Saturday, May 26, 2012

Some Random Thoughts on Promotion & Relegation in U.S. Soccer

Earlier this spring, Ternana, a football club in Terni, Italy, mathematically qualified for promotion from Lega Pro Prima Divisione to Serie B for the first time since 2006. To give their fans a chance to fully celebrate this promotion, the club held a friendly earlier this month. The picture above and the videos below are from that friendly.

These images attest to the type of excitement that promotion and relegation adds to the support of a football club in Europe, especially for those who support clubs in the lower divisions. There's always the hope, the dream that one day your club will climb its way into your country's top league, and, if you're lucky, stay there.

In light of the extra zest that promotion and relegation add to football in Europe, it's not surprising that there is a segment of soccer fans in the United States who want to see promotion and relegation adopted by Major League Soccer, the North American Soccer League, and United Soccer Leagues. While some of these fans hope that promotion and relegation will happen sometime in their lifetime, there are others who have adopted an almost evangelical zeal for the concept, wanting it implemented immediately.

To be honest with you, I've never cared one way or the other about whether or not we should have promotion and relegation at all levels of American soccer. When pestered by one of the pro/rel zealots, my response tends to mirror the response of Tommy Lee Jones in the "Fugitive." But seeing the images from Terni made me wonder a bit as to how feasible promotion and relegation is at the moment.

To me the feasibility of promotion and relegation for US soccer revolves around money, which is dependent on fan and sponsor support. I completely reject the purist argument that just because promotion and relegation is employed in many other countries' leagues, we must have it here in the US. It is perfectly allowable for a sports league in the US to adopt the format of other sports leagues in the US. There is no promotion and relegation in NFL, NBA, NHL, and MLB; therefore, it is acceptable for MLS to follow the format of those leagues. Meanwhile, since promotion and relegation is a prominent part of professional sports leagues in Europe, it is acceptable for the American football leagues in Europe to adopt promotion and relegation as part of their respective structures. I'd be curious to know if there are any American football fans in Europe who argue that promotion and relegation should be dropped because the NFL does not use promotion and relegation.

After 12 years of growing success, fan support, expansion, and new stadiums, I believe MLS is here for the long haul. There are still some financial issues at play in MLS, but a whole lot would have to go wrong before the league found itself on the verge of financial collapse. That being said, I believe it would be prudent for MLS to strengthen its financial foundation some more before toying with the idea of promotion and relegation. The other part that needs to be in place before MLS considers promotion and relegation is the existence of stable and financially viable lower divisions. I'm not an expert on the NASL or the USL, but I get the impression they still need several more years to put themselves in a position where they would be financially viable to enter into a promotion and relegation arrangement with MLS.

As fans, it is easy to lose track of the fact that professional sports, especially in America, is a business, and as such those who've invested millions of dollars in teams need to succeed at a financial level, otherwise there's no point to keep investing in the team/sport. There is no financial incentive for MLS and its owners/investors to adopt promotion and relegation at this time. Maybe one day, but not now.

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