In December of 2015, MLS Commissioner Don Garber released a statement that he intends to allow eight new owners to begin top-flight soccer teams in America or Canada. Franchises in Atlanta and Minnesota are in their first seasons as the 21st and 22nd teams in the league. Los Angeles is slated to place their second professional team in the league as the 23rd team next year with LAFC. David Beckham’s Inter Miami are finalizing the details to become MLS team #24.
The Heart of Los Angeles.
The abundance of competition for the final four spots in the league makes evident the significant growth of soccer in this country. The cities jostling for the few remaining spots are Sacramento, San Diego, Phoenix, San Antonio, Cincinnati, St. Louis, Nashville, Tampa, Raleigh, Charlotte, Detroit, and Indianapolis. In addition, many second-tier soccer clubs consider the possibility of elevation to the highest level. For that, many teams will need a new system.
European soccer is insanely lucrative. If you don’t believe me, here’s a comparison for scale. According to Forbes.com, the average MLS team is worth $185 million, a proud increase of 18% from the previous year. Oryx Qatar Sports Investments, the ownership group of Paris Saint-Germain, has just raised the bar to an incomprehensible height. They paid Barcelona $263 million for Neymar. Only two MLS teams are worth more than the world’s best player. So what is Don Garber’s next step to reaching the levels of Europe’s footballing titans? Many think the answer is a promotion/relegation system.
Promotion and relegation drive teams to perform. The motivation for owners in the second level of soccer in America right now (NASL) is limited to regional TV deals and marginal prize money. If the motivation to win involved the rewards that come with playing in the MLS, imagine what that would do to an owner. He would be compelled to seek out new talent and pay for it. The youth systems would see investment in order to raise more talented players to the first team. Imagine what that would do for a team, a league, or how about a country?
Look at the NFL and NBA right now. They’ve tried so hard to keep the league competitive, but now Roger Goodell and Adam Silver have to combat tanking. Teams are essentially rewarded for poor performances. There is a significant incentive to reach the top, of course, but there’s no incentive to avoid being the worst team. With a pro/rel system, you get punished for being a bad team. This means that, in European soccer, every single team goes out every single matchday looking for results. Fans will buy tickets and turn the TV on to see that in American sports.
If teams in every division focused more money towards youth programs, we would see more American players at the level of Christian Pulisic. Out of Hershey, Pennsylvania, Pulisic is on track to be the greatest soccer player this country has ever produced before he even reaches his prime. Once we have academy players reaching that level on a more frequent basis, the level of play in American professional soccer will rise. As the league gets more attention, clubs from around the world will begin to invest in American players more often. They may never put up hundreds of millions of dollars, but the net profit of player exports will undoubtedly rise.
With the rise in the popularity of soccer, there is no better time for a switch to a pro/rel system. In June, Jonathan Tannenwald with The Inquirer posted his running list of the most-watched matches in U.S. history. Three of the top five are from the most recent Men’s World Cup. The Women’s World Cup Final just two summers ago is in second place. As the years go on, more and more young people who have grown up with soccer (MLS is only 21 years old) are reaching adulthood and impacting the perception of the sport.
All of these factors combine to convince me that a promotion/relegation system in American soccer would be a spark on a fuel-laden landscape. As the MLS continues to get better, the NASL and USL would also improve. The overall talent level on the pitch would benefit at all levels, including the international stage. The chain reaction from a shift to pro/rel would bring more eyeballs to American soccer around the globe, and the economic implications could be huge.
Soccer is rising in this country. We have to give it the infrastructure it needs to flourish.