Detroit City FC, my adopted team since moving to Michigan (I moved in 2011, they were founded in 2012 – it was in the stars), has had a great season. Having won the Midwest regional final tonight against those arrivistes from Ann Arbor, they now progress to national semi-finals next week and could be NPSL champions two weeks from now. But let’s just say they’re one of the top four teams in the 94 team NPSL structure.
Now, if this were almost anywhere else in the world, the reward for this success would be promotion to the next tier up next season. The NPSL is the fourth tier, so DCFC would be expecting to play third tier soccer next year. But this being the closed system typical of US sports, they’re not, and they just get to play NPSL soccer again next year. Which is a shame for their 7,000 or so incredibly dedicated fans. I would back DCFC fans for commitment to the cause against any fans of any other club I’ve ever seen. And they have style – if you don’t know what I mean look up DCFC Tetris some time.
Well, too bad. The US does not have promotion and relegation (P&R). And while some think this is all the fault of the evil MLS, I’m not sure I see so much enthusiasm in the rival leagues. Here’s what it says on the NPSL website “NPSL Philosophy: We compete for 90 minutes on the field, we are business partners…always. We all work together to grow the game, build the NPSL, and develop our respective clubs”. That’s a very the closed league philosophy – and all in the service of their vision: “To be the foundation of the U.S. Soccer development pyramid with over 100 profitable teams” – and the key word there is “profitable”. This is the mindset of sports administrators in the US everywhere (although I guess you can always find a few exceptions).
As everyone who has ever looked up P&R on the internet knows, the debate over this in the US is emotional, abusive and often unconnected to reason, much like political debate in this country. My view, for what it’s worth, is that P&R would be a good thing for fans…but… it is not the solution to every problem and it also not without its own challenges. In other words, I think on balance it would be a net positive for the development of US soccer, but it’s also feasible for US soccer to grow and develop successfully without it.
The reality is that it is hard to know whether P&R would make a difference, but in my view we should try to think about this logically. One way is to make comparisons between regions with and without P&R. If we had lots or regions we could attempt to control for confounding factors. But we can also consider case studies. In a case study you look at only one or two regions, and while case studies lack generality, they usually provide more detail. You can always dismiss a case study by saying the data is not generalizable – although one should also be clear on this: failing to prove that results are general is not the same as proving that the results are not general.
So with that in mind, I want to compare the development of baseball in Michigan with the development of soccer in the English midlands. The two regions have much in common. Today Michigan has a population of around 10 million, which is about the same as the midlands. About 97% of Michigan’s population lives in the lower peninsula (commonly known as the mitten, because it looks like a mitten), which is about four times larger in area than the midlands. The largest cities in each region (Detroit and Birmingham) have populations of similar size (around 1 million), and while the urban centres of Michigan are a bit smaller than the midlands (the midlands have about 4 million people living in cities larger than 100,000 people compared to around 2 million in Michigan), the best explanation of this is that there is more space in Michigan. If you scaled down Michigan to fit into the area of the English midlands you would probably end up with similar densities for cities. Given that Americans generally perceive distance as less of a barrier (not surprisingly with gas prices about two to three times higher in the UK), this should not make much difference in the pattern of demand for professional sports. The GDP of Michigan is around $400 billion, the GDP of the UK midlands is about $300 billion- so Michigan is somewhat richer.
Why compare baseball in Michigan with soccer in the Midlands? Well, they have a long history and are each closely identified with the national sport. They have a lot in common in economic terms. The growth of the midlands is associated with the industrial revolution, and in the 20th century is largely identified with the car industry. Michigan, of course, is also identified with the car industry pioneers in Detroit. Having reached their economic peaks around the time of the second world war, both came to be identified as “rustbelt” regions in the 1960s and 70s. While both have achieved a measure of economic recovery, neither is considered glamorous. Their image, to themselves and to the wider world, is one of honest toil.
Baseball is known to have been played in Michigan from the 1860s at least, and professional baseball in Detroit goes back to at least 1879. The Detroit Tigers, the state’s Major League Baseball team, was a charter member of the American League in 1900. There were minor leagues in Michigan from the 1890s – the Michigan State League dates back to that time, and others that were founded not long after – the Central League and the West Michigan League. At least 40 towns and cities in Michigan have hosted minor league teams at some point in their history, including Grand Rapids, Warren, Lansing, Flint, Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, Saginaw, Bay City and Ludington.
The founder of the Football League in 1888 was William McGregor, secretary of the Aston Villa football club, founded in 1874. The midlands has produced many historic teams: Notts County (1862), Nottingham Forest (1865), Chesterfield (1867), Stoke City (1863), Birmingham City (1875), Port Vale (1876), Wolverhampton Wanderers (1877), West Bromwich Albion (1878), Coventry City (1883), Derby County (1884), Leicester City (1884), Walsall (1888).
Baseball, at least until the 1960s, was acknowledged to be the national sport, just as soccer is England’s national sport. The difference is that today all of the historic soccer clubs have survived, but apart from the Detroit Tigers almost all of Michigan’s baseball heritage is lost. Dozens of clubs that represented cities in Michigan have disappeared. There are currently two midlands teams in the English Premier League (Leicester City and West Bromwich Albion) and a further ten teams in the three professional divisions beneath this. Four of the teams in these lower divisions have in their history won national titles (Aston Villa, Derby County, Nottingham Forest and Wolverhampton Wanderers). All of these are professional teams which bring great pride to the cities they represent. Beneath them, there are literally dozens on semi-pro teams that aspire to play at the highest level thanks to P&R.
By contrast, there are only seven minor league baseball teams that could be termed professional in Michigan, of which three are controlled by major league teams. It is not conceivable that any of these teams could ever play major league baseball. Some teams can generate a reasonable crowd by providing entertainment for kids and charging low prices, but the games themselves cannot generate any real excitement. That is because the teams, like Detroit City FC, are condemned to play in the same circle of hell forever, and that’s because there is no P&R. If there were P&R, then civic pride would boost interest in minor league teams, there would be real contests and real commitment by the fans. Instead of teams and leagues generating interest for a few years and then folding, they would generate a long term commitment which would survive even in years when the team was horrible.
Living in the Midwest, it’s easy to understand the economic malaise which produced Trump voters (Michigan voted twice for Obama and then swung narrowly for Trump). Everywhere you go you see closed down businesses and empty factories replaced by McJobs. While much of this has to do with automation and trade, it also has to do with the hollowing out of communities. Economically, speaking, the midlands is not doing much better than Michigan. But the mindset of people is surely much better when their community is drawn together by their sports teams. Just ask the people of Leicester, following their city’s extraordinary victory in the Premier League in 2016. It would not have been possible without P&R.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that P&R is a substitute for a thriving economy. I’m just making a contrast between life in world with P&R and without it. Of course, there are many differences between the English midlands and Michigan (it’s a case study). But if you want to understand why P&R might be a good idea, this comparison is, in my opinion, a good place to start.