Major League Soccer had almost as bad of a 21st birthday party as I did. Granted, Garber probably didn’t end the beginning of his new year passed out clutching a toilet, but frankly, these ratings are making it look like a possibility. #ProRelforUSA
In an article I wrote last week I referenced the 11% TV rating downtick MLS witnessed in their opening matches, and now they’re down an additional 40%. But if you’re working for NBC or the Premier League, the US has just been great to you. The only bright piece of news for MLS is that Univision’s ratings are up.
If the falling TV ratings, Don Garber’s love of turf and MLS clubs dive-bombing out of the CCL aren’t worrying you about the state of our soccer union I cannot stress how jealous I am, because I’ve got to admit I’m starting to sweat.
In that same article I discussed how Leicester’s run this year, specifically Claudio Ranieri’s comments about a hypothetical “European Super League”, have begun to change my thinking on promotion and relegation in an open system in the USA. On the advice of the responses I received, and the overwhelming support I’ve seen for #ProRelforUSA after the post, I want to dig further into this argument than I did before.
So, would promotion/relegation be a quick fix to the previously listed problems?
No. And I don’t think anyone’s making the argument that it would be either. Promotion/relegation being a panacea for MLS’s woes is a straw man argument that people against pro/rel make to dismiss the conversation of reversing these nervy trends. And it’s becoming increasingly important that we have the conversation.
As I’ve said numerous times, the MLS system that was set up from 1988 to 1996 has promoted the steady growth of professional soccer in the US while also fostering a genuine interest in the sport in Americans. Those are impressive contributions that can’t be ignored, but is the system that established the current D1 league in American the same one that will elevate it to world class? History (and I) would argue no.
None of the world’s top leagues play in a closed system. None of the leagues Garber hopes MLS will stand shoulder-to-shoulder with play with a set group of teams and each league has a storied history of promotion and relegation. More importantly than that point is that every closed soccer league that has been established has failed eventually. Be it the American Soccer League, the North American Soccer League, or even more recently with the Canadian Soccer League, history has shown that closed systems fail. Now, I know this doesn’t necessarily mean anything for Major League Soccer, it’s its own style and is unique from other league’s systems, but it is foolish to ignore the precedents that history provides.
And as MLS strives to be a top league in the world the distinction between a world class league and world class clubs needs to be made. The model that Garber proposes that launches MLS into world dominance as a whole doesn’t make much sense. The top leagues in the world are not made up of 20 world class teams. Again, let’s talk about the European Super League if that’s what you want.
World-class leagues are formed by world-class clubs, and world-class clubs are not generated in closed systems. Let’s look forward and imagine what opening up the American system may bring to soccer fans and investors.
I am sorry to announce that an open system will inherently carry more risk, but I’m happy to announce that an open system will potentially carry a much bigger reward. Risk is healthy. It makes the members of a system be better, or else.
Currently, investors spend money on franchises that are ultimately not their own. If the concept of paying to not own something doesn’t make much sense, think about it this way: You’re a restaurant connoisseur looking to open a restaurant where locals can crush a chicken sandwich. You realize there’s an available market for chicken in your area and the necessary infrastructure for a store, or if not you could, at least, provide the capital. You’re excited for your one-of-a-kind chicken restaurant that you know will succeed, but the only way the American Restaurant Association will let you participate in the open and available market in your area is to apply for a Chick-Fil-A franchise.
Hence, the pyramid scheme. Investors “invest” in the league by establishing new franchises that can make or lose money based off of how the club does. However, since each franchise is supported by the league there’s little room to fail, and since each franchise supported by the league there’s little room to succeed in the way clubs around the world so regularly do. Because, inherently, for one club to begin succeeding, others would have to fail.
There’s a fact here that American soccer fans have begun to accept: For some to succeed, some must fail. And that sucks. But you know what else sucks? Having to watch the Chicago Fire play in the top American soccer division every year.
The basis of the United States’ economic system of capitalism demands meritocracy to determine market worth, but for some reason, we as American fans are quick to abandon that philosophy when it comes to soccer. How do we, as Americans, not demand a system based on merit rather than ensured spots from payments? That doesn’t sound like us. At all.
And to get a word of wisdom on this within our system we have to turn to a German. Possibly American soccer’s only real friend, Jurgen Klinsmann, has known this from the start. About promotion and relegation in America, the USMNT coach was quoted as saying, “The risk for club investors to all of a sudden play in the second league would be too high, but the sporting side would benefit from it.”
If the system was opened and an investor wanted to make the Fire great they could, but more likely would be investors pouring into the lower divisions to invest the groundwork into a club that would be promoted in place of the Fire. So, on top of weeding weak franchises out of your top division, it expands the investment in lower divisions. Which is massive. Lower league investment may not be widespread currently, but it would be a huge catalyst for league quality growth.
There are investors out there. I know this is a point of contention, but there are. The US is easily the biggest sports market in the world, and an opened system would garner huge investors into lower division clubs. If you don’t believe that, just check how investors have poured into China’s soccer league after the country has focused its aim on becoming a world soccer power.
And lower league clubs wouldn’t have to necessarily attract massive companies or billionaires as investors; they could be people with less money, or less money invested, that are willing to try unique approaches to reach the top. A wide swath of investors would surely bring in a cast of characters, and that could breathe fresh air into American soccer. The mountain of a challenge that would be conquering the newly opened American frontier would surely be one that would leave investors’ mouths watering. Imagine having people like Mark Cuban investing into a lower league team, just for the competition.
Currently, if investors want to get involved in D1 soccer in America they bolster already existing teams outside of MLS to bring them into the league (what’s up, Minnesota
United FC?) That’s messed up. No fire towards the club, but you had to pay for promotion instead of earning it? That’s downright un-American. Our professional league should reflect our culture, and the MLS system does not.
And I’m not just trying to shit on Major League Soccer. It’s stabilized soccer interest in America and provides truly American matches. Honestly, some of the MLS matches are some of the most scrappy, hard fought, enjoyable games I’ve seen in years. It may not be the best soccer but it’s immensely entertaining.
But we need to be able to realize when the league isn’t benefiting our soccer system. I mean, just think about the kids.
By opening up the hierarchy of the league and unifying American soccer under one structure of promotion/relegation you’d bring together our splintered development system. Between the United States Youth Soccer Association, the American Youth Soccer Organization and the Soccer Association for Youth, the US soccer system has presented a front so fractured that players can’t be developed effectively and efficiently.
Opening up the system would make clubs unify the system of grooming players, which would change player development as a whole. We all know that MLS has a tendency to throw away players early, and an open system would begin to change that. Not only would every club need to have a proper youth system in place to compete, but the best teams could play in the higher leagues of the system like Barcelona B. Just imagine the LA Galaxy II playing in a USL within the US Soccer pyramid.
The youth development aspect embodies how great an open system could be. No matter where it would be from, if there was an appeal for soccer somewhere in the country, a team could be formed. Currently, the prospect of opening up a new club, especially a club with hopes of professional soccer, are next to impossible even in markets with recognized interest. However, this lack of freedom to contribute to our own soccer system has been spun as truly American.
That’s because the concept of closed leagues is uniquely and historically American. The NFL, MLB, and NBA are all closed systems that operate perfectly for us. These successful precedents have made it hard for American fans to be comfortable with change. If your city’s baseball team has found financial and league success in the same kind of system, why change?
But there’s an important distinction between these leagues and Major League Soccer: MLS competes in a global market. While the NFL, MLB, and NBA may see interest in their sport through leagues around the world (Canada, Japan, and Israel respectively let’s say), they are never threatened. LeBron James was not going to consider a move to Tel Aviv when he left Miami. There may be a global market, but in each of these instances it’s a market that the American league dominates. That’s why most of these leagues around the world act as a feeder system to the US, as opposed to the other way around.
This past year we watched an American league on the opposite end of this deal. When both DeAndre Yedlin and Matt Miazga left MLS for the Premier League we had two extremely talented young players ship off to a considerably bigger league, and honestly, I was happy that they’d get such a high-quality opportunity. It presents a moment where Americans need to ask if we are going to be the feeder system or the system being fed.
However, at the end of the day, I believe all of American soccer needs an overhaul. As stated earlier, promotion/relegation won’t be a quick fix, but, in my opinion, it will start healing the wounds. The shift in America has to be deeper than just a change to our system.
While the systematic change may eventually bring about a larger change, a cultural shift is what eventually needs to happen. We know that soccer won’t be America’s favorite sport and that we won’t all be happy with whatever system we end up with, but there needs to be a soccer community within the America that lives, breathes and eats soccer. There needs to be a change in the way we approach the world’s game. If we want a dominant American system it is time that we start contributing towards it.
America has already proven that our communities can facilitate a major sports team, and soccer has already proven the passion it can carry a club through a community in an open system. And most importantly, America has proven its interest in soccer. Look at this Google Trends graph of how Americans have searched for the big five sports over the past 12 years. Americans are interested in soccer just as much as any other sport, if not more (except football, of course).
The closed league system has done a good job of establishing a league, but it has strangled the personal relationship fans should have with their soccer system. If you love MLS and your club, that is amazing, but it’s becoming clear that our current system is not healthy for the future of American soccer. As the numbers begin to look bleak for MLS, you, as an American soccer fan, need to ask yourself, are you a fan of American soccer or your league?