by Paul Kennedy
These two things can both be true:
As time passes, it's less and less likely that MLS will ever adopt a promotion-relegation system.
But adopting pro/rel would address growing problems — good problems — MLS faces.
Pro/rel touched a nerve somewhere in MLS's world this week.
An interview with Inter Miami head coach Phil Neville that was part of coverage that ended up with the two reporters from The Athletic being banned from an Inter Miami media day event included relatively measured comments from the pro/rel proponent: "I think some kind of reward, or promotion or relegation, is not a daft idea to explore."
An editor's note was later inserted about Inter Miami's "concern about Neville’s comments" on promotion and relegation and offered the “proper context” for his thoughts: “To clarify, this is my personal feeling based on my previous experiences. With that being said, the single-entity format has contributed towards the league’s position on the world stage, has enabled the sport to grow enormously in this country, and has allowed it to become the highly competitive and exciting MLS that we enjoy so much.”
That's the crux of the issue: MLS would have never gotten where it is today without its single-entity format or closed system, but how does it ever change its format or open its closed system even if there are benefits to pro/rel?
In the NASL's 17 seasons before its collapse after the 1984 season, I never once heard anyone even mention pro/rel as an alternative. If it was to organically grow, the time was after the 1994 World Cup, but it was never going to happen. The outdoor soccer landscape — outside the college game — was at its lowest point in decades and the idea of a tiered system — perhaps great on paper — was not FIFA's or U.S. television networks' idea of a pro soccer league taking off in the aftermath of USA '94. And it certainly wasn't that of the investors who started MLS in 1996.
Almost three decades later, investment in MLS is not an issue. But expansion groups and their municipal and commercial partners aren't putting down upwards of $700 million in total start-up costs (expansion fees, stadium construction and training facility development) for the bottom to fall out in one year, five years or 10 years.
What do I think of pro/rel in MLS? Here's what I wrote in 2015: "It will never happen. End of story."
Since then, a legal challenge to the U.S. system of closed leagues — none of the six U.S. pro leagues currently operating has a pro/rel system — came and went in the form of Miami FC & Kingston Stockade FC v. FIFA.
The plaintiffs hung their hats on FIFA Article 9, which requires promotion based “principally” on sporting merit. It was a position I argued would be rejected, and the Court of Arbitration for Sport indeed did, finding that Article 9’s FIFA authors did not intend to require open systems in all countries, only in those that “traditionally and consistently” used pro/rel and were faced with issues of clubs trying to "purchase" promotion that led to the article's adoption at the 2008 FIFA Congress.
Even if FIFA wanted to rewrite Article 9 and enforce pro/rel, it would likely face legal challenges so great that it would never risk the legal precedent of losing its authority over the operation of domestic leagues.
Pro/rel has merits in regards to fostering an open system and strengthening competition.
Perhaps the best opportunity MLS has ever had is its partnership with Apple and the launch of MLS Season Pass. When it was introduced, the emphasis in "Every Game. No Blackouts." was on local — no annoying blackouts — but the coolest thing about the new Apple channel is how it will treat MLS as a national sport.
No longer will MLS be limited to the games networks decide to carry three, six, even nine months in advance or the golazos so special producers can't ignore them on sports news shows. MLS and Apple can choose each week the biggest games to send their top broadcast teams to and to cut in on live with their "MLS 360" whip-around show. "MLS Countdown" and "MLS Wrap-Up" won't focus on a single game but all the upcoming action and the day's biggest storylines.
But in listening to Apple execs over the last nine months, I suspect they might overestimate the level of interest MLS fans have for watching games involving teams other than their favorite team. MLS's in-stadium fan experience has been consistently rated among the best in U.S. sports — the payoff on the investment of owners in soccer-specific stadiums — but it has made no in-roads in developing a national television audience even as rapid expansion has created the national footprint MLS lacked in its early years.
Building a national television audience will take decades. Does anyone really expect fans will have much interest in teams that were only formed a few years ago? Or in players (mostly imported) whom they've never heard of? That MLS has done as well as it has in the face of competition from leagues and tournaments around the world is amazing. But MLS would create a whole new potential audience by opening its closed system. It wouldn't be a quick fix — but it would reinforce MLS Season Pass's national appeal.
Neville isn't the first MLS coach to advocate for promotion and relegation. In his 2020 SI.com interview with Grant Wahl, Bob Bradley said pro/rel "eventually" has to happen. Probably his strongest argument? "Right now there’s a feeling by too many that they’re not part of the game in this country, and we have to work harder to change that."
A subtler value of pro/rel relates to its competitive impetus.
For years, MLS wanted to become a selling league. Now it is. According to FIFA, teams in the U.S. (MLS and USL) earned $135.2 million in transfer fees in 2022, up from $59.9 million in 2021 and $39.7 million in 2020. The issue is replacing the players teams have sold. Another new (and good) problem for MLS.
The New England Revolution went from record-setting Supporters' Shield winners in 2021 to out of the playoff picture in 2022. Injuries ultimately doomed the Revs, but they were faced with replacing Tajon Buchanan, Matt Turner and Adam Buksa with players who arrived after the start of the season. Coming off its best season ever, CF Montreal will face the same issue in 2022 after selling Djordje Mihailovic, Ismael Kone and Alistair Johnston.
In time, teams will learn to anticipate their selling opportunities and be ready to reload, but without the threat of relegation there is no incentive to quickly reload and stay competitive.
Selling for selling's sake won't cut it with fans.