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“Never”: The last MLS, promotion-relegation update you’ll ever need

Aug 5, 2014, 6:55 PM EDT

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PORTLAND, Ore. — It was a throw-away question at the end of hour session, with a long-time MLS writer hitting a lighter note to conclude MLS President Mark Abbott’s time with the media. With international calendars, conference realignment, and the rest of the chestnuts already roasted, the final lark had to be addressed: Promotion and relegation.

“I would say that never happens,” Abbott said after joking, “I was wondering what that topic was going to come up.” According to the executive, the first employee in the league’s history, it’s not the only time he’s had to go on record about the issue.

“The last time I got to stand in for [commissioner Don Garber] was at an [Associated Press] event,” Abbott explained, “and I said the same thing. And it got reported out in the middle of the meeting.”

This time, the reports were almost as quick, but is this really news? Perhaps, even though Major League Soccer has never seriously considered promotion-relegation, and in the face of the league’s recent success, it’s difficult to see the system as needed.

Promotion-relegation may be no closer to MLS soccer than a field with three goals. I imagine the answer to that one would be “never,” too. “Pro-rel” is no more likely now that it was 18 years ago.

Still, given the prevalence of the feature worldwide, it’s not surprising the issue keeps coming up. There will always be fans that want Major League Soccer to fall in line with the rest of the soccer world. Until that happens, critics will have their point of comparison, and complaint.

The better question, though: Why do we (myself included) keep posting about it? It’s a question that gets to the core of what defines news. The persistence of a status quo is newsworthy, in some cases, but usually that coverage is about new information. In the face of something people may want to change, new reasons it persists becomes valuable information. That’s information worth talking about.

With MLS and promotion-relegation, there’s no new information. The league hasn’t  moved closer to the system. If anything, the growth the league’s experienced since its inception provides a disincentive. There’s no reason to change course.

Even as I type, this feels like something that should go unsaid. While there will always been people who want “pro-rel,” their mere existence doesn’t make the feature a viable issue. If we just stop talking about it, in theory, the lark might go away.

Unfortunately, that’s unlikely to happen. As long as so many other leagues promote teams, fans will be curious. Unless Major League Soccer can usurp the Premier League, produce a World Cup winner for the U.S., and play a title game on the moon, critics will claim there’s something “pro-rel” can do.

No, Abbott’s answer probably wasn’t news, which means this post was completely unnecessary, too, but as long as the system is part of the discussion, promotion and relegation is going to come up. “Never” may not only be MLS’s pro-rel future, it may also be when we can move on from this issue.

  1. cartrasuma - Aug 5, 2014 at 8:12 PM

    Slow news day.

  2. dfstell - Aug 5, 2014 at 8:49 PM

    It’s funny how this article reads to me. I’d like to see MLS be open to pro-rel, but not because the rest of the world does it that way. I’d like to see it because I’d like to see an opportunity for my local lower division teams to be in the same basic league structure as the MLS teams.

    I live in NC. We’ve got a lot of pretty good soccer markets between Charlotte, the Raleigh-Durham area, the Greensboro-Winston-Salem area and even Wilmington. All have thriving lower division soccer clubs, but I’ve never heard any of them realistically come up as an expansion candidate for MLS. There probably is a limit to how large of a league MLS can be. That’s probably around 30 teams because that’s kinda what the other US major league sports have settled into. It just makes me sad that there’s a good chance that all of the NC cities could be shut out. It isn’t like we’re South Dakota (no offense). NC is (I think) the 10th largest state in the country and it realistically could be left out of MLS.

    Then….the flip-side is that when MLS supporters find out that I’m a Manchester United fan, I get sneered at because I should support American soccer. And I DO support American soccer, it’s just that I support my local clubs. Atlanta is about 6 hours away. DC is about 6 hours away. That’s almost like telling a Londoner that they should support Celtic. I’m not supporting clubs 6 hours away.

    I’d just like to see MLS adopt a system where a club like Carolina Railhawks could pop their head up to MLS status for a season, get their heads beaten in and then get sent back down. At least we’d feel like we were all playing the same sport. :)

    • sw19womble - Aug 5, 2014 at 10:08 PM

      And that’s MLS’s trouble in a nutshell.
      Instead of growing grassroots football and developing football clubs naturally, they’re trying to hothouse teams in “strategic markets” and then protecting those ‘franchises’ at all costs.
      Instead of trying to follow the well-established worldwide soccer system, they’re creating a bastidised (sic) North American franchise operation.

      It might work, but that uppermost league will always be cut adrift from not only its own grassroots pyramid, but also the system that the rest of the world enjoys.

      Good luck to your Carolina Railhawks.
      And good luck to the MLS being the retirement home for aging stars, looking to grab a final fistful of dollars – cos that worked out so well last time the US tried to keep a league afloat using that system….

      • jdfsquared - Aug 6, 2014 at 8:40 AM

        Given the success of ALL other American sports leagues, why does MLS need Pro-Rel when the NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL make billions of dollars without it?? Someone explain it to me.

        Until someone can show me that soccer economics are so vastly different from every other sport in this country, I just don’t buy it.

        And so the Carolina Railhawks will never play in MLS. So what? Neither will any minor league baseball team, and MLB is doing just fine.

      • scoochpooch - Aug 6, 2014 at 10:27 AM

        MLS is following the American sports model, not the Euro/World model. NFL is fine because of its salary cap and income redistribution but the NBA and especially MLB (no salary cap) should have a pro/rel system because of monetary disparity. MLS will never go pro/rel because Americans didn’t grow up with that system and it’s too hard to forecast whether it would ever be accepted, therefore not worth the risk monetarily speaking.
        MLS growth is astounding but we’ll see if it ever moves up the chain from its current 7th/8th spot .

    • wandmdave - Aug 6, 2014 at 11:30 AM

      I don’t support pro/rel and don’t really care it exists in other leagues. Its an interesting concept and since I live in Winston Salem, the dream of having an MLS team in NC isn’t lost on me. However I don’t think pro/rel is in the interest of fans, owners, or the league. Its an obvious negative for owners considering the impact relegation and even promotion can have. Its bad for the league because the financial impact on teams bouncing up and down causes instability which MLS is 100% allergic to for good reason.

      For fans I don’t think it is a positive because I don’t see how a league can have pro/rel and a salary cap at the same time. A salary cap imposes parity and if that is paired with pro/rel it means teams can get punished semi randomly for failed bets on players every team can make and not simply because they weren’t willing or able to fund a competitive team. Given the choice between pro/rel and a salary cap I’d take the cap any day because I much prefer a league with high turnover at the top and that is more competitive top to bottom. I still find it hard to “follow” the EPL other than to watch a good match up here and there or to see a certain player because unless there is an infusion of cash from an oil baron even average joe fan can guess the top 5 or 6 teams at the start of the season with solid accuracy. How is that exciting and why would anyone follow a team other than a top 5 team unless a favorite player comes to one of the others? And the EPL is the *most* competitive of the big 4. I’m sorry but thats pretty lame in my opinion and offering a consolation fight to the death amongst the crap teams doesn’t make up for it for me because I could care less about even watching those teams to begin with. In my opinion if MLS grew to the point where it was fielding teams that were equivalent to mid-table or above EPL teams then MLS would be the far better league to watch hands down because of the salary cap.

      We have a different pro/rel in the US where teams that show they consistently can’t cut it loose their team when it moves to a growth market. It doesn’t provide yearly excitement or an easy way for small market teams to pop up in the big leagues without solid growth in demand but it is far more stable.

      • wandmdave - Aug 6, 2014 at 11:39 AM

        Also if MLS expands to 30+ teams (I’m banking on 40 split into two 20 team balanced table conferences if growth doesn’t stall) I have no doubt either the Eagles or the Railhawks will get promoted. Probably the Eagles given the market size but the Railhawks do have a bigger following afaik so they have a shot.

      • jdfsquared - Aug 6, 2014 at 2:42 PM

        That’s completely right on, man. Especially about the competitiveness of European leagues compared to North American leagues. Who’s gonna win the Super Bowl next year? Could be one of more than a dozen teams. But is Everton (a good team) going to win the Premier League? The answer is a simple No, and everybody knows it. That sort of model would condemn small market teams to irrelevance when MLS needs to cut thru a crowded sports market.

        Also, we too have pro-rel battles, they’re just called making the playoffs.

    • talgrath - Aug 6, 2014 at 6:40 PM

      The problem is that the country is simply too large and too spread out(ignoring, for the moment, the monetary and legal hurdles); if promotion/relegation happened then you could see a major gap in nationwide coverage on a population density basis. If a team gets relegated in the EPL, no big deal, there’s another team in the EPL in easy driving or train distance for those that want to watch top tier soccer, if say DC United (worst in the east last year) got relegated then there’s a huge amount of people without a top division team for some distance. Really, to have a successful promotion/relegation system and still have top tier soccer for people to watch in most major urban areas you’d need about 40 teams split between east and west evenly to ensure there aren’t big holes in coverage.

  3. DcnJosephSuaiden - Aug 5, 2014 at 9:04 PM

    “No, Abbott’s answer probably wasn’t news, which means this post was completely unnecessary, too, but as long as the system is part of the discussion, promotion and relegation is going to come up. “Never” may not only be MLS’s pro-rel future, it may also be when we can move on from this issue.”

    Maybe we can finally move on… from MLS.

  4. sw19womble - Aug 5, 2014 at 9:59 PM

    MLS will never take the training wheels off.

  5. konmtu - Aug 5, 2014 at 10:16 PM

    The argument against promotion/relegation is simple. MLS is a league of franchises. People pay to join the league. You can’t tell someone that it’ll cost them $100 million to join, but they might get dropped to the NASL if they don’t finish their season well. That ain’t gonna happen.

    • Matthew - Aug 6, 2014 at 2:28 AM

      Agreed; if you’re going to have a franchise system for teams within MLS, why tell someone they have to pay $100 million to join…only to relegate said team if they have a bad season. If MLS was going to use a promotion-relegation system, they should’ve done that back in 1996 when the league began.

      To do it nowadays? Quoting Autoextremist’s resident sage, Peter M. DeLorenzo: Ain’t…gonna…happen.

      • tomcatfl - Aug 6, 2014 at 12:27 PM

        Exactly – this ship has sailed. I would love pro/rel, but that system developed at a time and in a country where existing clubs got together to build leagues, whereas MLS was a league that starting granting team franchises.

        If FIFA began requiring pro-rel, and if MLS could be made to care if they have FIFA sanctioning, then MLS would have to buy out every franchise fee since the beginning of the league just to have the legal right to take away the franchise of the teams to be relegated.

        Are there any other countries (big enough to have a real league) whose top leagues don’t have pro-rel?

  6. churdus - Aug 5, 2014 at 10:53 PM

    They better by the time there are 32 teams and 600 people showing up for a Las Vegas FC game in July

    • scoochpooch - Aug 6, 2014 at 10:27 AM

      Nailed it.

    • jdfsquared - Aug 6, 2014 at 2:45 PM

      The best way to get only 600 people to show up for a game in Vegas would be to relegate them. Everyone would go, “Wait, we’re not even IN MLS anymore?? Well, forget this.”

  7. gregalthoff - Aug 6, 2014 at 7:40 AM

    The day MLS asks a billionaire to invest in a franchise that might get relegated in a couple years is the day I eat my hat.

    Professional sports in the US are anti-trust exempted socialistic cartel systems where the owners are guaranteed profits. No one is going to do anything to mess that up.

  8. renhoekk2 - Aug 6, 2014 at 8:52 AM

    My problem with the no relegation system is that the league also utilizes revenue sharing among the clubs. You’ll have some owners spending money on players attempting to win and compete for championships. While also having other owners squeezing every last cent out of their operation to put money in their own pockets. Fielding a team that has zero chance of even competing for a playoff spot. They can do this because they are being fed money from other clubs. Those teams should not be given a rubber stamp to be in the league every season. You don’t have to drop 3 or 4 teams every season. Just one. That fear is all that is needed to keep clubs from sand bagging for revenue and force them to spend money to compete.

  9. awad2251 - Aug 6, 2014 at 9:04 AM

    If MLS was smart, they’d push US Soccer to create pro/rel between NASL and USL Pro. This would be a great way to develop franchises, especially the ones who want to move to MLS someday.

  10. jhnyr45 - Aug 6, 2014 at 9:56 AM

    Stop developing clubs out of nowhere (NYCFC) and bring up clubs with actual followings ( Orlando City)… the Cosmos got snubbed and so will most of these other Lower Level pro teams cause they arent in a “rich” market or a postcard city

    • jdfsquared - Aug 6, 2014 at 2:47 PM

      I think the Cosmos did the snubbing.

  11. rjbailey - Aug 6, 2014 at 1:10 PM

    Reblogged this on Locating Frankenstein's Brain.

  12. unak78 - Aug 13, 2014 at 5:15 AM

    …so is he saying that he’s immortal and will personally never let it happen or that he can just predict what will happen in the future.

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