Friday, January 2, 2015

The Psychology Buried Within the Promotion/Relegation Debate

Never in the history of American Soccer has there been such a profound ideological divide amongst people who share a deep passion for the beautiful game. The current debate, easily witnessed and joined, can be found growing deep roots in the rich soil of soccer forums, message boards, blogs, and websites.

Comparing the promotion/relegation debate to the abortion debate would be, at the very least, a gross insult to a complex human sentiment. Yet, the debate within the North American Soccer Community bears some striking similarities to the fight to safely reduce the number of abortions in the United States.

Words such as “idiot,” “wrong,” “stupid,” “dim-witted,” “brain-dead” and worse are often tossed around when people on both sides of the pro/rel debate argue their side. In this post, I will make an effort to explain the source and motivation which leads to the promotion/relegation dispute spewing such venom.

A good starting point is the incredibly simple nature of our sport. Given a serviceable round object and at least two people, the game of soccer can sprout anywhere: in a gym, on the playground, in a basement, an alley or the street. Soccer is a sport of both the people and the person.

We try to challenge ourselves: how many juggles can we get? We try to best our opponents: a simple step-over or touch through the defender’s legs sees us on our way to goal.

There is a sense of the primordial ooze about our sport. The heart races, the knees and shins sometimes bleed. Dirt and grass stains seep into our very being.

We start at an early age, a simple single-celled organism: kick the ball, laugh, chase. We slowly, over the years, become a mosaic, an Escher painting: unpredictable, challenging, provocative.

These things are the core of our sport. We never shed these things. They may be buried deep inside when we reach adulthood; but, they continue to fan the flames of competition, even at the highest, most organized levels of our sport.

So, how does this simple yet powerful aspect of our sport manifest itself in the ideological divide between proponents and opponents of the promotion and relegation debate? Plainly stated, there are those who wish to protect themselves and the mature version of our sport from the uncertainty crawling to the shore from the thick and wicked pool of primordial ooze. And then, there are those who wish to gather up the beautiful game and dive into the primordial ooze.

One side cannot stand the constant stress of random chance, and so, struggles to find order, codifies the un-codifiable and builds barriers between the game and the ooze.

The other side wants to let the ooze run free, and so, demands that all involved compete in the primordial soup. From teams, to fans, to towns, to owners, this second group wants the very essence of our sport, the people and the person, on display in every way possible.

I count my self in the second group. There is already enough in our American culture that is codified, walled-off and protected. Banks write banking legislation to protect themselves from the downside of competition. Politicians manipulate so that they have safety nets to land softly and richly after terms run out. Owners of NHL, NBA, MLB and NFL teams quash competition in order to shelter themselves from the very competition they profess to admire. The players in these sports compete, but the owners do not take part. They build dams to hold back the primordial ooze. Players risk injury, the end of an already short career. They uproot their families year after year. Owners sit in luxury boxes and count money, knowing that failure will be rewarded with better draft picks, an easier schedule, a move to another city and layer after layer of protection from the very things they are selling to their customer.

Our sport is an escape from the mundane. All those involved should be constantly evolving from simple organism to Escher complexity, always in search of the playground, the step-over, the alley, the gym, the next level.

Slipping, sliding back is part of the complexity. Don’t be afraid. Embrace the ooze. 


duresport said...

Or this:

Simply put, the facts lead toward pro/rel not being feasible in the near future. Just point this out -- even if you're not "anti-pro/rel," and people will say anything to discredit you.

vidda grubin said...


Thanks for the comment.

Really good study cited in the New Yorker article. Kind of a willful blindness type of thing.

Don't know if it applies to pro/rel. I do agree that most are not "anti-pro/rel."

Where I disagree strongly is with the group that states with certainty that it won't work here, or that it would be worse than the existing structure.

I also disagree that it would not work in the near future. There is nothing stopping the MLS owners, except their own fear of failure, from setting it up and establishing minimum requirements for promotion.

duresport said...

A few things blocking pro/rel:

1. Lack of clubs capable of playing at D1 level. Most clubs in lower divisions are perfectly content there. Others would need a couple of years (like Seattle, Orlando, Portland, etc.) to ramp up to that level.

2. Risk of megamillion-dollar investments, including stadia and youth academies.

I've covered all this extensively here:

vidda grubin said...

I respect the thoughtful opinion. Wow, it seems to be in short supply.

The thing is, owners all over the world risk millions everyday. Where does the tendency to assume that, just because it's the United States and the business of sports, they should get a pass on competing?

I have hit your site yet, but will.

Thanks again!

duresport said...

I don't think they get a "pass on competing." Within MLS, they compete for playoff spots. Outside MLS, they compete in the Open Cup and CONCACAF -- they're not doing so well in the latter. In the business world, they're competing with other U.S. sports and international soccer leagues.

The biggest difference in the USA is that our first division started from scratch in 1996, and we're still building the infrastructure. (D.C. United stadium finally approved!) Other differences: Soccer isn't the biggest sport in this country, we're geographically huge (risking the possibility of large markets being left out of top division or possibly even all D1 clubs being in one or two regions; also, it's difficult to get the attendance boost from traveling fans), and we don't have more than 20 clubs that are willing and able to operate at a D1 level.

It's not as if England started out with pro/rel. They did it when they had the clubs to do it.

vidda grubin said...

All the reasons you list seem logical until the simplicity of setting up the system is laid bare.

For example: Any lower tier team wanting to earn their way into the top division (call it, MLS) has to play their way up the ranks, just like everywhere else in the world. The difference in the States is this: Once promotion is achieved, that club/owner must pay the same kind of entry fee as the existing MLS owners did. Let's suppose you cap that at $100 million.

The team gaining promotion must also have a suitable stadium situation. If these criteria, and there could be more, are not met, the team does not move up.

This situation could be put in place very quickly. The potential, currently, is that teams will not be able to move up. So be it, but when they meet the criteria, I am hard pressed to see why they shouldn't.

The movement between the lower divisions would continue.

duresport said...

It seems reasonable in some respects, but consider the following:

1. You'll rarely, if ever, have a lower-division team that meets D1 criteria as things stand now. That could change, but we're nowhere near that point now. The clubs that have moved up needed time and investment to make the move.

2. You're still asking investors, from owners to municipalities, to risk their megamillion-dollar investments. Maybe when stadiums are paid up, you could make that case. You couldn't make it when D.C. United was struggling to get D.C. to agree to some land swaps to build its stadium.

So back to the original post -- do you still have the same view on the psychology of pro/rel? Or do you accept that there are simply people who see realities?

I want to make a lot of changes to the MLS and U.S. soccer status quo -- more freedom of player movement, a smaller MLS playoff field, more interesting Cup competitions -- but I understand the business aspects of soccer in a country that doesn't have a great history of supporting it to the levels at which it's supported in England, Spain, Germany, Brazil, etc.

vidda grubin said...

Let me ask you. Do you still have the same view of wealthy people who simply want to profit from our sport? Or, do you accept the realities of Life and the Beautiful game?

I'm afraid both of us answer in the negative, which is okay.

The United States is the fastest growing soccer country in the world. The demographics skew young, and the future growth, in terms of advertising dollars, sponsorships, etc., will be explosive.

If the owners have their way, there is no doubt we will never see pro/rel. The change has to start before they solidify their hold over sport.

The only other hope would be another league starting up with pro/rel from the start.

duresport said...

"Wealthy people who simply want to profit from the sport"? They're all buying Premier League teams, aren't they?

And if you want yet another league, you're going to need even more wealthy people to buy in.

If we reach a point at which pro/rel is feasible in this country, you'll see serious discussion on it.

vidda grubin said...

It's feasible right now. The next twenty years could see pro/rel fill out the top division. For those twenty years no team would have to go down, as we could easily have thirty plus teams in a North American top tier.

The longer it takes to institute pro/rel, the less chance MLS will ever have true pro/rel as part of their structure.

I find it interesting that you never attempt to posit how Pro/Rel would work, what it would look like in this country and why you would like it, other than to say some time in the distant future after the league is stabilized and the owners are making money hand over fist, which will happen, and that means they absolutely won't have anything to do with Promotion and Relegation.

The opposite side is easy to see. As you say, Rich guys don't want to risk, and that's what it seems to boil down to over and over again.

I've enjoyed the discussion. If you are a fan of seeing true pro/rel in the States, you better hope it happens soon.

I don't get paid to do this. My passion is creating unique stories, characters and places from whole cloth. You can check out my latest on Kindle. Helton Janglom's Template for Life. It's got kids, soccer, messed up adults, interstellar travel and a healthy dose of sarcasm.

I'm going to call it a night.


duresport said...

I'm not paid for this, either. Haven't even plugged my books.

Thanks for listening. Good night.

vidda grubin said...

You should not be hesitant to mention the things you are passionate about. If you have written books, be proud of that fact. It is a difficult but incredibly meaningful endeavor.

Hope I haven't offended you in some fashion. Not my intent.