Resolving the Promotion-Relegation Debate

It won't be today but here is how Promotion and Relegation can happen in North America
by Mike Firpo   |   Friday, December 07, 2012

North American soccer promotion and relegation - MLS, NASL, USL, NPSL, CSL, PCSL

A good MLS season had by many, capped with a perfect Hollywood climax. Smoke em’ if you got em’.

We have now entered the post-Beckham era and everyone is satiated. Shoot, even the golden boy of all North American soccer (no not Chicharito, even if your NAm geography includes Mexico), Landon Donovan, is out soul-searching and getting comfy in his post-season snuggie.

Well almost everyone. If you close your eyes and put your ear next to the Internet you can hear the sound of keyboard springs bouncing ravenously. Those are soccer writers – and multi-sport writers pretending to be soccer writers – busting out the Becks MLS wrap-up books in time for next holiday season.

To make matters worse, we have now entered the dreaded off-season and for a few months we have to convince ourselves that we know and care where seldom impactful college players are headed and that pre-season friendlies and transactions amid a highly parity-driven league, are relevant if not crucial.

Oh what to do, what to do?

Ahhhh. Let’s beat a dead horse. Not just any horse, though. Let’s beat the biggest, deadest horse of all. If you will indulge pop culture cheese - the zombie horse of all North American soccer topics.

Let’s chat Promotion and Relegation!

No, we aren’t going to get all frothy, conspiratorial and repetitive about it, but let’s begin with the part that eludes some … reality.

Pro-Reality in the Short-Term

Logic dictates and MLS Commissioner Don Garber has stated ad nauseam publicly (so much so it is now an obligatory Q&A) that he and MLS owners like the idea of club promotion and relegation and the excitement and differentiation it could make for MLS versus other North American sports, BUT (and it really is in capitals) now is not the time and may be better for the long-term.

The fact remains: Yes, MLS can utilize promotion-relegation and it may help, but to risk what now is a very stable league with many of its metrics, excluding TV, pointing upwards – is silly. And to be frank, billionaires are intelligent at least at one thing: money. Why risk a growing asset, even if marginally, for the chance at losing it.

And it is that group of MLS owners and Commissioner Don Garber who we owe a bit of faith and loyalty too. Those owners have spent lots of their money (not leveraged like at Manchester United with the Glazers) to buy and build MLS clubs and the league as a whole. It’s not like Jerry Jones or Mark Cuban had faith in MLS and soccer in the USA and Canada, it was the Hunts, AEG and now the Heinemans. If they aren’t ready to support Pro-Rel yet, we simply need to be patient.

It really is just too early to implement. Just like you can’t put a 11-year-old Manny Pacquiao in the ring with even a decent pro boxer – it’s too early, he won’t be able to hang. Give him some time though, let him mature and then you have a chance. MLS needs that time to mature.

The fanbase in support of Pro-Rel needs time to grow too. As far as numbers there needs to be unstoppable momentum led by desirous masses. You know the movement still is just not strong enough yet when many of you in the soccer community know the person who is restlessly leading the existing campaign, by his first name. That is not a good sign.

I am not arguing against Pro-Rel, I am in fact a firm believer that it works in most leagues around the world and certainly helps create more interest and excitement, especially at the bottom of the league and at the end of the season. It is special in sports and is cherished by some who think its introduction will be the game-changer for MLS or soccer in North America.

On that I disagree. Almost nothing is a game-changer in North American sports. Instead, a myriad of paths towards consistent advancement and changes in demographics, etc has, is and will continue to grow soccer in one of its last frontiers, especially considering it is not alone and has gigantic sporting rivals that take up fans’ time, treasure and affections.

It is not “needed” in other words. MLS and North American soccer has, can and will grow without the introduction of Pro-Rel in their systems. But just the same as a bowl of ice-cream is awesome on its own, fudge or a cherry on top, certainly is a bonus. Pro-Rel is a bonus. It is special, but we can get by without it. Afterall, it’s not like it has happened in modern times and we have anything to base it on in North America. It’s not to say it can’t work, but it is not certain, no matter what anyone says.

But let’s assume a few things in the future for the introduction of Pro-Rel:

That one day MLS owners will strive to emulate further and surpass the EPL and other top world soccer leagues. That there is interest among those future owners and MLS brass for wanting to differentiate from the NFL and other domestic leagues. That MLS reaches the likely continental footprint of 40 clubs like the other pro leagues are headed. That the Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers fanbases of today are the norm of the league tomorrow. That the clubs and league reach the financial stability and acumen from big gates, sponsorships and growing TV contracts that they can in essence afford to gamble a bit more than today where the concrete roots are entrenched but not fully matured.

Let’s assume than promotion and relegation is one day destined for MLS. But how do we get there?

Proposed new merged North American soccer pyramid with promotion and relegation

PHASE 1: Uniting the Tribes

For starters, we – and when I say we I mean US Soccer – have to fix this gigantic mess of tangled, overlapping, improperly named and governed pro soccer leagues. I’ve mentioned it earlier this year that our pro landscape, much like with our youth soccer structure, is far too chaotic, wasteful and sadly self-serving.

Just this week we get reminded how little the North American soccer leagues work together for the benefit of the bigger picture. In Sacramento, a potential great little soccer town given its demographics and soccer participation rates, there looks to be a pissing contest for who will land the publicly-aided stadium in financially depressed but soccer eager Elk Grove.

The USL has to do its usual thing about not getting along well with others and beat the NASL and MLS to the punch and claim “first base” on Sac-town. This will also happen again when both Seattle Sounders Women (USL W-League) and the new Seattle women’s team (WUSA-WPS Part III) play for the hearts of the same small fanbase next year. We also see it in Tampa (USL’s home), the perennial battleground of USL versus <insert other league here>, with the beloved Rowdies of the NASL and in other cities where USL-NASL, USL-MLS, USL-NPSL and MLS-NASL conflicting interests arise.

This is what happens when USSF and the CSA don’t do much intelligent leading. It’s what happens when you just let private interests begin leagues sub-MLS level and let them beat up each other and squander the growth of new soccer markets in petty squirmishes that only benefit other sports and diminish the growth of fan culture and player development.

That’s the issue, and it sadly is a big one. It CAN however be fixed.

MLS has relatively much wealthier owners and bigger budgets in comparison to the minor leagues. Some of the ownership groups of the NASL might step up on their own if they had the interest, the giant Brazilian sports management company Traffic who is doing the Hunt/AEG-style heavy-lifting for the NASL currently comes to mind, but the interest is not there now. They like being the big dog in what amounts to mostly their league.

Outside of Traffic though, most other NASL/USL owners would have to have many partners to own an MLS club. They are wealthy local business people, families and companies, but their resources are just not that deep, not for the MLS of $50 million franchise fees and $100 to $200 million stadiums.

So MLS has to be excluded from Phase 1, we have to just concentrate on all the leagues below it who have much more comparably wealthy owners and budgets.

First off, all the men’s leagues below MLS that are pro and semi-pro need to be merged into one.

I know, crazy idea, huh?

This is where US Soccer needs to actually lead. It needs to explain to the USL that although they are the United Soccer Leagues by name and have served well for many years filling in most of the crazy USA and Canadian soccer pyramids, well, that they just can’t be ‘the’ pyramid anymore. They have to not just play nice with others, but they have to work with them … indefinitely.

The NPSL and the NASL were formed basically in protest against USL rule, so they won’t be hard to get working together and in a larger unified way. Departing NASL Commissioner David Downs also has great relationships with USSF President Sunil Gulati and MLS Commissioner Don Garber, so the foundations are laid for inter-league cooperation.

The mostly Canadian leagues of the CSL and PCSL, if given a strong push by the CSA and its new administration, should also listen to reason and join this new North American pyramid. If not, maybe they decide to pull out all their Canadian clubs and form their own galvanized sub-MLS minor league pyramid complete with Pro-Rel and friendly Canuck smiles for all.

PHASE 2: The Oscillating Minor League Foundation

OK now we have everyone on-board, what the heck do we do now?

Well relax first off, this is the future and they apparently have all the answers solved. Unless of course you watch Star Trek, Star Wars or anything on … the future.

Anyways, let’s assume again everyone below the MLS apex in our pyramid kisses and makes up. In other words, owners realize this will be beneficial long-term and top management are guaranteed positions in the new minor league pyramid, salaries don’t change and they get snazzy offices in the we can’t decide Tampa-Miami headquarters so it’s Orlando just to appease no one locale.

With bureaucracy hopefully behind us, now we can focus on the Pro-Rel between everyone but MLS, as even then our soccer pyramid apex stone will likely still not be ready in the coming decade of reorganization of the minor leagues.

So let’s give this new non-MLS minor league structure a name. The USL morphed into a useful name, but it brings back bad memories like the ill feelings you get about naming your kids after people who you dislike. So let’s avoid that. NPSL is too wordy, CSL is too Canadian and PCSL is far too regional.

NASL though, NASL – the name of the great league that preceded MLS and gave rise to the soccer boom for which we all have to give thanks. The name for which the new league taking up its mantle is trying to fulfill, only, they cannot. The NASL will never be the MLS, it will not become the first division again. It’s like being born a genius, a Mensa type even, but Albert Einstein is your dad. Not going anywhere spud, just start signing up for therapy. So the least we can do for this league with a built-in inferiority complex, is give NASL a name, the name, for everything but MLS. But one change, add an s, make it plural.

North American Soccer Leagues is born, well reborn, again. Rather repurposed and grander, yet domestic and important to our soccer. The MLS is the voltron head, and the NASL its body. All the youth leagues (another story for another day) can be below them … the Voltron grassroots. OK that doesn’t work, but you get the picture, bigger but simplified.

Let’s assume this is in the next decade still and we are slowly climbing out of gloomy economic times and MLS has grown to 24 teams and the minor leagues are sprouting as they usually do a few more clubs a year in all of the leagues (now levels).

Given the current number of clubs per league today and judging by their growth (they all do annually except MLS now) we can safely say by about 2017 or so we’ll have roughly this amount of clubs in North America:

MLS: 20
NASL: 14
PDL: 100
NPSL: 80
PCSL: 12
CSL: 24

That’s 266, a big number for us, yes, but not for 350 million people. That number pales in comparison to the number of clubs in tiny England or futebol bewitched Brazil. Still I’d gander we get to double even these numbers by 2030, but I digress.

The numbers with the MLS-NASL pyramid merger would be much easier.

MLS: 20
NASL: 246

It’s unwieldy to lump 246 clubs together however. So that is where we start to implement different divisions or levels to the pyramid that would mirror international leagues just with less grandiose titles (Championship for level 2 and Division One for level 3 in England is well … ridiculous … so is using the term Centre Half in 2012 … but that again, is another story).

Based on economics and the positions in the leagues at the time, we need to divide up the clubs into levels. We can then begin gradual Pro-Rel between them.

NASL D1: 40 (NASL USL 10 top existing/new others)
               2 East/West divisions of 20 teams
               No promotion yet to MLS
               2 relegated, lowest from each division, into East/West of D2

NASL D2: 80
               2 East/West divisions of 40 teams, 4 regional conferences
               2 promoted, highest from each division into East/West of D1
               4 relegated, 2 lowest from each division, into East/West of D3

NASL D3: 120
               2 East/West divisions of 60 teams, 6 regional conferences
               4 promoted, highest from each division into East/West of D2
               No relegation yet to amateur level

The gradual implementation of Promotion and Relegation as shown above should work. Again, the difference in budgets and ownership finances below the MLS are minimal, especially from one division to another. Yes, there will be some superclubs that form, but that is natural in all sports, in all leagues. It’s the way it goes even in MLS with parity – LA, New York and Seattle are the big boys for three distinct reasons. Those big clubs that emerge from the minors can be the perfect candidates for MLS expansion in this phase, to get the number to 40, so that we can eventually get to adding Pro-Rel for the apex, too.

Since the leagues are then so properly organized, all you have to do with big growth is add another level below like Legos, or rather add lateral conferences to the existing three levels and widening the base further. With huge numbers, the extra levels help, especially once relegation and promotion start working well.

PHASE 3: Fortune Favors the Bold

When MLS gets to 40 teams and is fully stable, lucrative and mostly done expanding into the top North American markets and our new pyramid is thriving and buzzing with maybe by that time 1000 clubs below the MLS summit, then we can make the move. That is the perfect time for MLS to introduce promotion and relegation to it's clubs and connect to the now solid foundation below it.

It won’t be easy still, it might create a wedge in the future MLS owners and be highly contentious at first. Then again if this is 20 or so years from now, most of those owners might have grown up with EPL and foreign leagues, moreso than today’s league owners. The climate will be ready. But as always best to start slowly and add more when the time is right.

So I propose that at that point they have only 1 team promotion and 1 team relegation to begin with between the worst MLS club and the best NASL D1 club. Even at that, I think it should be a two way playoff match, especially to begin with. The MLS Relegation Cup. I kid with the name, let the marketeers of tomorrow figure that out, and also why reality TV is still around.

After a time, make it a four-way battle between the top 2 in NASL and the bottom 2 in MLS. MLS #39 plays NASL #2 and MLS #40 plays NASL #1.

If that works, maybe start automatic relegation and promotion for the worst and best – MLS #40, off to the minors, while NASL #1, welcome to the majors. MLS #38 plays NASL #3 and MLS #39 plays NASL #2.

The last would be 4 up and 4 down, but still 3 playoffs between MLS #s 37/38/39 and NASL #s 2/3/4, lots of drama there.

Just imagine how much fun that would be to see teams not just in the lower divisions battle it out, but also grip the MLS fans of a team that had a miserable season as they watched to see if their beloved side stays up in the majors next season. All of a sudden you turn the bottom tables of all leagues in North American soccer on fire with excitement. Motivated by fear, but exciting nonetheless.

One of the greatest things English football gave to the world, besides its balls and rules, was its structure. With the modern resurgence of the EPL amid internationalization and growing rival leagues and sports, still, one of its best features is one of its oldest. The ability for a club to be rewarded for on-field success and for clubs that sink to be brought down to the level for which their state of affairs is more appropriate.

And if that works abroad it can eventually work here. And when it does, not only will the Pro-Rel lobbyists of today be happy finally, they would have been right. They just need a little patience, and US Soccer needs lots of vision.


Binghamton Univ.
Club Domestic:
NY Cosmos, RSL
Club Foreign:
Palermo, Napoli, FCB
Creator of Soccer Newsday. President of World Football Travel. Founder of NY Cosmos Campaign. Manager of North American Soccer Industry group on LinkedIn. Helped a few fans see the global game. Proposed on-field at MLS Cup 04. Longtime devotee of Soccer.