MLS Does Not Need to Adopt Promotion-Relegation System


Oct 10, 2014; Seattle, WA, USA; Vancouver Whitecaps fans cheer after a 1-0 victory against the Seattle Sounders FC during the second half at CenturyLink Field. Mandatory Credit: Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Earlier this past week, USMNT manager Jurgen Klinsmann said he’s a believer in a promotion-relegation system. On Tuesday during the USMNT-Honduras friendly, Ian Darke and Alexi Lalas discussed MLS possibly adopting a promotion-relegation system. It works for the Premier League and other leagues in Europe and other continents. Yet, MLS does not need to follow suit and adopt that kind of system and there should be other priorities worth talking about then promotion and relegation.

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For starters, MLS is only 19 years old. The Premier League is much older than that and more stable as well. By more stable, I mean the league itself is not growing or contracting year-to-year. Each year there are 20 teams in the Premier League. Three teams are relegated and four teams compete in the UEFA Champions League.

On the other hand, Major League Soccer is still growing. Yes, Chivas USA is set to shut down after the 2014 season, but two teams – New York City FC and Orlando City SC – are joining the league in 2015. In 2017, two more teams – the team replacing Chivas USA and the Atlanta franchise – join the league. David Beckham is trying hard to bring a team to Miami. Other areas, like Sacramento and Minnesota, are interested in having a MLS team.

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  • With team’s still entering the league, it is hard to have a promotion/demotion system. The league can’t expect an ownership group to put out $100 million (the current cost of expansion team) and then have their team be relegated one year in. It would be a frivolous business transaction. Could an ownership group expect fans to pay high season ticket prices just for their beloved team to fall to the second-tier come the following year?

    The reason MLS is not reaching more fans has little to do with pro/rel. It has more to do with the other sports leagues around. The NFL, NBA, NHL, and MLB are all competing with MLS to draw in the fans both in the stadium and on television. Professional football in America is the king with the NBA not far behind. Attendance wise MLS ranks third ahead of both NHL and NBA. However, the NBA is succeeding higher than MLS due to television rankings as evidence in their latest television contract extension.

    All four of those leagues are succeeding in multiple ways. Guess what, none of them have a pro/rel system. The reason soccer is so big internationally is because their are less leagues in other sports competing with soccer unlike the United States. If MLS switched to a pro/rel system, it wouldn’t draw more fans in, however, something that is apart of the NFL, NBA, NHL, and MLB could – free agency.

    That’s right. MLS is single entity. All players are owned by the league. As a result, when a players contract ends with a team and they don’t resign, then said player enters the re-entry draft. For the longest time, baseball didn’t have free agency, but the players pushed for it. MLS’ collective bargaining agreement with the players ends at the conclusion of this season. Of the many issues worth asking about and demanding more from the league and owners, free agency should top the list.

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  • Players deserve to be able to be the main driving force behind where they play. They should have the option of ultimately choosing where they play. Currently, the league has too much control in that process. By allowing players to be free to pursue offers and interesting teams, the league becomes even more competitive. Likewise, the league’s salary cap needs to be raised as well as it currently limits teams from signing foreign players at times.

    If MLS had free agency, fans would follow it like they do in the “big four” sports. Fans always want to know what moves their favorite team is making and where their favorite player(s) is headed. This causes fans to have a greater interest in the teams and players. Lebron James heading back to the Cleveland Cavliers caused great joy and disappointment depending on which team’s fan you were. The same can happen in MLS. Imagine if Clint Dempsey decided to leave Seattle Sounders and sign a new contract with Orlando City SC. Sounders fans would be heartbroken, and Orlando fans would be ecstatic.

    Free agency would allow more flexibility for players, as well as, teams. They wouldn’t have to hope a player they like falls to them in the allocation rankings or the re-entry draft. They can directly contact them and make them know they are interested in his services.

    Another reason why MLS doesn’t need a pro/rel system is due to its sponsorships and television deals. Television companies wouldn’t want to enter long-term agreements with MLS if they weren’t guaranteed to know the big markets’ teams were going to be in the top tier or not. Deals would have be resigned and agreed to every single year. Likewise, MLS’s sponsors wouldn’t want to enter longer deals for the same reason.

    Lastly, the notion that pro/rel makes all games meaningful and motivates players is a farce. I remember many seasons, including the 2013-14 EPL season, where the last weekend or so of matches didn’t mean anything. The top four teams and the last three teams couldn’t exit their respective “zones” per se. Sure, it may motivate players at times to play better, yet I don’t think MLS has an issue of unmotivated players because they don’t have a pro/rel system. Their lack of motivation has more to do with their respective coach than not having a pro/rel system.

    All in all, pro/rel is not coming to MLS anytime soon and it shouldn’t. Just because Klinsmann is a supporter of such a system doesn’t mean MLS must adopt it. MLS has other issues and more pressing needs than bring pro/rel to life in the league. The reasons MLS is not growing more than it is now has nothing to do with pro/rel. It has to do with other reasons like salary caps, single entities, and the rules seem to be made up at times.

    Promotion-relegation works in England, but MLS is a whole different animal and it would not be wise to implement it here in America. It is just fine to have separate leagues like MLS, NASL, USL Pro etc. right now.

    Even without pro/rel, MLS will have an exciting last two weeks of the regular season as the Galaxy and Sounders battle for the Supporters Shield and other teams fight for playoff seeding.