I want to say right off the bat that I’m a fan of the promotion and relegation system in international soccer. It does an incredible job of preventing tanking, promoting meritocracy, and keeping some games from becoming meaningless at the end of the year. However, introducing this system into Major League Soccer like many have tried to do in the past would destroy the league, and set American soccer as a whole back decades. While a system that deemphasizes competing year-round seems like it would be good for the domestic game, let me explain why it doesn’t.
One of the classic arguments for promotion and relegation is that it prevents tanking, a problem that has plagued the NBA for nearly a decade now. This is a totally valid point. Instead of being rewarded with high draft picks and future stars, the worst teams in the league are punished with embarrassment and, in most cases, financial ruin. That last point is why preventing tanking isn’t worth the downside of this system. In comparison to the rest of the world, including other American sports, the MLS is an incredibly young league. It doesn’t have the history or profile required for teams to survive the drop down to a lower division. Outside of maybe the LA Galaxy, these teams couldn’t survive for a year without their share of the television revenue. The current split for each team is about $3 million. And while that sounds like next to nothing compared to other pro leagues, it is make-or-break kind of money in MLS. Most teams already operate at a loss, and only three teams in the entire league would make a profit without that TV money. The league has the most convoluted ownership structure in the world just to get a little more financial security. Right now, the league is surviving solely off the back of expansion fees from adding new teams into the league. Would you pay $200 million for a team if there was even the slightest chance they’d end up in the minor leagues the very next season? The sad reality is that the MLS is currently not financially capable of using a promotion/relegation system, but that’s not the only downside.
Major League Soccer isn’t the only group that would suffer from adopting the European model. US Soccer as a whole would lose all of the progress they’ve made in the years since the debacle in Trinidad. More so than probably any other sport, soccer is built from the ground up through a grassroots system. Countries like Germany and Brazil produce so many great players because kids there grow up playing their entire lives. In the US, it’s a totally different story. Soccer is starting behind the eight-ball having to compete with more popular sports like football and basketball, but right now the youth soccer system isn’t doing itself any favors. Experts have opined for years that our current pay-to-play setup is the biggest roadblock to international success because it prevents talented kids from ever entering the sport. Why would kids growing up in poverty spend thousands of dollars to play travel soccer when they could just pick up a basketball at the rec center down the street? So, what’s changed in the last few years to produce this current golden generation? The MLS has begun to really invest in their development academies, and it’s paying off big time. Teams are giving talented kids a place to grow and develop without having to spend their entire life savings. Even though most people think of guys like Christian Pulisic as going straight to Europe, most of our current stars started out in the MLS academy system. Pulisic, Weston McKennie, Tyler Adams, Zach Steffen, Tim Weah, Ethan Horvath, Jordan Morris, Josh Sargent, Chris Richards, and Gio Reyna all got their starts there. Many of those guys have gone on to have success at some of Europe’s most historic clubs, all thanks to the MLS academies.
MLS teams are only investing in the future because they know they have the financial security to do so. If there was even the threat of being relegated and losing out on their largest revenue streams, these teams would start hoarding money like Scrooge McDuck. The growth of American soccer would be stunted, setting us back decades on the international scene. Yes, promotion and relegation is way more fun. And yes, it promotes the kind of meritocracy that I would kill for in American sports. But the sad truth is that the current system is what’s best for MLS and America as a whole.