Thursday, April 21, 2011

No Pro/Rel for the Foreseeable Future

The sound you hear is the sobbing of some European soccer fans in the US who have grown up watching games from Europe on TV and see promotion and relegation battles as the greatest thing ever. Because today in an interview with the Associated Press Sports Editor, MLS president Mark Abbott said in no uncertain terms that promotion and relegation isn't happen, at least for the foreseeable future.

I personally couldn't be happier. While this won't kill the conversations that I have with some fans about the potential for it, it certainly makes the plausibility of those conversations a lot more straight forward. I'd already thought that any talk of pro/rel was pure fantasy and these comments finally confirm my thinking. Things can change in the future, but I share Abbott's view, pro/rel isn't going to happen for the foreseeable future at least for a number of reasons.

First while soccer is immensely popular here in the US from youth to the professional level, MLS is not. Now this is where pro/rel supporters will say "that's because the league doesn't have pro/rel." The problem with that line of thinking is that those fans that aren't coming now because of pro/rel are the same fans that were not coming because MLS had the count down clock, or the shootout, or the silly names, etc. The excuses go on and on, if MLS was to institute pro/rel the people that don't come because there's no pro/rel would find another excuse not to come to games. Too many of the soccer fans in this country are either interested in the teams from their country of origin, or are interested in the leagues they see on TV because they're better. And that's certainly true, most of the leagues you see on TV here in the US are better than MLS is currently, but there's something different in being able to go out to the stadium and see live professional soccer.

Secondly, the reason why pro/rel isn't going to happen in the foreseeable future is because of the question of "where are the teams going to promote from, relegate to?" And don't say the NASL. The NASL barely got sanctioning to play this season and are losing another one of their teams after this season when Montreal moves up to become the 19th team in MLS. The NASL does not exactly look like a stable league, it looks a lot like other minor league sports leagues in this country that struggle. I will say there is one thing that does bring a resemblance to MLS, and this could be good, or could be bad, and that's the fact that one of the owners, Traffic Sports USA owns three or four of the teams, in a similar situation to MLS after Miami and Tampa folded. Unlike MLS at that time though, the NASL doesn't have the extremely deep pocketed owners like MLS had at the time to carry the league through those lean years.

Third, the salary cap, single entity, and all the other things that keep parity in the league are not going away any time soon. In a league with as much parity promotion and relegation could be potentially disastrous. For example a few years ago in back to back years LA and New York would have been relegated. How much would that hurt MLS' bargaining when TV contracts were up and the number 1 and 2 market in the US aren't in the top division? That's certainly going to hurt the league's negotiating tactics in those situations.

Finally, pro/rel isn't going to happen in the US because sports here are not seen the same way that sports are in the rest of the world. While the rest of the world considers teams to be clubs, the term used more often than not in the US is that teams are franchises. Owners buy into the league and as such get a cut of league revenue, market sharing, and other things. While owners are certainly looking to see their team win games, it's also a business in many aspects for them as well. As mentioned above, owners have already paid into the single entity structure, they've made that investment in this current climate where they're not going to be relegated, they're certainly not going to vote for something that will force them to potentially lose a lot of money if they relegate to the second division and instead of playing New York and LA are playing in Tampa or Edmonton.

Now that I've said that, let me say that promotion and relegation is a great concept when there are enough teams that there is a need for it. Currently there is no need for it, in the 3 professional leagues that play in the US, Canada, and the Caribbean, there are only 41 professional teams, while in England for example there are well over 100 professional teams. In England the market dictates that there needs to be promotion and relegation because of the number of teams there. With only 41 teams, and some of those struggling to even draw 100, let alone 1,000, there is not the market for promotion and relegation in the US.

The other thing that fans of promotion and relegation like to throw out is that it creates drama for more teams and cuts down on the number of meaningless games. The problem with that is that MLS has a similar set up, only it's in a different place in the table. Instead of their being relegation battles, there are battles for the final playoff spots. For proof of this, check out this post from Climbing the Ladder, showing that since 2002 there have only been 19 games that have been "meaningless" for both teams playing in the game. The playoff battle creates a different type of excitement than a relegation battle does, but it certainly creates drama and excitement and cuts down on meaningless games. Each league has meaningless games as the season draws to a close. For example, there's not going to be a whole lot riding on the Fulham-Bolton game coming up soon as both teams look to be in a decent position at this point to survive in the EPL for another season.

Two more blows were struck to "European" soccer fans in the same interview, as Abbott said that MLS would not be switching to a single table, which shouldn't surprise anyone as the league continues to expand. The league will also not be switching from their March-November schedule to the "international calender." I put that in quotes because there is no "international calender". Plenty of other leagues play in the summer months like MLS does. Most of those leagues, like many MLS cities have winters that would preclude them from hosting home games for many months at a time. It'd be pointless to move to a August-May/June schedule if it means creating a winter break longer than the offseason itself.

Now I do believe that MLS does need to align itself with the true international calender, which means stopping league play on FIFA international windows so that teams are not punished for having national team players, like KC could be for this summer's Gold Cup.


MOUFWASH said...

quality post Mike

Anonymous said...

Well said. I'd also add that you aren't going to have pro/rel when public entities are helping to finance sports stadia. Just like the owners buying into a franchise, local governments are going to want to see some kind of economic return on their investment, and they aren't going to participate if their "major league" team finds itself in the minors.

You're right about minor-league soccer here being barely viable. Demotion from MLS would be a death-sentence.

Mike said...

Thank Anon, I'd meant to bring that up, but in the process of writing the post it slipped out of my mind.