Ah yes, it’s time for that yearly debate about whether or not the U.S. soccer pyramid should have promotion/relegation between the different levels.
Last week, the Deloitte consulting firm released a summary of a study it did over the promotion/relegation debate in the country. Like the Baylor Pepper Hamilton study, this isn’t the full report, although I’m sure that unlike Baylor, there is an actual physical report and hopefully it get released in full sometime soon.
As for the conclusion, it says that promotion and relegation could be viable in the country sometime in the future; however, that conclusion needs to be taken with a grain of salt considering the person who commissioned the study is Riccardo Silva, the owner of the NASL’s Miami FC. Stuck in the second division league, of course he would want something out there that challenges the status quo.
In general terms, I agree with the conclusion the study comes to. I would love to see actual promotion and relegation in U.S. soccer. I think it would be a great alternative to what we have in the other top sports leagues. It certainly beats the “player pyramid” like what baseball has, which is the unfortunate alternative.
That being said, the implementation of promotion/relegation will not be a viable option for a long time — at least 20 years — for soccer in this country.
This has been my position on promotion/relegation since I’ve become a fan of the sport, MLS and FC Dallas. I want this to happen, not because it makes the league more European or anything, but because it’s unique and interesting and hopefully a little bit more competitive.
But something like this can’t happen overnight and it can’t happen in the current state of soccer in the U.S. Yes, attendance is up for the league, two new teams will be added in 2017 and the league signed a $90 million national television contract with ESPN, FOX Sports and Univision two years ago; however, the television numbers aren’t there yet. Nationally televised matches on ESPN/ESPN2 have averaged at or below 500,000 viewers while the average for FS1 is lower than that. There’s a long ways to go in order to get those numbers up to make the league a force in that realm. And I don’t think adding promotion/relegation would give those numbers enough of a boost to make it worth it.
Plus, there’s the legitimate worry that promotion/relegation will destroy teams’ local fan support. Teams like NYCFC, Toronto, Seattle, Portland and the like could probably still bring in sizable crowds if they were relegated, but what if FC Dallas, already on thin ice in fan support, were to be relegated? Or how about Chicago? Or Minnesota? Or Houston? A forced move down out of the top division could spell doom for those clubs, and that benefits nobody. Until we can grow the support for those teams and teams all throughout the soccer pyramid, promotion/relegation can’t happen.
Also, as pointed out in this column from Fifty Five One, the move to promotion/relegation could have a drastic negative impact on the development academies that are finally starting to spring up throughout MLS. One of the benefits of having a closed top division is that teams don’t have to worry if they’re going to be relegated so they can focus on other things, like development academies. But if there’s suddenly a panic about getting moved down to a second division, academies may be the first thing to go. Instead of playing younger players with potential, teams will bring in players that have “experience” and that kills the development of the next generation of players that will play for the U.S. men’s national team.
In the end, I want promotion and relegation to happen in the U.S. I will be very disappointed if we end up with a “player pyramid” like in baseball. That’s boring and unattractive. But I recognize that the promotion/relegation dream is a long ways off here. And it’s going to take years and years of decisions, positioning and growth to get us there, not some lopsided study.