Why MLS Should Never Adopt Pro/Rel
Updated: Jun 1
The Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled recently that footballs' global governing body, the not at all corrupt FIFA, is under no legal obligation to force US Soccer and the MLS to adopt a promotion and relegation model. A legal case was brought forward in 2017 by lower league clubs Miami FC and Kingston Stockade FC. Both wished to force FIFA to impose article 9 on Major League Soccer, which would effectively force the league to adopt a pro/rel model. The prospect of winning promotion probably makes MLS entry seem a tad more realistic to them than stumping up the $300m(ish) entry fee. A New York court thankfully ruled in favour of FIFA (something I never thought I'd be glad of). This is something that should come as a relief to Major League Soccer fans the world over.
Article 9 of FIFA's Regulations for the Applications of Statutes says: “A club’s entitlement to take part in a domestic league championship shall depend principally on sporting merit. A club shall qualify for a domestic league championship by remaining in a certain division or by being promoted or relegated to another at the end of a season.”
Realistically article 9 is more of a guideline. In relative terms, soccer in the United States is still very much in its infancy. The pro/rel model is something that is used the world over, but that doesn't necessarily mean it fits the particular nuances of the American sporting market.
The issue of promotion and relegation for Major League Soccer has been a bone of contention since its inception. Whilst it's fair to assume the majority of MLS supporters are anti pro/rel, there are those who think differently. That being said, the pro/rel model is not something I think the league should ever adopt. And no, i'm not just saying that because I'm an Orlando City fan. Though, let's face it. We'd be in trouble if relegation were a threat. There are a number of different reasons why MLS shouldn't adopt pro/rel. Here's why:
1. The economic ramifications of relegation to USL could be ruinous for some clubs
MLS clubs are largely dependent on funding from the taxpayer to build MLS calibre stadiums. Our very own Orlando City being a solid case study. Relegation has been proven to impact on attendances for clubs the world over, and in a potentially volatile market where soccer is not the national sport the risk would be too great. Markets such as New England, Orlando and Houston already compete with larger and more well established teams across different sports. Relegation inevitably brings a diminished product on the field, and so the potential for interest waning and subsequent revenue loss in individual markets is considerable.
MLS is currently receiving record levels of investment, and the game's popularity growing at an exponential rate. There is another World Cup coming to the United States in 2026. The league cannot afford to upset the balance. Sentiments echoed by the MLS Commissioner himself. The Commissioner appeared to distance himself from the concept of pro/rel, citing the economic risks such a model would bring as a huge cause for concern. In an interview with the Kansas City Star Don Garber said:
“Just because there is promotion/relegation in other leagues that were founded on different principles doesn’t mean that it would make sense in Major League Soccer. We have a vibrant No. 2 league in the USL. We have (Sporting KC principal owner) Cliff (Illig) and his partners that have just put $60m of capital, along with the public, into this building. If all of a sudden they’re playing in a different division that doesn’t have national revenues – because the USL doesn’t have that – how does that make any sense? There’s no economic rationality to promotion/relegation whatsoever in the era that we’re in today."
2. Relegation to USL would inevitably lead to decreased attendances
Attendances at our own Orlando City have dwindled every year we have missed the play-offs from 32,847 in 2015 to 22,761 in 2019. I'm aware our stadium in 2015, was much bigger than Exploria Stadium but our average attendances are still someway short of capacity. And this is, in no way, me criticising the supporter base. We have the best hardcore fans in the league in my view.
It's not too much of a stretch to imagine that these numbers would fall further with relegation to the USL. You could argue that Orlando City had very healthy attendances in the USL, but it's too much of a gamble for the league to take. Especially when you consider the disparity in how each market would react following relegation.
When you are trying to grow a sport you have to attract the casual fan. Success is how you keep the casual fan coming through the door. The casual fan then becomes the hardcore fan. The casual fan will only attend when things are going well, when the best players are on show, in the best league. Relegation negates that. Well established teams such as Seattle and the Galaxy have amassed huge followings, that may not have been possible with pro/rel. I know that's me completely hyperboling, but it's worth considering. Would a relegation have hampered their progress? Perhaps. Perhaps not.
3. MLS clubs does not have the infrastructure or financial clout to 'flourish' as much as other clubs relegated to 2nd tier leagues such as the EFL Championship and 2. Bundesliga.
The average attendances across the English Football League Championship, the standard bearer for 2nd tier soccer for the 2018-19 season were 28,087. For the 2. Bundesliga the attendance average stood at 19,128. By comparison the USL Championship averaged 4,478. Therefore it's not stretching it to say that there is the potential for interest (and attendances) to dip in certain markets following relegation to the USL. The USL in general is not a league that commands large national interest. National coverage is minimal at this point.
There are attendance outliers and success stories in the USL, Louisville City being one such example. The Kentucky based outfit averaged just over 9,000 for their 2019 season. You get the feeling they may be bound for MLS some day, circa Nashville and other popular USL clubs. The USL does a great job in terms of developing clubs and supporter bases for MLS. It doesn't need a pro/rel model to highlight its intrinsic value.
From an economic and commercial standpoint it's almost impossible to predict how individual American soccer markets would react to a relegation. Due in part to the relative infancy of the league. Even clubs such as LA Galaxy have only been around (in MLS) since 1996. There is no way of telling how that market would react to relegation. Even the biggest clubs in the world have struggled with it. When the famous Leeds United were relegated from the EPL in 2004, they averaged 36,119 at their home games. When they were relegated to the EFL Championship, a mere 3 years after their appearance in a Champions League semi-final, they averaged 28,814. The following season, a further drop 22,355. Whilst these figures are not universal, after all not every team relegated from a top flight sees it's attendance numbers fall, they are a reliable risk predictor. That being said German giants VFB Stuttgart are an excellent example of how a team can hold on to the high attendance figures they are used to following relegation. These examples are a useful yardstick to accurately display the risks of what could happen; the unpredictability of it all. As such it's impossible to predict with any real certainty that an MLS club would attract the same numbers they do in MLS, a league below.
Despite the struggle clubs like Leeds have had since relegation from the EPL, they still haven't gotten back up by the way, the EFL continues to flourish. The reason? Well there are a number of them, but perhaps the biggest one is the mere size of the club's that find themselves in that division. Clubs like Leeds United and Nottingham Forest are giants of the English game in their own rights. Big clubs go up, and big ones go down. The MLS is simply not well established enough to boast so many big teams. But that will come, with time.
One of the main reasons leagues like the EFL Championship command huge television broadcast deals ($149m-per season) is the size of the team's that compete in them. All with 100+ years on every pro soccer team in the US. MLS and the USL simply do not have that. Sure, some supporter bases would possibly flourish in USL. It may even benefit the USL. But it's simply to big a risk to take. A huge risk with little promise of reward in terms of the games long term betterment, is one simply not worth taking.
And that's part of the reason why the EFL Championship and 2. Bundesliga work so well. An Aston Villa gets promoted, and is replaced by a Fulham. A Werder Bremen could go down (as looks likely) and could be replaced by a VFB Stuttgart. Huge clubs, bedrocks of their communities and with massive supporter bases. The American system does not offer that at this stage. Down goes an LA Galaxy and up comes an Indy Eleven. No disrespect intended.
There is also the small fact that most of these European teams have 100+ years on clubs in the MLS and USL. Clubs with huge supporter bases, not all of them bouncing straight back at the first attempt. Only 28% of teams relegated from the EFL Championship bounce back to the EPL within the first season. Relegation could be ruinous for some clubs. If an LA Galaxy or a Seattle Sounders were to be relegated, there are no guarantees they would come straight back up to MLS. Such an event would only be detrimental to MLS. For example anyone honestly say even the EPL is better off with a Burnley in it, rather than Leeds United. No. They can't.
4. The pro/rel model encourages disparity on the field.
One of the things that's most appealing about MLS, and indeed many American sports, is how the system lends itself to creating as level a playing field as possible. Draft picks, salary caps, trades, GAM. These are all things designed to create and garner competitiveness in the league. And it works wonderfully well. Since it's 1996 inception MLS has seen 14 different MLS Cup winners. In the same period of time the English Premier League has seen 5 different winners, the German Bundesliga has seen 6 and the Spanish La Liga 4. In Europe, where pro/rel is abound, the rich tend to stay rich and the poor tend to stay poor. The system lends itself to inequality on the field.
Financially speaking, some clubs within MLS have more than others. That much is obvious, but what MLS doesn't allow for is financial monopoly. Yes, you might have clubs like LAFC who are clearly able to spend more than Orlando City. But when teams like Orlando finish lower down the standings (I know, it hurts me too) they get a higher placed draft pick. They can then choose to trade it up or down, which then allows them to spend more. Or they can use it to improve their team. The system just works. And yes, I'm aware that's a poor way of explaining the intricate network of sorcery that is an MLS trade deal. But, you get the jist.
5. Soccer is uniquely placed in the American commercial sports market
We are talking about a nation where soccer is not the national sport. MLB, the NFL, the NBA, collegiate sports rule the roost. And that will probably always be the case. To highlight the disparity between the other major sporting leagues in the US, you only need to peek at the relevant broadcast right packages. CBS pays around £1bn purely for the rights to air NFL games on a Sunday, while ESPN splurge around £2bn per season for the rights to air Monday Night Football. By comparison ESPN, Fox Sports and Univision currently pay around $90m combined, per season to show MLS games. Pro football is just a much bigger sport in a commercial sense. The same can easily be said of all the other major sports in the US Whilst these figures are record fees for Major League Soccer, it's a drop in the pond by comparison to a league such as the NFL. For this reason soccer finds itself in a strong, but precarious position by comparison to the rest of the world.
How does all of this relate to the pro/rel debate exactly? Well, simply put pro/rel at this stage risks diminishing the quality of the product MLS is able to put on the field. The huge improvement in quality on the field is one of the main reasons the league is doing as well as it is. Despite this the current gulf in class on and off the field between the MLS and USL Championship is sizeable. Pro/rel would risk the quality of the league purely because, generally speaking, the quality of the team's coming up would be a lot lower than those going down. And if you have a diminished product on the field, you run the risk of compromising not only attendances in the stadium but also viewing figures.
The American consumer market generally just does not have an appetite for second tier sport. It's fair to say that it's seen as more of a developmental concept rather than a first rate consumer product. This is reflected in the broadcast deal the USL currently holds with ESPN. No figure has been disclosed but according to The Athletic, the figure lies somewhere in the low 7 figure range. There simply isn't the interest there to support growth.
MLS continues to make tremendous progress in terms of its development and growth. Why risk throwing that all away at this point?
Edit: the Seattle Sounders began in MLS in 2009.