In my earlier article “MLS in Atlanta? Why Not Make it a Double?” I brought up quite a few areas that warrant further exploration. Several of the discussion points centered around how to make soccer in America as popular a spectator sport as it is a participation sport. My ideas I’m sure are not new, but there seems to be a paucity of information out there for the interested, yet unknowing, average American sports fan. Bringing that information to light, I believe, will help frame a more enlightened discussion.
Going in to this discussion, I realize that MLS is working…albeit slowly…but working nonetheless. The founding fathers of MLS learned from the catastrophic mistakes of its 1970’s predecessor, the North American Soccer League (NASL). Unlike NASL’s big bang approach, MLS started slowly, with a sharp eye on the business, tightly controlling expansion, tightly controlling international star power, knowingly sacrificing quality while forcing the league to build up homegrown talent. With all of those points, they were spot on.
But now the league is 10 years old and the business model seems to be heading in the right direction although it has yet to make a profit. MLS has slowly started injecting some international star power while the rank and file can still make a decent living as professional athletes. Meanwhile the league is carefully expanding in to major markets. It has even produced exportable talent of its own, such as Jozy Altidore and Freddy Adu. So far so good right?
Here’s the problem; the league is set up like a typical American sports league and as such, is missing one of the key magic ingredients that make club football so incredibly exciting. There is a one-two combination that is just waiting to be thrown.
The first, and arguably easiest, is simply to flush the geographic division/conference accoutrements and associated “play-off” format that are unique to American sports. MLS needs to organize as a single table. At the end of the season, the team that wins is the team sitting at the top.
The second, far more complicated yet absolutely necessary if soccer is ever going to rise out of the shadows as an American spectator sport, is the need to create promotion/relegation agreements among leagues.
The current state of professional soccer in America is organized divisionally as follows:
MLS with 14 teams, USL Div 1 with 11 teams, USL Div 2 with 10 teams. Then under that sit 67 teams of amateurs in the Premier Development Program.
The framework is already here. But as it stands today, what is the reward for a team to win the USL second division? What is the punishment for the last place team in the MLS standings? The answer of course is – there is no reward or punishment.
If the Atlanta Silverbacks could be promoted to Major League Soccer if they finished as one of the top two teams in the USL Div 1; then not only would their fans began to show up en masse, but I guarantee their sponsorship premiums would sky rocket as well. Imagine that same scenario if you’re a fan of the Charlotte Eagles sitting on top of the USL second division or of the Central Florida Kraze with 32 points in the PDL? Each season, your hometown team is presented with the opportunity to achieve, if not greatness, then at least promotion to the next tier of competitors!
What will promotion and relegation do to club ownership in the US? While one side suggests owners of MLS interest would be too gun shy at the prospect of losing their investment to a lower tiered division, my hypothesis is that several positive things will happen to offset that risk.
First and foremost, MLS owners will take great interest in the outcome of their clubs! They will ensure they have the best homegrown talent and my hope is that a critical byproduct would be the incentive to create true club/academy systems to support that player development.
Secondly, I think that relegated clubs may not actually lose that much money. American players are not exactly leaving in droves to play in Europe, so I believe the mass exodus of talent that typically occurs when a team is relegated may not happen in the US – sure they would lose some talent, but my guess is that teams would remain fairly solid, thus giving the freshly relegated club a high likelihood of regaining promotion.
Finally, and I think perhaps most interestingly, I think you would see a rush of interested, sophisticated would-be owners willing to speculate on the prospects of many USL Division 1 and USL Division 2 teams, and even high quality PDL teams.
This subject is certainly worthy of a much more detailed economic analysis than what I’ve provided here, but the bottom line is, MLS needs to break out of the American mold and start taking the shape of a football association. The current state of American professional soccer is a recipe for banality which will forever keep the top flight league if not uninteresting, then at the least only tangentially relevant - and no amount of international star power will lift it.