Promotion and Relegation in MLS? Not Yet.


Does promotion and relegation in MLS make sense? Not yet, writes Jarrod Connally in his latest column for Four Four Crew.

Over the last year, there have been a number of high profile comments made on promotion and relegation by various members of Major League Soccer, U.S. Soccer and the North American Soccer League, along with subsequent commentary by the media.

There are two distinct political camps here, with as much fervor and vitriol for the opposition as ardent Democrats or Republicans. U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati, MLS Commissioner Don Garber and U.S. Men’s National Team Coach Jurgen Klinsmann have all weighed in.

“I just wish that we would have a system in place where all the young players and all the players in general know that there’s the next higher level and there’s a lower level (and think), ‘If I play a bad season, then that lower level is waiting for me. If I play a very, very good season then there’s the chance to go up and play at whatever you describe then as the highest level.'” – Jurgen Klinsman

When discussing promotion and relegation, there are two arguments proponents use to voice their support for the system. Let’s take a look at those arguments.

Promotion and relegation will make the bottom of the table matches more impactful. This is always one of the first reasons people cite the need for a relegation system. The thinking behind it is that with the added pressure of being relegated to a lower league, the potential risk of moving down compels players, coaches and owners to work harder to stay in the higher divisions.

While that logic seems sound, more often than not the teams being relegated are typically recently promoted teams who yo-yo back and forth or overachieving teams reverting back to their mean level of play. This idea suggests that it’s not necessarily a want for trying that relegates teams, but rather their aggregate ability, on average, is below that of the given league over the course of the season.

Dec 3, 2013; New York, NY, USA; MLS commissioner Don Garber speaks about the state of the league at Google Offices. Mandatory Credit: Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

Promotion and relegation will create more interest in both MLS and NASL. This argument is true — a broader interest will grow during the close of the regular seasons. The numbers from European leagues and other professional American sports show this end of season boost as well. However, the boost isn’t necessarily from the increased viewership for teams in the bottom of the table. Here it’s more reasonable and customary to find bumps in local ratings but national ratings tend to remain relatively flat. What you will tend to find is that the overall effects of the television ratings boost will be minimal when compared to the seasons aggregate numbers. Yes, viewership increases but the trends are predictable and the seasonal effects are already accounted for by the league and TV providers.

For the argument against promotion and relegation, many people say it will destabilize the leagues ownership and devalue the clubs. While this is true to varying degrees, the more important issue here is that MLS’s single entity structure wouldn’t survive with it.

Having battled and won in court to protect its single entity structure from future antitrust suits, there’s no way MLS would sacrifice the courts precedent without some sort of massive compensation to take its place. What this means is that even though the cost of relegation can be devastating to a club, it would be catastrophic to the league and mean losing the court’s protection from antitrust threats.

MLS would have to be poised for a TV contract the size of the NBA’s, if not the NFL’s, were it to restructure its entire league. Without this happening, there isn’t an incentive big enough to sufficiently entice MLS to restructure itself.

Lastly, the idea that everybody else does it so we should too goes back to the bridge conundrum every mother ever has posed to her child. Just because it’s good for them doesn’t mean it’s necessarily good for us.

Not right now at least.