I promised a couple of weeks ago to write a piece on the role of the promotion and relegation in promoting the popularity of Major League Soccer. Promotion and relegation applies in every major soccer league in the world. The worst performing teams (in purely sporting terms) at the end of each season are sent to play at the next level down in the hierarchy of leagues, to be replaced by the best performing teams from that level.
Promotion and relegation (P&R) promotes intense competition at all levels of the league. This contrasts with the American closed league model which MLS has adopted, which creates meaningful competition at the top. There are pros and cons to each system. P&R promotes competition, creates opportunities for small teams and cities to compete at the highest level and ensures that all teams are committed to the end of the season. The closed system provides incentives for leagues to encourage competitive balance and incentives to invest in better quality stadiums (albeit at the expense of taxpayers). Broadly, P&R undermines profitability, so is very bad if you are a businessman trying to make money.
Generally speaking anything that promotes competition is good for consumers – so the fans probably benefit overall from P&R. Some people say that Europeans could not live with a closed system and Americans could not live with P&R. That is nonsense – it’s like saying that an American can’t learn French or a Frenchman learn English. Indeed, if you changed the system then kids would adopt it in a heartbeat, in the same way that they learn new languages. And while middle aged men like me do most of the talking about sports, it’s the kids who define the future of the sport.
As someone observed on the blog a while ago, it might be that P&R is better for fans, right now it is more likely that Europeans, driven by owners that want to make money, will adopt the closed American model than it is that any American league will adopt P&R. I wish it were the other way around.
But I also want to say something about MLS specifically. To be honest, until I looked at the numbers I was not aware of quite how vast the salary gap is between MLS and the major soccer leagues of Europe. A ratio of 30:1 with the EPL seems unbridgeable. To become a major league MLS needs to work on TV, which it never will at current levels of quality. I said that they need to invest, but as several people pointed out, the scale of investment needed at the moment would involve large scale losses in the short term which the owners would not be willing to tolerate.
I think the only way around this conundrum is for MLS to become a minor league for Europe and for European teams to buy up MLS franchises. European teams already employ the talent that would make MLS attractive and the big clubs have more talent than they put on the field. Manchester City’s acquisition of the new New York City FC franchise is surely a logical step. Of course, European teams could just loan players to MLS in the same way that they do in Europe, but then there’s the worry that the borrower will not take good care of the asset.
Following this model, Americans would get to see a better quality of soccer in the US, while European clubs would cement their global dominance. This is just the reverse of Coca-Cola taking over local soft drink producers in Europe. Eventually Americans would be willing to pay to watch this on TV, and MLS would become a major league. Maybe even the European clubs could then sell their franchises at a profit.
Of course, now that so many English clubs are owned by Americans, the ultimate owners might still be American, but this hardly seems important in world of global capital. I doubt this mechanism for raising the quality of MLS is as attractive as P&R, but it seems considerably more realistic.