020 interview with Grant Wahl, Bob Bradley  said pro/rel "eventually" has to happen. Probably his strongest argument?  "Right now there’s a feeling by too many that they’re not part of the game in this country, and we have to work harder to change that."

A subtler value of pro/rel relates to its competitive impetus.

For years, MLS wanted to become a selling league. Now it is. According to FIFA, teams in the U.S. (MLS and USL) earned $135.2 million in transfer fees in 2022, up from $59.9 million in 2021 and $39.7 million in 2020. The issue is replacing the players teams have sold. Another new (and good) problem for MLS.

The New England Revolution went from record-setting Supporters' Shield winners in 2021 to out of the playoff picture in 2022. Injuries ultimately doomed the Revs, but they were faced with replacing Tajon Buchanan, Matt Turner and Adam Buksa with players who arrived after the start of the season. Coming off its best season ever, CF Montreal will face the same issue in 2022 after selling Djordje Mihailovic, Ismael Kone and Alistair Johnston.

In time, teams will learn to anticipate their selling opportunities and be ready to reload, but without the threat of relegation there is no incentive to quickly reload and stay competitive.

Selling for selling's sake won't cut it with fans.

Top Photo: MLS. Bob Bradley Photo: Andrew Katsampes/ISI Photos

24 comments about "MLS's pro/rel dilemma".
  1. Kent James, February 23, 2023 at 1:09 a.m.

    Good article.  Clearly Pro/Rel is the way to go, but as the article points out, it's hard to relegate teams that were just create with large investments.  But it seems like the MLS should get a set number (30?), and after that, not accept new teams into the MLS.  After about 5 years, shift to a pro/rel system, so teams can earn their way in.  Maybe even drop one more than you bring up (if you want a higher quality top division with maybe 20 teams) for a while.  For the first few years (10?) the league should help out financially with MLS teams that were relegated (to cover the debts they incurred while in the MLS).  Maybe the MLS covers their debt payments while they're in the lower leagues or for 5 yrs, whichever is less.  

    I think the greatest problem for Pro/Rel is the financial weakness of the league below the MLS, so dropped MLS teams woud fall into oblivion.  But the USL is getting stronger, and with some investment at that level, they can get closer to MLS levels so the relegation is bad, but not a death sentence.  

    It can't happen yet, but I hope to see this in the next 10 years (and maybe get a plan in place in the next 5)...

  2. Bob Ashpole replied, February 23, 2023 at 1:20 a.m.

    This isn't Europe. Pro/rel is fine when clubs are independent of leagues. But MLS owns all the MLS clubs and holds all the player contracts. The MLS parity business plan works. It isn't broke so don't try to fix it.

    All clubs benefit from the parity business plan. Otherwise you end up with clubs in big markets, like the NY Yankees did for decades, dominating all others. And of course the smaller market clubs are the ones that get relegated. Pure economics at work, not soccer.

  3. humble 1 replied, February 23, 2023 at 10:17 a.m.

    no such thing as pure economics, even in the academic world of economics.  The Yankee analagie is wrong and flys in the face of the global soccer game, and their model is why something like 50% of new pro players coming into MLB come from ex-USA, from the Caribbean belt, Cuba to Columbia.  In Buenos Aires, Argentina and and Montevideo, Uruguay 4/5 of top flight d1, d2 and d3 teams are in those cities.  They still have a vibrant game in the countryside.  The density of clubs in the big city give density of academies which are free and the lifeblood of the youth soccer scene.  Not ecomonics, this is sport, accounting and a bit of finance sprinkled on.  Pro/Rel in MLS - dead end - given the model - but - it may be why an ABA comes up behind them, like it did to the NBA.  Soccer still young here, they, MLS, will lose control of the game they way they are running it now.  Have a nice day.

  4. Bob Ashpole replied, February 23, 2023 at 5:57 p.m.

    Are we talking business or sport? Because it makes a difference.

  5. humble 1 replied, February 24, 2023 at 9:48 a.m.

    sports at the professsional level is by definition business.

  6. Bob Ashpole replied, February 24, 2023 at 1 p.m.

    From a sports viewpoint the number of professional players is so small that they are insignificant to the sport. Even back in the mid-80s after NASL folded there were about 100,000 active adult players in the US. The 2022 estimate is over 5 million adult players.

    The big difference between professional soccer and soccer is that soccer is a participant sport; professional soccer is entertainment for fans. I loved playing the sport. When I watch at age 71, my feet still twitch when I see an opportunity to finish. I don't particularly care for soccer as entertainment. Especially when it is played so poorly. Since I quit coaching, I don't watch it for educational purposes any more.

    Some people say professional soccer is important for youth development. I think that is BS. Players like Mia Hamm and Pele inspire youth whether they get paid to do it or not. And both played for the love of the game, not for money. Long before there was TV, there were older brothers, parents and neighbors to inspire kids. That is the true value of street soccer.

  7. Matthew McKnight replied, February 24, 2023 at 1:50 p.m.

    pro/rel could happen in MLS, division 1 and 2 as the number of teams heads to 40, perhaps absorbing some USL teams on the way. convert the playoffs to a 40 team single elimination bracket, march madness style.

  8. Bob Ashpole replied, February 24, 2023 at 4:27 p.m.

    Mathew, you are correct about what "could" be. But the business plan is parity with rules to enforce it. So pro/rel is contrary to the business plan, rewarding clubs that adopt a European business plan of winning through spending money on player contracts. That doesn't necessarily lead to better soccer. Parity on the other hand is supposed to encourage teams to win through playing better soccer rather than spending money.

    MLS seems to be moving toward a business model that profits by buying and selling player contracts. Parity also promotes that business plan, while pro/rel does not.

    The lack of pro/rel is not arbitrary. It makes economic sense.

  9. Peter Kurilecz replied, February 24, 2023 at 8:17 p.m.

    the issue of investment is a smokescreen just look at FSG, the Glazers, Todd Boehly and Behdad Eghbali paid what $5 billion for Chelsea. Reynolds and McElhenny buy a non league team with the desire to eventually get to the EPL

    have MLS divest themselves of the teams give the owners 100% ownership. let the rump MLS be the equivalent of the Football League and bring the USL underneath the umbrella

    just some thoughts

  10. James Geluso, February 23, 2023 at 1:06 p.m.

    I've never been convinced that the benefits espoused by pro/rel advocates would happen, and this article doesn't change anything. Would pro/rel really attract a bunch of new fans? Surveys may claim so, but I think those fans saying they would tune in if there were pro/rel would not actually follow through. And why would coaches and GMs change their behavior due to the threat of relegation when their jobs are already at risk in the current system? I'm all for promotion-through-expansion, but contraction-through-relegation has downside with no upside. Pro/rel was invented in a time before television; MLS was not. 

  11. Ben Myers, February 23, 2023 at 1:07 p.m.

    Garber, MLS and the billionaire owners think we will all sign up for Apple TV just to watch a still-mediocre product?  Now there is some wrong-headed thinking!  Not me.  After the first season of MLS Season Pass, I'd like to see Apple provide us with year-over-year subscriber numbers. My hypothesis is that MLS loses viewers but the money still goes into the owners' pockets. 

  12. Chris Wasdyke replied, February 24, 2023 at 7:43 a.m.

    Honestly, it doesn't really sound like they are going after people like you, who already just "hate" MLS.  However, that being said, there are still games broadcast on FS1 and I believe apple will be providing a few free game weeks a season.  So you can still watch the mediocre product if you like or you can watch the EPL which is purely dominated by rich billionaires who spend billions on players with no thought about the clubs financial future.  Also, if you think apple tv is expensive for MLS, good thing you don't live in the UK.  My in-laws can't even afford to watch premier league games in their own country.

  13. Kevin Sims, February 23, 2023 at 2:09 p.m.

    Conundrum. MLS model has exceeded expectations and grown in every possible regard. Yet the game needs to be brought to the masses. US Soccer's intentional investment in grassroots soccer in every nook and cranny across the country is the first necessary step. This ultimately sets the stage for pro soccer to quench the thirst for the game everywhere. 

  14. James Madison, February 23, 2023 at 3:20 p.m.

    If a form ofPro-Rel can be devised to fit within the single entity structure, it can become a reality.  Otherwise not.

  15. Santiago 1314, February 23, 2023 at 4:04 p.m.

    How about letting the Top Teams from D2 into the MLS Playoffs...
    Or, if a D2 team should win the Open Cup, they get a "Free" Season in MLS

  16. R2 Dad, February 23, 2023 at 5 p.m.

    Pro/rel with MLS isn't going to happen because you're dealing with billionaires who need a guaranteed ROI. That's what the Teflon Don promised, that's the most important priority--money over sport. The Wrexham story proves that regular fans and mere millionaire investors can get involved in the sport, given better incentives (and a league outside the USA). Notice that those Wrexham investors didn't jump at the opportunity at a USL team, because there was no upside being trapped in a closed league. Wrexham investment by Americans = $3M. MLS investment required by Don Garber = $500M ($250M franchise fee + $250M new stadium). At this point I don't care because pro/rel will never happen in my lifetime unless USSF grows a set. What is more important is USSF/MLS sharing Training & Solidarity payments with the small clubs that did the actual development.  USSF at the very least should be tracking player club association every year, at the very least, in order to rationalize sharing those dollars. But because USSF is in bed with MLS Cone can shrug her shoulders and claim it's just too hard to do and MLS should continue to harvest those dollars despite not earning them. Cruz Medina didn't spend his entire life at SJ Earthquakes; that was a recent move. Will SF Glens get any of those dollars if he signs for a European club? No, because MLS is too greedy and they don't want a strong or organized lower division structure in this country.

  17. humble 1 replied, February 24, 2023 at 10:02 a.m.

    agree 100%.  Let me add this - Wrexem is not a new story - it is just one that is on TV.  MLS however, this is a new story.  It is a singular league in the global stage.  Why?  Well you here folks toss about the term franchise, and then some shout back, but not like McDonalds.  Yes. True.  Here is what is key - and why MLS will always struggle with Pro/Rel.  Go to the extreme - what is the yang if MLS is ying?  It is Bundasliga.  And in Bundasliga what is the most extreme example?  Union Berlin.  Watched a bit of the UB v Schalke game with my son Sunday - he mentioned - dad 'did you know UB is 100% fan owned and that the fans scrapped together the funds - to save the club from bankrupcy?'.  I did not.  Perfect example. Why?  UB is owned 100% by fans.  We all know Germany has pro/rel.  What is the difference between Bundaliga and MLS?  MLS owns the league and the teams!  Bundaliga - is a league only!  Zero ownership in team - they do not even have a say in the teams that are in their league!  Participation is controlled by rules set by German Football Association, which Bundaliga is a member, but does not control.   Bundasliga has no say in how Union Berlin is run or who owns it.  The German football association does - and there is a separate thread for that conversation.  Bundasliga has no right to tell UB who should own the club or how much they pay players.  MLS owns the league and the teams - runs the league - and sets the player pay caps, free agency and all this.  You cannot relegate a team from MLS because the team is part of MLS.  That is how it is - and this is why MLS goes for playoff - not pro/rel - because they control the playoff too - as we know well with the zany three game playoffs.  Have a nice day.

  18. Wooden Ships, February 23, 2023 at 7:06 p.m.

    Pro-rel was talked about in St. Louis in the 60's and 70's, about how cool it would be someday. We knew the game would grow, amateur and professionally. And, it has and it will continue. You want to be the envy of sports fans around the country? Introduce consequence to mediocrity. Guaranteed that non soccer fans would be jealous and you'll find them seduced by the drama. 

  19. Stephen Wangen, February 24, 2023 at 10:19 a.m.

    You were right in 2015. This article is fun click bait, but of course completely irrelevant. The only issue to discuss here is what it would actually take to implement this. So what are the legalities of implementing pro/rel?  Whose in charge of this?  MLS?  The owners?  And what would they personally have to financially gain or lose by implementing this? 

    I agree with Bob Ashpole and humble 1 above. The only incentive to do this would be to allow teams to create dominance by removing any caps.  That would speak to owner's egos, and then they might be willing to implement pro/rel.  That could be the only way teams in the MLS can compete with the top leagues in the world. But our league as a whole isn't broken. So there is nothing to fix. It's only greedy fans who want to be like the EPL that want this. (I might be one of them.)

  20. Stephen Wangen replied, February 24, 2023 at 10:29 a.m.

    I just read humble 1's last comment. Great point. The only way we ever get pro/rel is if a new league is formed that implements it, or if MLS feels threatened by the idea of that happening and implements it themselves. That's an intriguing idea. Could soccer grow in North America to the point that there is enough interest and money that this concept gets tested by a new league or implemented by MLS?  Or could a team (or teams) here join a league in another country where they already have pro/rel? 

  21. Dave Wasser, February 24, 2023 at 11:27 a.m.

    Why do people even discuss promotion and relegation??? There is no way in hell that MLS owners would ever adopt a system that could see their team relegated, but NOT promoted. It's never going to be in their interests to do it, so it's not going to happen.

    Can we please talk about something else?

  22. Wallace Wade, February 24, 2023 at 12:50 p.m.

    I agree with Humble. MLS and The Federation will eventually be subplanted in the future if they stay on the current road

  23. Bob Ashpole replied, February 24, 2023 at 4:34 p.m.

    By federal law USSF is supposed to promote amatuer soccer, not be a trade union for professional soccer. Please Brar Fox "don't throw me in the briar patch"!

    Having an oranization again that is dedicated to player development in charge would be great. But USSF fixed that when it ursurped control from the national youth organization like USYSA.

  24. Bob Ashpole replied, February 24, 2023 at 4:36 p.m.

    PS: I still have copies of the USYSA coaching materials stored on my PC.

Next story loading loading..

Discover Our Publications