MLS & the Promotion Relegation Conundrum
The MLS does not have a promotion or relegation system. Instead, it follows the format used by the NFL, NBA and MLB which is based on conferences, drafts, play-off and All Star games.
This is an anomaly. Nearly every other country organizes it’s sports teams in tier systems with teams moving up and down between their respective divisions.
This means, for example, in England teams like Burnley and Bournemouth have been able to rise all the way from League Two to the Premier League. Conversely, Carlisle United, once a top tier side dropped into non-League football for a time.
Those leagues that do not have promotion or relegation tend to be newly minted and are often working to establish themselves. Examples of these include the Indian Super League (ISL), which has just concluded its seventh season, and the Canadian Premier League which only started up two years ago.
The MLS is now in its 28th year and should be over any growing pains.
Reasons to Maintain the Status Quo
There are those who defend the current system. They justify the decision to retain the current system by pointing out the history of professional soccer in the US. In particular, they reference the failed experiment of the North American Soccer League which enjoyed a brief surge in popularity in the 70;s and 80s with teams like the New York Cosmos, before imploding as the teams went bankrupt and their audiences waned.
The organizers of the MLS hoped to create a more sustainable business model and in order to persuade investors to put additional money into the various ranches, they wanted to safeguard them from the jeopardy of relegation. Wealthy individuals and companies were not willing to risk their money if the value of their investment had the potential for being devalued by dropping down a division.
MLS majority owners must have a minimum net worth of $40 million and the total ownership group’s net worth has to be $70 million or greater.
As mentioned before, it is also difficult to change the system here in the states because this is the norm in US sports.
Benefits of Competition
It is time for the MLS to revisit this? Competition is good for all sports. The current system is not providing enough of it. With our current format, once a team drops out of play-off contention, there is nothing left for them to play at the end of the season.
This also means that the levels below the MLS, the USL Championship, and the USL League One has nothing to look forward to other than winning their individual Championship. There is no path to the top-flight except off the field, specifically by satisfying the ownership requirements and gaining admittance to the MLS as a new franchise.
Promotion and relegation battles keep the fans of other clubs in other leagues interested until the end of the season. It means that there is something hanging on most matches, even if one of the teams involved may already be safely in mid-table. This is good for the fans of the teams, the neutral supporters and of course the broadcasters.
Even a relegation fight can attract a strong audience thereby raising valuable advertising revenue.
In some ways the MLS is becoming unwieldy. They now have 27 teams with plans to add three additional teams in the next few year. Scheduling games is beginning to become more challenging.
Currently each team plays each other in their respective conference twice, then each of the teams n the other conference once. This is going to add up to a lot of games.
As with anything, where the quantity increases, the quality can suffer. Starting the season earlier or extending it longer won’t be a viable option. It might interfere with fan bases of other sports.
While the current system has enabled the MLS to get on its feet and prosper it needs to reconsider how it can accomplish further growth. If the US is serious about producing homegrown players who are capable of making the US a serious contender for the World Cup, then we need to take the next step and embrace promotion and relegation.