Kyle Tapper
Author

Will the MLS ever adopt a Relegation/Promotion system?

Aug 20, 2014 12:41 PM EST

The age old debate of Relegation/Promotion seems to always pop up around this time of year with the Premier League launching over the weekend and the MLS nearing the conclusion of their own season. Will the MLS ever adopt a relegation system?

In short, no.

But there's a lot to explore concerning this argument, including the efforts of Major League Soccer to combine the two into a new, incredibly innovative league structure. First, let's review the reasons why the MLS will never adopt a Relegation/Promotion system.

It isn't American

Many make the argument that a relegation system is not in the identity of American sports. The NFL, MLB, NHL and NBA all abide by the same structure: single league, two "conferences/leagues/associations," multiple divisions within each conference/league/association, a tournament style playoff system and the ultimate goal to expand the league by adding another location and team. It's a proven structure that works in North America and has become the model for other sports (NCAAB and now NCAAF as well as the LLWS and CWS). Americans often argue that Major League Soccer should follow the pattern and fight for its place in the free market.

It's bad for investors

To grow the league and expand to more markets, MLS relies heavily on independent investors as well as investments from communities for soccer specific stadiums. To acknowledge their efforts, the league is in a much better place financially than it was at its conception in 1994. After briefly scaling down, the league has responded with healthy, responsible growth to minimize the risk of a collapsing league. Investors would be hesitant to fund a team that could potentially play in a lower division, draw fewer crowds and generate less revenue. They would also be hesitant to fund a team that would have to engage in a bidding war for every player. Or so the argument goes.

It's financially dangerous

This is possibly the most compelling argument concerning the adaptation of a Promotion/Relegation system in MLS. In the conventional European system, teams are forced to bid for the talents of players and purchase them for a hefty transfer fee from their previous club, unless released to become a free agent. This spending can be quite dangerous for the financial stability of teams. In the last decade, English club teams Leeds United and Portsmouth endured a financial collapse after their efforts to stay in the top flight of English football fell short. A Promotion/Relegation system would run the same risk for clubs in the MLS fighting to stay in the highest division of American soccer.

Some may say the arguments against a promotion/relegation system are enough to condemn Major League Soccer to continue with their current structure that mirrors sports culture in America. However, the MLS isn't satisfied with the status quo and has come up with a brilliant way to bridge the two systems:

A "Promotion Only" system.

Over the last 5 years, the MLS has enjoyed massive growth, with interest growing exponentially in major metropolitan areas. Interest in the World's game has grown so much among Americans that teams no longer need to be in the MLS to draw crowds and gain support. Before their addition to the MLS, this was evident in both the Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers. They spent their time in a lower league engaging the community, garnering support and establishing their footprint. In 2009, each team played their inaugural games as new MLS franchises. 

This innovative structure allows teams in other "lower" leagues to impress the MLS and potentially earn their way into the league as an expansion team. Although there is a chance that this could hurt lower leagues, a healthy, thriving MLS franchise is worth it. Lower leagues such as the NASL and USL Pro can add expansion teams and research markets for a much cheaper price than MLS and can label their leagues as "feeder" leagues to the big show, providing new franchises with hope and encouragement to grow the game in their region.

So, no the MLS will never adopt a Relegation/Promotion system. Why? Not for conventional reasons, but because they've stumbled upon something much, much better.