Posted by: eseeders | November 11, 2009

Is U.S. Soccer Moving to a Relegation System?

Yesterday, news hit the press of a new breakaway soccer league forming in the U.S. and Canada, a league using some of the top teams from USL-1 including Vancouver Whitecaps FC. News of a breakaway soccer league is big enough, that that news includes the league being a Division II system instead of something to compete directly with the MLS is suggestive in and of itself. That this new league will include Vancouver Whitecaps FC would seem to up the possibility of a relegation system within U.S. soccer greatly.

Now before you go off and roll your eyes at this speculation, hear me out. I think most soccer fans agree that the state of soccer in the U.S. could most charitably be described as rather stale. Sure the addition of expansion teams every few years adds a bit of new life but can we honestly expect that each new expansion team will be another Seattle? Let’s be honest, with average league attendance (excluding Seattle) figures somewhere in the 10k-20k range more needs to be done to bring in fans. So far as I am aware, the U.S. is the only “major” league that doesn’t use the relegation system common in the international world of football. USL-1I personally believe the addition of such a system would be good for the league not just in terms of competition but also in fan attendance. With relegation there is a greater sense of drama as every match is important whether you’re vying for a playoff birth or trying to avoid dropping to a lower league by finishing in a bottom position. Additionally, the current playoff system to determine league champions is compatible with a relegation system (though im not a fan of the playoffs). That compatibility allows the league to retain the playoffs for the upper tier teams while at the same time giving the lower teams more to play for. The fact that the lower teams have more to play for will help induce the fans of those teams to be more supportive in order to keep their guys up. More fan support equals greater ticket and merchandise sales which equals greater profit for the league. It simply makes sense from the league and owners perspective to put such a system in place. Hell, I even heard chatter not to long ago about the NFL looking at a relegation system for similar reasons.

So the financial reasoning is there, lets look at the possible signs of this actually happening. Okay, so this probably isn’t the first time a breakaway league has formed but look at how its being structured. This league is being setup as a Division II outfit and it includes most of the big names from USL-1. Why bother forming a Division II when the teams you have are clearly capable of competing with MLS sides as evidenced by the U.S. Open Cup and the CONCACAF Champions League (read Montreal Impact). Why not form a league to compete against the MLS rather than one that will be subservient to it with that kind of talent? Then look at the teams joining this new league. In addition to Vancouver which has already agreed to join the MLS in 2011, you have Montreal, Miami and St. Louis, all markets the MLS has looked at breaking into with the next few expansions. Another benefit offered by a relegation system is that it makes expansion fairly easy really. A new team can join one of the lower divisions, build up its market and fan base as well as talent working its way up the ladder. Once it joins the MLS, it’ll have an established fan base and be set to compete.

I think the inclusion of Vancouver is especially telling as it gives the perfect opportunity to jump right into a relegation system come 2011 (assuming Vancouver signing up for this league doesn’t break its MLS contract which i don’t think it would). Sure this may just be speculation or even wishful thinking by some standards, but you have to admit, it’s certainly not outside the realm of possibility!



  1. Ok, I haven’t commented on this yet and feel like I should. Since someone some day might see this. First, I would like to state that I like the relegation system in place like in most soccer leagues and would like it to eventually work in the US. Australia has the only other league I know of that doesn’t employ promotion/relegation but they’re even newer than the MLS.

    (Playing devil’s advocate)

    First of all, your idea of there being more attendance because of relegation battles might be slightly misguided. Given the teams in the relegation battle are going to be the teams that have the poorest record. Most fans in the USA are primarily fair weather fans and attendance usually follows how well a team is doing. No one likes watching a loser. And thus there might not be quite the boost in attendance that you might be expecting.

    In the MLS, as it is currently being run, can not be successful with a relegation system.

    For example, lets assume for our purposes, you’re the owner of the new Philadelphia Union. You just paid $40 million to be accepted to the MLS, you’re also building a brand new soccer only stadium, which is part of a $500 million project. You also need to pay advertising, overhead, and player/coaching salaries. This is a very large financial commitment that you won’t see profit from for a number of years. The whole city of Philadelphia is excited to get a new pro sports franchise to root for. But disaster strikes and you get relegated in your first year in the league. Because you were relegated you get a fraction of the attendance the following year in the lower division and advertisers no longer want to sponsor your team. On top of this you still have to pay for the same player salaries and payments from the new stadium, let alone the already lost $40 million MLS fee. This is a recipe for financial ruin and bankruptcy.

    No current MLS owner would agree to a possibility of losing what little revenue streams they already have. And MLS would most likely need the approval of the owners before such a drastic change would be made. In order for a relegation system to work, owners would need to have some incentive that would make it worth their while. Which is difficult to see happening.


    Here is my proposal for creating more interest in the MLS.

    First and foremost the level of play needs to be improved which would draw more fans. In order to accomplish this, I propose a second designated player spot be introduced. And designated player slots would be included in the team’s salary cap which would force every team to have two higher skilled players. No one would want to get nothing for the spots they are paying for whether they have players for the slots or not. That would just be lost capital and no half decent businessman/woman would allow that to happen.

    Then they need to raise the salary cap. At it’s current level players are not being compensated enough compared to foreign leagues. This is why so many of the better players choose to go play in lesser leagues in Europe like in Denmark or Sweden rather than play in the MLS. Paying more for players would also draw more higher skilled players from abroad to consider playing in the MLS. Keep in mind I don’t think they should raise it a lot, but the level the cap is at now makes it difficult to sign players.

    Next there needs to be more open space for positive attacking soccer to be played. Therefore, the MLS needs to push for larger pitches which would make it harder for defenses to cover as much space as they do on smaller American Football sized fields. Offense is popular in most sports, why not push for it in the MLS. There are in fact some players that can draw oohs and ahhs from the crowd. Let them have room to work with. Related, I think all MLS stadiums should have real grass and should work towards that goal. I know its more expensive to upkeep but it’s a much better surface for the players to play on. Make it happen.

    Finally, there needs to be more media coverage of soccer. ESPN will be broadcasting every World Cup match on their network as well as the Champions League on Fox Sports so that is a positive sign. However, there needs to be more MLS coverage on the major sports networks. Both ESPN and Fox need to include MLS more into their day to day sports reporting in order to get fans of other sports to become interested in soccer. I don’t know how this happens but it’s a necessary step for the MLS fanbase to grow. Fox Soccer Channel is nice, but requires an additional sports package so not too many people even get the channel.

    So this got really long. Maybe at some point we can do a post about the future of the MLS with both our ideas.

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