MLS And Promotion/Relegation – Why It’s Not Yet Time

It’s the elephant in the room. It’s the uncle that comes to every family function drunk as a skunk – the one that everyone feigns disgust about when the rest of the family is around, but secretly loves – he’s the life of the party, the source of much excitement and fun but also heartache and distress in nearly the same abundance.

It’s promotion and relegation. I did a search on “relegation” on the site, and it’s been the better part of a year since it’s been brought up. It’s a topic that’s left for dead in most conversations, something that most of us (I believe) want in American soccer one day, but we know it’s very unlikely at the moment. And truthfully, it’s tough to get this type of conversation going because it eventually leads to a donnybrook involving accusations of either Eurosnobbery or supporting corporate welfare for deadbeat owners.

With Sepp Blatter’s comments the other day, the Pandora’s Box regarding promotion/relegation was opened again slightly. No, Blatter didn’t directly bring it up. But it’s implied. If you look at popularity in American soccer television, people watch the Mexican FMF and English Premier League, not MLS. Do they watch the EPL for promotion & relegation? Not exactly, but it does become a great storyline as the season winds down.

What pro/rel brings to the table is the ability for outsiders to invest towards better teams. It could mean that a wealthy owner could look to purchase, say, the Harrisburg City Islanders. If pro/rel was introduced, Harrisburg could compete in MLS via two promotions.

The thing that kills this whole process then is the MLS salary cap. That owner could spend $30MM per year on salary at the D3 and D2 levels, possibly gaining promotion each time. But once the team reached MLS, they would have to retool to fit under the salary cap (i.e. only 3 players above $350K).

Let’s think of those ramifications as well. If you bring in 25 players on average wages of $25K per week (which makes the $30MM salary spend above), that could be a team people in Harrisburg want to see. Attendances could rise significantly. A local TV station might pick up their games because they might have a couple of big name players. They get to MLS? A lot of those players would need to be sold. You’d end up with a team that was a shell of its former self.

And so as supporters of the domestic game, we can toss around pro/rel like it’s some form of flux capacitor that turns the DeLorean into a super-powered time machine. Pro/rel cannot work in American soccer until strides are made on the financial front to improve the quality of the game on a number of levels, especially in the top rung.

We haven’t even considered the consequences of relegation. What if a team like Vancouver, Houston, or Portland were to drop to D2, and stadium building or renovation dollars go down the tube? They could come back up of course, but you’re also talking loss of revenue for at least a full season, and perhaps lawsuits and bankruptcy longer term.

The thing that is tough to fathom is the disparity between attendance and finance. You look at a team like the New York Red Bulls. They were 9th in attendance in MLS (I find it really hard to believe they averaged 18K, but let’s play along), yet they had 3 players making north of $3MM per season (Henry, Marquez, Cahill). Seattle led the league in attendance at an average of 43K per home match, and yet they do not have a single player making a 7-figure salary.

With the way that Major League Soccer masks its finances with allocation money and possibly other clandestine aspects, we don’t know why there is this disparity. We assume that Seattle’s owner doesn’t want to pay out of pocket for big players, while Red Bull isn’t worried about it. My question is why?

Nothing is as simple as the boiled down version, and leases and expansion fees might play into the reasoning why a team like the Sounders lack a big salary player. One could also argue they don’t need a marquee name to sell tickets, and so why spend the money? You’d have to ask AEG, who captured the last two MLS Cups with such star quality (maybe that’s why the Galaxy are #1 in Grant Wahl’s “Ambition Rankings” over Seattle, because it seems like Seattle doesn’t want to pony up the dough to compete).

And lo and behold, Sounders owner Joe Roth has talked the talk that fans should want to hear. “We are absolutley (sic) committed to winning MLS Cup and if we don’t win, it’s not because we haven’t spent enough money on the players.” With Fredy Montero looking to  be on the way out of town, maybe they will splurge on a top European star. That’s assuming they are allowed to do such – lest I throw out the name Mellberg…

Sepp Blatter wants MLS to be a top league in America, in the mainstream sports conscience. I’ve been wondering the last couple of days if his comments were possibly a retort to the pundits who rattle off the “3rd Most Attended League in America” meme. While there is truth to that, not even an NHL lockout has given the major news outlets a reason to consider MLS in that “Big 4 Sport” connotation.

Getting there will be nearly impossible, in my opinion, until you see clubs control their own finances. If Seattle can draw an average of over 40K people to CenturyLink Field, they ought to be able to field the best product in the league – even better than an LA Galaxy side that averages nearly half as many fannies in the seats (23K). Maybe they can do that right now. It’s tough to tell because MLS keeps finances away from fans, away from scrutiny.

So that’s my answer on promotion and relegation. We have a larger fish to fry as a soccer nation. Until we are free of the cloaked financial model that could appear to prop up teams in preferred markets while restricting quality across the board, American fans will shun our top league and thus continue the trend of poor ratings and undervalued TV contracts. And maybe after we take care of the starving lion, we can find a way to tackle that elephant so many find intriguing.

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