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The Angle

Pro/Rel Has Little to Offer Mid-Sized Cities

by on 1 September 2017

Last weekend, New York Red Bulls head coach Jesse Marsch made some waves by saying, in an ESPN interview with Taylor Twellman, that he supported promotion and relegation (pro/rel) in American soccer. When asked for a reason, Marsch said, “because I think it just raises the stakes and gives so much hope to some of these smaller clubs.” Fair enough. But what does the coach of one of Major League Soccer’s most powerful clubs mean by “smaller”?

On Tuesday, I (and many other soccer media), got an answer. It came in the form of an email blast jointly issued by North American Soccer League (NASL) club The Miami FC and National Premier Soccer League (NPSL) club Kingston Stockade FC. These two clubs are taking US Soccer to arbitration in Switzerland—the home of the sport’s governing body, FIFA—over the issue, in an attempt to open up the closed division structure by force.

In highlighting Marsch’s views, these clubs were hoping to draw fresh attention to their cause, which is the most notorious and contentious fault line in American soccer. Stockade owner Dennis Crowley was quoted as saying, “…adopting pro/rel in America will give our small soccer clubs a reason and incentive to compete for a higher division.” In addition, Miami CEO Sean Flynn said, “The US is one of only two nations that does not comply with FIFA’s rules and it’s hurting the entire sport in America.”

Whatever you think of these arguments is irrelevant for the purposes of this piece. I come neither to praise nor bury their stance, but rather to point out an obvious and critical blind spot that promotion and relegation advocates do not often address.

Start off by considering how fundamentally incongruent these two allies are. The Miami FC is owned by the billionaire media mogul Riccardo Silva. It plays in the second division NASL in a 20,000+ seat stadium that Silva bought the naming rights to in order to name it after himself. Of course, it represents the most significant American metro area yet unrepresented in MLS: the glitz, glamour, and over 5.5 million people of Greater Miami. In contrast, Kingston Stockade is owned by Crowley, the founder of Foursquare. It plays in the fourth division NPSL in a 1,500 seat stadium named after a local boy who posthumously won the Medal of Honor in 1945. Less than 200,000 people live in the Kingston metro, which is a small Hudson Valley city two hours north of New York City (but closer to it than NYCFC’s next home game!).

Why would two clubs who are so vastly different collaborate in an attack on the fundamental structure of modern American soccer?

Kingston Stockade and Miami FC have far more to gain from a pro/rel system.

It’s not complicated. Both have much to gain from a pro/rel system. The Miami FC is almost certainly the best lower division team in the US and Canada. Silva has heavily invested in the players and coaching staff and the result is an excellent squad that, were it possible, would be a lock for promotion. Perhaps more importantly, The Miami FC may soon have to contend with an unwelcome (but hardly unanticipated) MLS entry into the market through a team partially owned by David Beckham. Playing in the moribund NASL handicaps The Miami FC in its fight for survival.

Meanwhile, Kingston Stockade plays in the non-league NPSL, where it won its division, but nineteen NPSL teams around the country had more points per game. Were promotion and relegation suddenly instituted, it would be unlikely to reap the benefits immediately. But Stockade’s owner has more resources than is common at that level of play. While Kingston, as a market, is certainly at the level you’d expect in the fourth division, it’d really have nothing to lose from an open pyramid. Would its fans care if it played in the fourth division or the fifth? It’s hard to believe that the divisional level of play is why fans come out to watch non-league soccer. But in a universe with pro/rel, Crowley might boost his investment. Promotion to the professional ranks could be a game-changer for his small club, drawing new fans from other small cities in the region, like Hudson, New Paltz, Poughkeepsie, Newburgh, and Beacon.

In The Miami FC and Kingston Stockade, we see two archetypes of the strongest promotion and relegation advocates. The former represents lower division clubs from powerful markets. US Soccer’s prodigal flagship, the New York Cosmos, is the most famous such club, and its fanbase is vocal in support of pro/rel. The latter represents the lowest league clubs who have nothing to lose. What possible reason would similarly clubs like Chattanooga FC have for opposing a system which offers it very little downside and the promise of tremendous upside?

But the institution of an open pyramid would have losers as well as winners, and it’s important to be honest about this. There are a handful of clubs and cities who benefit tremendously from the current system, and for whom a switch to promotion and relegation would offer nothing but increasing irrelevance and frustration.

The losers of pro/rel

Minnesota United FC is one such club that would lose out under Pro/Rel in America and Minneapolis-Saint Paul is one such region.

An open pyramid does not just entail the up and down movement of clubs, it necessarily must break apart the strict spending regulations that ensure a fairly radical degree of parity in Major League Soccer. An open system would make it difficult to institute salary caps in different leagues. Pots of money like TAM and GAM that are mixed and matched to pay important players might not be able to survive teams coming in and out of the pool. Perhaps there would be solutions to the parity issue, but it’s hard to imagine what structure they would take.

That’s critically important, because the global leagues that promotion and relegation advocates admire are models that feature desperate inequality between clubs. The Spanish league is a 2-3 team race between clubs from Madrid and Barcelona. The German league is a 1-2 team race between Munich, the most wealthy German city, and the Ruhr, its largest metro. The Italian league, at its most competitive, is a race between Italy’s two dominant northern cities. The French league is a race against Paris. Smaller European leagues follow the same model. The country’s primate city is dominant. Other clubs don’t come close.

What does an open American soccer pyramid do to benefit a club in Kansas City? Would it not virtually guarantee that the 2013 MLS Cup would be the final time either of these clubs reach that level?

If you’re a fan of a team from New York and Los Angeles, that sounds just fine. If you cheer for a club from a city with star power, like Miami, you’d support such a system too. By virtue of the wealth and reputation of your home market, you’re able to contend for some of the best players in the world, who want to live in these places. But what does pro/rel offer a fan of Real Salt Lake? What does an open American soccer pyramid do to benefit a club in Kansas City? Would it not virtually guarantee that the 2013 MLS Cup would be the final time either of these clubs reach that level?

Pro/rel advocates often speak about the drama of a relegation battle as being superior to the MLS playoff chase. Many of them support clubs who would never find themselves in such a battle. I suspect Minnesota fans would rather be entertained by a playoff chase than a relegation scrap!

The 2015 MLS Champions Portland Timbers is a club who punch well above its weight in MLS. It’s tempting to think that, because most American soccer fans consider Portland an elite soccer market, foreign players would too. Probably not as much as we think. Who has the best atmosphere in the Premier League? Crystal Palace. Where do they play? Not the place that the best footballers want to live, or where the wealthiest fans live. How good are they? Not very. In the open leagues of Europe, we see a bonanza for the haves, occasional hits of hope for the have-nots, and unremitting mediocrity for the have-somethings.

Marsch was speaking of hope when he endorsed pro/rel to Twellman. But hope for one club is heartbreak for another with promotion and relegation. Hope for the New York Red Bulls is a system which would allow it to put the resources of Red Bull GmbH fully behind them. Heartbreak for the San Jose Earthquakes is being as marginally unoffensive as it is now and knowing that that’s the best it can hope for. Someone has to be Stoke.

When making the argument for pro/rel, it is not enough to point to Europe, because that model does not appeal to many cities, clubs, and fanbases. When promotion and relegation advocates talk about “competition” making the league better, fans of the Colorado Rapids understand the league is getting better because their team is being dropped out of it. When promotion and relegation advocates talk about the league getting better ratings, fans of Orlando City know that means better ratings in New York and LA. It’s not enough to talk about hope without also talking about despair. It’s not enough to talk about hope and despair without also talking about rudderless melancholy.

Fundamentally, promotion and relegation advocates have not been honest about the limited appeal of their argument. They have not recognized that their message does not resonate outside of their core constituencies, which are either extremely unsympathetic or extremely small. This is not a winning coalition.

(Yes, there are all kinds of obvious parallels to contemporary debates about economics and politics that we could go expand upon here, but won’t.)

Promotion and relegation advocates are proposing a radical change to the structure of American soccer. It is incumbent upon them to make a better case for change. How will pro/rel maintain parity? How will pro/rel protect clubs in sports-saturated mid-sized markets? What does Minnesota have to gain from gambling its spot in the top American soccer division; one that would immediately become precarious for the 16th largest metro in the US without a closed system?

Pro/rel advocates should try in good faith to reconcile these issues. If they can’t, they should be more honest about the winners and losers of the cause they champion.

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