Monday, January 5, 2015

Promotion/Relegation Debate is Worth Another Post

A good exchange of comments and ideas with Beau Dure after my last post, The Psychology Buried Within the Promotion/Relegation Debate, has inspired me to attempt to outline a plan for Promotion and Relegation in the United States.

I will make an effort to keep this post short and simple, and more importantly, take into account the biggest concern from Major League Soccer's owner/operator's perspective (this is the concern to which almost all arguments against pro/rel boil down. All other concerns simply address the different, and clearly debatable, ways in which a thriving pro/rel system can be structured):

*Protecting the investment the current MLS owner's have put into their league*

If you are a soccer fan in the United States, and you want to see promotion/relegation instituted from top to bottom of our professional leagues, you cannot ignore the owner's concern about their investment. If you do ignore this fact, you immediately give up any semblance of legitimacy when making the case FOR pro/rel.

Also, and this is slightly more of an opinion on my part, but certainly follows logically from the above concern, if the current and future owners of Major League Soccer continue to be the sole arbiters in the decision to choose or reject pro/rel, they will assuredly reject promotion and relegation. Furthermore, it is my opinion that, as the number of teams in MLS increases and the TV, advertising, merchandising and sponsorship dollars grow, there is a decreasing chance of Major League Soccer ever taking part in a system of promotion and relegation.

To bring this point home: Suppose twenty years from now the 35th and 36th teams have been added to Major League Soccer, clearly not out of the question in the fastest growing soccer country in the world. Suppose that television rights sell for 1 billion dollars a year, again, not out of the question. Suppose soccer has, in popularity, surpassed all other sports except football, could happen, might take a little longer.

Why, with all that money and power, would the owner/operators suddenly choose to implement promotion/relegation? Heck, a handful of the teams in the league will have just been accepted. They will have spent hundreds of millions of dollars in their bid to gain acceptance. Given these future facts, the idea that promotion and relegation would even be considered by a league's owners is fantasy, at best.

Keeping the above in mind, what is the most palatable way for Major League Soccer's owners to jump on board the Pro/Rel train?

The most straight forward idea is for MLS owner's, in conjunction with the USSF and leagues such as the USL and the NASL, to come up with a set number of teams for a top division in North America's promotion and relegation system. My feeling is that number is between 35-40 (these are the kind of things which should be debated). This number is high, higher than most soccer geeks discuss, because the United States and Canada are so large geographically, diverse in their populations and there are so many densely populated urban areas throughout.

Once that number is determined, Major League Soccer can go about its business, while slowly and judiciously moving away from single entity as a stand alone league. At the same time, a governing body, which includes players, owners, referees and even fans can be developed to oversee the entire multitiered, promotion and relegation, professional soccer arm of North American Soccer.

In order to move up through the ranks clubs will have to win on the field and meet requirements like minimum stadium seating, owner cash net-worth, etc. at each new level. On top of those requirements, any team winning their way to the top tier must pay a significant one time fee, much like the fee paid currently by teams joining MLS. This fee would go to the new governing body.

As an example of some of the above requirements: For division 3 status a team must have an owner worth a minimum of 100 million dollars, cash, not leveraged assets. A division 3 team would have minimum stadium requirement of 8,000 seats. For division 2 status a team must have an owner worth a minimum of 250 million dollars, cash. A division 2 team would have a minimum stadium requirement of 12,000 seats. For division 1 status a team must have an owner worth a minimum of 500 million dollars, cash. A division 1 team would have a minimum stadium requirement of 18,000 seats.

Suppose that in two years, 2017, there are 22-24 teams in MLS and the two or three lower divisions have been organized with Promotion and Relegation in place. For as many years as it takes to fill out the top tier, teams will only move up from division 2 to division 1. Until the top division reaches it goal of, say 36 teams, no teams move down from 1 to 2. Movement up and down between the lower divisions will commence immediately, as long as teams meet the minimum requirements for moving up within those lower divisions.

Beginning pro/rel in this way guarantees the existing clubs stay in the first division for the foreseeable future. Beginning pro/rel in this way guarantees that only teams which meet minimum requirements can earn their way into the top tier. There could conceivably be many years that the top two or three teams in the second division don't meet minimum off-field requirements and therefore are not allowed promotion. Of course, once the top tier fills-out, years from now, relegation will begin from 1 to 2, more than likely slowly at first due to the minimum off-field requirements being an issue.

For soccer fans who are fans of promotion and relegation, discussing the above minimum requirements, number of teams in each division, and fee to be paid once earning promotion to the first division are the types of things that should be discussed. And all of us must acknowledge and factor into any discussion about Promotion and Relegation the money, time and sacrifice made by the current owners of MLS.

Finally, a major advantage of starting promotion and relegation in North America in this way is its gradual nature. Clubs, cities and fans will have time to grow with the new, and unique to North American sports, structure.

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