Entering No Man’s Land: Promotion/Relegation

Created on Aug. 20, 2014 5:43 PM EST

Promotion and relegation is one of the fiercest battlegrounds in American soccer. You have those for it, the looneys, and those against, the deniers. The arguments can be logical and, at the same time, daft. I think it’s an immigration requirement for all Europeans to be asked their opinion, having come from a continent that practices promotion and relegation in all sports. It’s just never as easy as yes or no. KTapper, incidentally just posted his thoughts on the same subject as I was finishing mine. It's definitely worth reading both, as they do cover completely different aspects of the issue.

I’m a fan of two clubs in England, as I’ve expressed before, Luton Town and Dunstable Town. Luton have recently been promoted back to League Two, and have played in all of the top five divisions in the past 22 years. Dunstable Town have just won their second consecutive league title, to now reach the Southern Football League Premier Division (Level 7). I’ve experienced six promotions, six relegations and a further reprieve from relegation.

The problem when people talk about promotion and relegation, is that they picture Wigan’s 2005 promotion to the Premier League. The Latics immediately followed it up with their highest ever league position and bumper attendances (because I do remember them only attracting crowds of 1,000 in Division Two). The view of relegation is frequently clouded by Newcastle in 2009/10. The Magpies immediately bounced back with parachute payments, a full stadium and an emerging Andy Carroll.

As you go further down the English football pyramid, life gets tougher for promoted and relegated clubs. Clubs in League One don’t get $90m parachute payments. Clubs in League Two receive $400,000 a year in TV rights, rather than the $99.2m minimum that Premier League clubs receive. Clubs in the Vanarama Conference receive no youth team funding. Clubs below that struggle to get enough fans through the gate just to cover the referee’s expenses.

I will never forget an away trip to Leamington in 2008. In the boardroom at half time, The Brakes’ chairman revealed the attendance at 475. To those of us making the trip from Bedfordshire, where our average attendance was 98, this seemed great. The home club seemed genuinely disturbed. They had large wages to cover, and more ground staff than a lot of Conference teams. Our multi-tasking gate man, boardroom greeter, secretary and all-round hero, Paul 'Pipeman' Harris, would have small goals on the turnstile. Firstly, when the referees’ fees are covered, when the cost of printing the match day programme was met, the cost of biscuits for the boardroom, and so on. If the biscuits were paid for, it was a great day, and no Manchester United director would ever understand that!

As you drop through the leagues, your income dries up. As you progress, your expenditure explodes. Match officials are more expensive. Player wages increase, and the cost of travel goes from gas money to a coach and hotel. You have to bring your stadium up to the various FA grades, which take no consideration for realistic use. You may have to install 500 seats in your stadium, which attracts 30 visitors. Your floodlights may need pulling down and replacing, your changing rooms may need demolishing and rebuilding 20ft closer to the middle of the pitch, simply so players can walk out on the halfway line (Yes, that’s happened), and that’s without a summer of painting and working on getting a good playing surface prepared. Your best player may be compelled to quit the team, as your increased travel interferes with his job. You may find yourself hiring worse players for a lot more money, purely because they’re available to travel long distances on a weeknight. That’s still easier than the $1,600 fine for failing to raise a team.

The term pyramid gives the illusion of gradual steps in a steady slope. The football pyramid is nothing like that. With the nature of anything regional, there are level 9 leagues with a higher standard than some level 8 leagues. The adjustment from levels 9 to 8, and from 8 to 7 are completely disproportionate, as you go from the upper echelons of amateur football towards semi-professional sides loaded with ex-pro players. As such, you will see teams make a rapid ascent from a county league to one of the feeder leagues, without developing the infrastructure to support such success.

The EvoStik League alone has seen 17 teams resign in 10 years, largely due to reality catching up with this kind of progression through the leagues. A further 16 teams have left the Southern League, and 6 teams have gone the same way in the Ryman League. These are teams that have been operating for over a century, as established parts of their community. Some have been kicked down a few leagues, others have vanished off the face of the earth. The problem, then, is that you legally (in some cases - teams from equivalent leagues will challenge based on PPG etc.) and ethically cannot promote a team who have failed to finish in a promotion spot, so you have to reprieve a relegated team. If Chivas USA are being rewarded for failure by keeping their place in MLS, people may wish to look at the number of reprieves handed out - somewhere in the region of 100 in the past decade of the national game system.

In Major League Soccer, there are a number of contractual situations that would need to be worked out. Visiting Orlando recently, I called Orlando City SC regarding their scarves. Joining MLS, with the way MLS places their name and their primary sponsor, adidas, on every piece of merchandise, has left the Floridians with very little aside from their present Lotto USL-branded jerseys, and some MLS/adidas-branded Kaká T-shirts. If this was the normal situation every year, how could teams independently stock their stores to keep the money coming in?

Player contracts would be a legal dispute in waiting. If Seattle Sounders were relegated, their players would still be contracted to MLS and not the club. Assuming MLS would negotiate these player agreements, would they happily let go of Clint Dempsey, given the portion of the $9m transfer fee that they paid? MLS have also stepped in with Philadelphia Union to tell them they couldn’t pay Maurice Edu as much as had been agreed between the club and player. Would New York Cosmos be left without Marcos Senna if MLS deemed him overpriced? How would the LA Galaxy II and future RSL/FC Dallas teams sit in USL if a pyramid became a reality?

You also have NASL and USL debating which league is really the higher tier. The Football League and Southern League had a similar rivalry in the early 1900s, which only became resolved when a number of Southern League clubs jumped ship around the time of the First World War. It still took until 1978 to establish promotion and relegation throughout, when the Football League turned 90. MLS is only 18 years young, USL a decade older and this incarnation of NASL has only been around for four and half years. Then you have to consider how far down the leagues do you go. Do you take NPSL and PDL with the MLS U23 teams or kick them into touch? Do you go really regional to the point where you will get a lot of teams drop out, as their travel goes from three hours on a bus on a Saturday morning, to a flight across a time zone on a Wednesday evening?

I would love to see a system where San Antonio can earn their MLS spot, and Austin AzTeX can work towards their own. Where New York and Los Angeles get two franchises because they actually deserve them. I simply see a lot of opinions floating around based on a misunderstanding of the system. It’s not a free, fair and equal system at all. If Manchester United request international transfer clearance and appeal a red card on Monday, they will receive the answers on Wednesday. If Dunstable Town do the same, they will receive a no to both around a month later.

The United States does not possess the financial and competitive strength to support such a change at this time. It will do eventually, but then there are another set of hurdles to overcome if the fans, leagues and clubs wish to establish a pyramid system. To rush into it, to cater to the Eurosnobs, would serve only to undo all the good work in building MLS, and bring back memories of NASL’s collapse. American soccer is ahead of the European nations, when they were at this adolescent stage, so it would be pointless to unsettle the foundation that MLS and USSF are continuing to lay.

The photo, depicting a packed Creasey Park Stadium, is by Liam Smith.
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