If you frequently read online content about American soccer and you’ve somehow managed to not learn about the online push among American soccer fans for promotion and relegation (also known as # ProRelforUSA), I’ll just say you’re the lucky one. But your luck is about to change.
Before I dive into accusations of conspiracies, vitriolic Twitter yelling and why the Chicago Fire should consider changing their name to the Chicago (emb)BearAss(ments), I think it’s important to understand exactly what promotion/relegation in the USA means.
What is promotion and relegation?
(If you’re well-versed on the current American and global structure dichotomy, maybe just skim this until the end of this section. I’m sympathetic to the problem with attention spans.)
Currently, the American soccer leagues operate in a closed structure.
This means that, like most other American sports leagues (think MLB, NBA, NFL), there is a constant group of teams that play year-in and year-out. There’s no chance the Browns would get relegated from the NFL just because they’re consistently atrocious. But that’s not to say teams can’t collapse, move cities or appear.
Just look at what happened to the St. Louis Rams this year. In fact, the Rams were based in LA from 1946 until they moved to St. Louis in 1994. This year they made the journey back.
And this is the odd genius of a closed system. What the system rewards is not merit, but structural stability. It is a system of franchises that are guaranteed to be operable by the backing of the league and the fact that it only allows owners that are able and willing to finance the team, not to mention the many other intricate checks-and-balances in place to ensure that teams will not fold.
And when you look at it that way, the reason why the current system has found the strongest soccer foothold in American history has a lot to do with the closed-nature of the MLS. What MLS did was take a country that craved stable, professional soccer and delivered.
By imposing strict financial regulations spanning from ownership qualifications to roster requirements the league has been able to ensure that there will be enough franchises to have a competition every year. And that’s worked. MLS is finishing up their 20th season.
This is the longest, stable national soccer league America has ever seen, and even if teams are posting financial losses, MLS is still growing in fan viewership and teams.
So why would anyone want something else?
Well as we have reached stability, Americans have naturally begun to think “what’s next?” And as Don Garber keeps saying, the next goal is to make our league one of the best in the world. But for some reason, that is proving extremely difficult.
What promotion and relegation proponents claim is that a switch to an open system where the federation regulates tiered leagues that relegate their worst and promote their best performing teams would escalate the level of play seen in our domestic league. In theory (and practice, as the top leagues around the world operate open systems), this system will weed out mediocrity through a system based on on-the-field merit.
The system has many challenges, such as how to regulate a massive system in a country that has eleven states that are bigger than the UK, and how to convince people that have invested millions to subject their investment to the inevitable losses of relegation. While many people claim to know how an open system would actually function in America, they don’t. It is still completely untested on a national scale.
So any claims for or against are nothing more than speculation. There is no precedent for an open system in America.
American soccer is facing a new, but surprisingly great problem. We finally have a stable top division with a lower league and non-league culture that is growing yearly. Even with NASL’s possible demise in the coming years, there’s a strength in domestic American soccer that hasn’t been seen for decades, if ever. (Map not updated to 2016)
Now is the time for the exchange of ideas and informed discussion to help guide the future of America’s soccer. But, disappointingly, this is where the problems begin to form.
The Internet and #ProRelforUSA
In the modern day, the internet serves as an amazingly accessible “local forum” for those with new or fringe ideas to express and articulate their thoughts. The push for promotion and relegation in the states is one of those ‘outsider’ ideas that’s gained traction online.
The main vehicle for increasing the awareness and continuing conversation the topic has been the internet, specifically Twitter.
And while Twitter is an excellent medium to draw new people into a discussion and confront people that hold up the structures many want to tear down, social media has started to show the strong faults of the movement for change in American soccer.
The problem is not the consistency or the quantity of the arguments being made. Seriously. Go search #ProRelforUSA on Twitter and look at the crazed commentary. I’ll wait.
Was that fun? Probably not. But you can see that the problem isn’t the lack of conversation. Maybe if you read closely you’ll have seen the problem I’m edging towards.
While the vocal minority is very…well, vocal, there is a definite varying of substance in the tweets posted.
Maybe it seems like an unfair point. “Come on Noah, you can’t expect every comment to be poignant and game-changing.”
Well, I’m no fool and I know that’s unrealistic. However, what the movement is inherently missing is leaders in the community that are expertly intelligent on the subject leading the conversation and weeding out weak, unfounded and personal arguments.
For proponents of the movement to embrace Twitter is intelligent; after all, it’s a platform of public communication that offers an avenue to a conversation that’s hard to get a grip on as fans. American soccer’s talking heads rarely notice the conversation of promotion and relegation unless they choose to swoop in and mock it, so making as much noise online is a necessary tactic.
And while it’s true that it is hard to affect change in American soccer unless you’re one of the lucky few who works in USSF, there are many people in the sphere of professional soccer that support the argument. Notably, NASL (RIP?) commissioner Bill Peterson, USMNT head coach Jurgen Klinsmann, soccer administrator Jerome de Bontin, ex-USMNT player Eric Wynalda, and Foursquare/Stockade FC creator Dennis Crowley.
But even with the vocal support of these, and numerous other names familiar in professional soccer, the conversation can’t seem to move beyond Twitter (and other online sites including this one).
For me, where this movement falls short is its inability and unwillingness to organize beyond everyone yelling online. I personally have seen a few attempts to coordinate (email lists, organized forums, etc) and move the conversation offline and into the real world. They each fell apart.
In fact, the only efforts that have come to fruition were the trend of “Pro/Rel” banners appearing at clubs and national team matches over the summer, which increased visibility tremendously. However, the efforts have since trailed off and never became more substantive.
After thinking about why this is, I have come to a conclusion.
Many in American soccer agree that they want a system of promotion and relegation, be it immediately or in the coming years, but rarely have detailed discussions of what a plan to implement that system should look like.
Not a plan on how to overthrow the USSF or take down Don Garber, but a reasonable plan on how to implement promotion and relegation into the American system that hardcore pro/rel proponents and casual fans alike can rally around.
The appeal I am making is that a plan that many promotion/relegation supporters can agree to could be a jumping block that helps unify conversations and coordinate action around organizing the ideal into intent.
There is no unity in the hordes of people that are vocally positive about a proposed system change, and #ProRelforUSA supporters will, at some point, have to be honest with themselves in the fact that this directly contributes to a cycle of inactivity. While many may go through their day discussing the problems of US soccer endlessly, anyone who thinks the constant conversation is national and widespread is falling prey to the false-consensus effect of their specifically tailored Twitter feed.
The unity that agreement on a framework of a plan could do to benefit the movement and soccer as whole is many-layered.
Once unified, supporters of promotion and relegation could coordinate on when, where and how to best educate those American fan that don’t know about the systematic differences promotion and relegation would cause, educate those who casually support promotion and relegation about the nuances of the situation, and iron out the plan and the best solutions. The benefit is that supporters could cement the argument for promotion and relegation in a unified manner while also helping each other figure out ways to dismantle illogical arguments against the change.
So, what’s the plan?
Well, that’s not for me alone to try and decide, but since I still have your eyes, I do have a suggestion. One plan has stood out as the most logical and well-thought out from the few I’ve read across the internet. This is the Octahedral (Double Pyramid) Plan.
Don’t just balk at the suggestion because that’s Ted Westervelt’s site, no matter what your opinion on him is. If you’re serious about changing the American system we have to start somewhere and what he’s presented is the most fleshed-out plan that I’ve ever seen.
I won’t go into too many details, you can read them yourself. The main points I’d stress are that relegation is not implemented over night and would only promote clubs over many years until every level of the system is filled out (accounts for the “we’re not ready now!” argument), the plan provides a cushion for MLS investors to adjust models or recoup investment (accounts for the “investors would never go for this” argument), and the plan creates two pyramids in the country (East/West) that would combine the traditional American divisional structure with the open pyramid structure seen across the world (accounts for the “the USA is too big for an open system” argument).
But of course, if people rallied around this plan the writing linked above wouldn’t need to be the end-product. This should just be a starting point for people that want promotion and relegation to discuss the details of the plan.
But if this, or any other, is recognized as the best plan the next step is that it must be articulated and disseminated effectively to the American public who are in a more casual soccer fandom than Ted’s followers.
It’s not to say that every detail needs to be coordinated and agreed upon among promotion and relegation supporters, that’s unreasonable. A constant debate over the details should be encouraged. But if the movement could nail down several key and stable points to argue for it would go a long way for the movement.
If there are other plans you like more than Westervelt’s comment below and continue the conversation.
There are many parts of the plan I would even argue against, but I wholeheartedly believe we have reached a point where America needs to start transitioning to an open system. And it’s getting to a point where talking about it on Twitter just isn’t enough, at least for me.
Personally, I think the US is in a place where we’ve outgrown the need for a closed system, and don’t be fooled, the closed system was necessary. Although other closed leagues have failed, the system established in the 1990s took the oscillating interest in soccer and molded that into a reliable fan base. Soccer is one of the most popular sports in America and now thanks to MLS we’ve had 20 years of a stable soccer league. There are teams people consider mainstays of American sports, and we have soccer-specific infrastructure across the country.
However, the continuously growing soccer interest is turning its eyes away from MLS and the level of play is not where it should be in our leagues and the national team. While all these things point towards an open system, we cannot be rash with our ideas about what the future should look like.
American soccer would not benefit from the creation of Super Clubs within a few years because the ultimate goal of our system should be to develop young American players into world class talent, not just buying the best players in the world so we have a club that could beat Barcelona. We must have checks and balances, and while I’m not sure if that should come in the form of salary/transfer caps, or even varied broadcast money distribution, these are the discussions promotion and relegation proponents must be having. Concrete discussions about a living plan that we must begin to agree upon.
Because what all this organization and unifying need to truly address is what efforts offline need to be taken to move this from an idea to a reality. Do fans need to form their own federation to challenge USSF? Do people need to form coalitions to address this issue to FIFA directly? Is the only way to actually make these changes an anti-competitive lawsuit against USSF and MLS?
Hopefully, these are the conversations will happen and they can then be followed by the organization to stimulate public outcry and acquire whatever funding may be necessary.
The conversation online must start evolving from just being loud and constant to substantive debates about the pros and cons of a systematic change and the most effective way to accomplish these goals.
And more importantly, the conversation has to start moving offline. Into your daily life with other fans of soccer you know. Your actions have to reflect the game you talk on the internet. People have to start deciding if this is something we truly want to see happen all around us.
And one great way to do that is for supporters to begin truly valuing the game at a local level. That means supporting and pushing for your local and youth clubs. I promise that if you get involved with your local club you will not only benefit the system significantly more than you will by Tweeting, but you will also begin to unravel the many-layered problems that American soccer is confronted with.
(Don’t know your local-club? Maybe you can find some information on this site)
A push for a better American system means more than simply wanting promotion and relegation. It means those looking for change need to start working to identify all of the many structural problems American soccer is faced with and learning how to fix them.
It means watching the small and the big games and working with your community club so that they truly represent the identity of your area. It means doing more than talking about what you hate about MLS on Twitter and actually creating the American soccer landscape you hope to see.
But don’t listen to me. I’m just practicing what I preach against. I’m just an observer who’s complaining online. I’m more than just part of the problem, I am the problem.
Nevertheless, I’m writing this to ball up.
I’m willing to take the next steps. I’m willing to organize, to grow the game, to do what the change demands. But I leave that to you reader because a conversation is not a one-way street.
Maybe something can be different. Maybe people read this and agree with my thoughts on #ProRelforUSA. And beyond some silly hashtag, agree that the US’s problems need to be seriously confronted by those of us who care.
If you do, let’s start a conversation and not let it stop. Let’s dissect the problems in front of us and figure out what paths we have towards change. Let’s commit and coordinate and strive for the change that so many people tell us is nothing more than idealistic. The things others call impossible.
If you don’t, that’s fair enough. Let’s talk about it.