This is a guest column by frequent contributor Nick Sindt. Always good to host your pieces, Nick!
Editor’s Note: Don Garber and MLS are choosing their talents in South Beach this upcoming week at the annual MLS draft (that has shrunk from four rounds to three.) Yet, two new, and by the looks of it steamrolling-forward, expansion teams are churning up interest, ticket sales, and message boards in the Northwest.
This coming Saturday, Garber will hold court with fans and associates of the Miami Ultras and you need to look no further than here to see what Garber will be harangued about. (Hint: It’s not LeBron-style contraction)
You have the New York Cosmos taking a reverse approach to gaining New York “market share” by trading on and generating revenue around their once (now twice?) in a lifetime experience while Detroit and Atlanta fans plead their case.
Seems the “ripe” time to discuss what’s next in the MLS program for it’s club number and competitive direction.
Promotion-Relegation vs. “Expansion” a philosophical debate
Don Garber has oft been quoted stating that the Major League Soccer will be a 20 team league by 2012 and that MLS would not be complete without representation in the Southeast corner of the country. Recently the Montreal Impact have been named the 19th franchise and the New York Cosmos resurrection seems to have a better head-of-steam than any expansion bids coming out of the south. One is left to wonder how the league and the country can accommodate it all???
Here’s what we do know: MLS is perfectly content with doing things the “American” way (playoffs, spring to fall schedule, etc.) in order to help attract more viewers from the “Big Four” by keeping things as similar as possible. The “Big Four” all operate with 30 member franchises (32 in the NFL), and they expand their top leagues into new (and sometimes odd) markets as demand dictates. There is never any promotion of lower league sides or relegation of top-flight sides. Thus far, the MLS has followed suit, but can this trend continue as soccer grows and stays ever more popular with the all important 18-45 year old demographic? Assuming that Promotion-Relegation and the “American” expansion method are mutually exclusive I’ll put forth my opinions on which of the two is better in the long run for the game on this continent.
Given that all of the “Big Four” have plateaued (for the time being) at around 30 teams spread throughout the United States and Canada it would appear that MLS will eventually hit the same upper limit that the other leagues have. The main positives to expanding the league as the “Big Four” have done is that the league will be able to monitor the quality of the clubs and ownership groups that are brought into the fold; we won’t have Landon Donovan and his Galaxy team playing their home matches in the Home Depot Center and their away matches in some high-school football stadium that has potholes in the turf.
With MLS controlling entry into the league “The Don” and his cronies will also have tighter control over the league itself. Granted most of us would like them to loosen up some of the economic restrictions placed on the clubs, but we cannot argue against their success up to this point. This control also allows MLS to keep situations like Chelsea, Manchester City, Newcastle United, and Real Madrid/1970s New York Cosmos from occurring over here and throwing the entire competition out of whack.
Another item in the plus column is that 30+ clubs should offer a fair amount of coverage. With teams on the West coast, Northwest corridor, Mountains, Midwest & Texas, Northeast, and hopefully the Southeast in the future there won’t be a region of the nation that doesn’t have a team to root for, even if it means a multiple hour drive to get there.
In my opinion there are three major drawbacks to continuing expansion of the league in the same manner as we have been; 1) the Detroit Lions, 2) the Baltimore/Indianapolis Colts, and 3) unbalanced schedules.
First let me state that I’m picking on the NFL here not because I dislike American Football, but rather because it is the biggest, best, healthiest sport in this country, and, yet, these examples highlight the downsides of simple expansion.
The Detroit Lions…When I think about the Detroit Lions I think of futility. They had one of the greatest running backs the league has ever seen and yet they barely made the playoffs during his tenure. Their win-loss record has to be one of the worst in the history of the National Football League and yet they’re still around barely achieving “competitive” status. Darwin’s theory of natural selection has led to a more direct catchphrase “only the strong survive.”
Yet here the Lions are, year after year, embarrassing themselves with paltry attendance numbers and a bad on-field product, the situation is often so dire that fans wear paper bags on their heads to openly mock ownership. It is so bad that the stadium was barely 2/3rds full during one of this season’s big televised games on Thanksgiving Day.
The Lions and other perennially bad teams seem to have found that magical calculus formula that allows them to maximize profits while minimizing the amount they spend on talent. But the sweet life in the top-flight is something that should have to be earned instead of guaranteed.
The Baltimore/Indianapolis Colts, the Cleveland Browns/Baltimore Ravens, the Houston Oilers/Tennessee Titans, and not to mention at least two more fistfuls of examples from the NBA, MLB, and NHL, plus the San Jose Earthquakes/Houston Dynamo in our own MLS. All of these situations are gut-wrenching tales of an ownership group, for many different reasons, simply “up-and-moving” their team from one city to another, leaving fans devastated. Though this painful process of skipping town in the middle of the night is not exclusive to the American “Big Four” it is far less common (at least that I’ve heard of) in Europe, South America, and Mexico. My theory postulates that controlled expansion limits the number of teams in the country leaving many markets open to and craving professional sports (yes, even when the number of teams appears to plateau). When these markets want a sports team bad enough, they will cast flirtatious glances that would make even the most sexually loose men and women blush: lots of fans; big, new, state-of-the-art facilities paid for by Joe and Jane Taxpayer. How could any profit driven company/sports franchise say no to that?
Balanced schedules are touted by many Eurosnobs as the only way to determine a true regular season champion, and they have a pretty solid point. Playing each team in the league the same number of times as everyone else does ensures that the standings at the end of the season are the most accurate picture of how all of the teams performed over the course of the entire season, eliminating inflated records that come with earning points/results against a weaker division or conference. All of the “Big Four” leagues in the US/Canada have unbalanced schedules that lead into the playoffs. While the NBA, MLB, and NHL don’t have to play as unbalanced of a schedule, the NFL by its taxing physical nature must limit its games and therefore must be unbalanced.
All of this lopsided scheduling does lead to the eventual questions: 1) is the regular season mostly meaningless? and 2) is the team crowned champion at the end of the playoffs truly deserving of the title? Were the 2007-2008 New York Giants really the best team in the NFL or did they do just enough to get into the playoffs and get “hot” at the right moment? There are countless other champions in all leagues who finished sixth or lower in their league/conference who went on to battle their way to the title. While MLS still runs into this issue due to their own playoffs, you cannot argue that Real Salt Lake’s entrance into the playoffs two years ago was due to their lack of quality opponents during the regular season.
Another drawback of the unbalanced scheduling practice is the lack of key players and franchises giving each and every city in the league some face-time. With unbalanced scheduling in MLS, the Designated Player Rule is merely a way to improve a single team, whereas the current balanced schedule makes David Beckham, Landon Donovan, Thierry Henry, Juan Pablo Angel, et. al. assets to not only their teams, but also the entire league.
Everyone who follows the European soccer leagues knows full well the excitement for teams at both ends of the table that is possible with the promotion-relegation system so we won’t dwell too much on them, and instead focus on how they could benefit the MLS.
Philosophically speaking, I believe the best reason to implement Promotion-Relegation into the MLS league structure is it gives the league the ability to add more teams in more markets in a more organic fashion. Currently the format is to pick a city and simply place a team there, a la the Philadelphia Union or the Chicago Fire, or to take an existing lower division side and elevate it into the MLS (Sounders, Timbers, Impact, and the Whitecaps are all examples of this). Both of these methods dictate that the city/ownership group must meet certain worthiness requirements (money, stadium plans, supporters, and much more) prior to being awarded the franchise, which means that there are plenty of markets that will never be given a chance to prove what a great market they can be; Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Richmond, St. Louis, Raleigh/Durham, anywhere in Idaho/Montana/Wyoming, amongst many others. With a promotion-relegation system in place, a team’s worthiness for entry into the top flight would be determined on results alone (fingers crossed we don’t have an Italian style match-fixing scandal).
Promotion-relegation, if eventually (and hypothetically) implemented down to [a massive] 4 divisions (or further), allows for much greater expansion of the league without necessitating any changes to the format of the competition/season. And, it also helps solve one of the underlying issues of American Soccer; youth players moving from their big-time youth clubs to the MLS Youth sides for little to no compensation for the club that groomed the player. If clubs were part of a larger organism, there’d be rules and restrictions put into place to assist in solving these types of issues.
It also can assist in elevating the US Open Cup to a more lofty status. Currently the MLS clubs compete against minor league clubs that a majority of MLS fans know little to nothing about, but with teams bouncing back and forth between the divisions these matches can have added storylines based on previous league meetings.
The downside of a promotion-relegation system is obviously this:
Going along with that, there’s also the fact that lower league sports (not counting the NCAA because let’s face it NCAA Football and Basketball are sometimes better than the upper echelons of the minor leagues of the NFL and NBA) in this country exist almost in a vacuum. If MLS executives think it’s tough drawing a crowd now, just wait until they’re down in MLS-2 or the further nether regions of American Soccer.
The last pitfall of promotion-relegation would be the assumed involvement of the USSF with league structure, similar to The FA in England and other countries. Many have spoken out about the general Mickey Mouse-ness of the USSF when it comes to running the national teams, can you imagine what would happen if they got their hands in the MLS cookie-jar?
The way I see it, MLS would be wise to cap the league at 20 clubs for now, invest in the lower league(s) and in about ten years or so (so the latest franchisees get a good number of years hobnobbing with the big boys) instituting promotion and relegation with a healthier second tier league, and hopefully growing third-tier league. It should be noted that I don’t think we need to immediately go with 3 up and 3 down; if the lower tier leagues are not as competitive as one would hope, the league could certainly look at only accepting 2 teams from the league below it (regular season and post-season champs). The league could also look at going down to 18 teams in order to ease some of the fixture congestion as well as the weather concerns that must be dealt with in the beginning and the end of the American soccer season.