The Man in Seat 9: Relegation Can’t Happen in MLS

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Or, why polar bears don’t live in New York City.

The tiered league system works brilliantly for the rest of the world. Here’s why it would fail in North America and why we should stop raising it as a possibility.

For a long time I have been a supporter of the English Premier League. I spent a portion of my career in London and fell in love with the EPL. Since then one of my guilty pleasures is to wake up early on a Saturday morning while most of the city is quiet and still and asleep, pour my coffee, and watch the Spurs break my heart. What can I say? Tottenham was the first team in England I saw live. At White Hart Lane. You don’t chose the badge, the badge chooses you.

I love the drama of the league — the uncertainty of who will take the title, who will make the top four, and who will be in the bottom three. Who will win it all, and who will be relegated. I have a personal connection to a team which came back to the Premiership after seasons in the Championship, and I fretted during the past few seasons as they found their footing and established themselves safely above the relegation line. A large part of the drama I enjoy is created by relegation. Why couldn’t it work here, I thought. It should work here, I thought. We should have this! I thought.

Until I changed my mind.

I started writing this article holding the belief that relegation and promotion could not only work in MLS but would be beneficial. Even knowing the obstacles, I was a champion to any who would listen. But the deeper I dug, and the more I thought about it, the more I realized that the system wouldn’t work in North America. In fact, it would probably kill Major League Soccer.

I had an epiphany of sorts while watching the documentary, Jack to a King. It’s about the dramatic and hard fought ascendance to the Premier League by Swansea City FC. When irony hits, it hits hard. A documentary highlighting the success of a team in a system I supported made me realize that the system would be extremely hard, if not impossible, to implement here in North America.

A World Populated by People Playing Soccer.

Football is the most popular sport in the world, bordering on religion in some locales. And the tiered league system with promotion and relegation is the standard way that the sport is organized. It works. It works brilliantly. But it works because of the unparalleled saturation of the sport in the rest of the world. As soccer grows in North America and as MLS matures, it’s natural that we compare ourselves with other successful leagues; to see how we stack up and how we can emulate their success. But in doing so we should also realize that implementing the tiered system here would be an attempt to grow roses with sunflower seeds.

In Europe populations are more compact than they are here in North America. As such, soccer is much more concentrated with leagues organized in much tighter territory.  In the top tier leagues alone, twenty teams each come from geographies the size of Alabama (United Kingdom), New Mexico (Germany), or California (Spain). Germany, the most populated of the three at 82 million people, crushes our largest populated state of California, which has 38 million residents. Add the twenty teams in the top leagues to those in the lower leagues and you start to see the enormous footprint of organized soccer in the rest of the world.

The number of leagues and teams feeding into the EPL alone is immense. In your head, pick a number of what you think that might be. Let’s start with only the leagues. Not teams, but leagues. Ready? The number of leagues for men’s association football clubs in England is 535. The number of teams—5,510. (Source: To put that into perspective the NCAA basketball tournament starts with 68 teams. And adding up all divisions of NCAA college football, you get 650 teams. American football is our most popular professional sport in North America and in college, the NFL’s minor league, there is only one ninth of the teams that are feeding England’s Premiere League. Europe is like Oprah on giveaway day; you get a team, and you get a team, and you get a team. Everyone gets a team.

Including the non-professional clubs, FIFA registered soccer clubs in England, Germany, and Spain number 42,490, 26,837, and 18,190 respectively. Soccer is local. In some cases that locality is reduced to a neighborhood. Soccer is a part of the fabric of the community. And that fabric supplies a feeder system necessary for the upper echelons of the sport to survive.
Game Of Numbers Infographic
In comparison, here in North America (US & Canada), we have a total population of 355 million but only 19,000 registered clubs — 9,000 in the US and 10,000 in Canada. (Source: FIFA).  That should give you a sense of the disparity between the number of clubs that feed into the EPL and other top tier leagues and the number of clubs that feed into the MLS.

Then there is time and space. Living here, we tend to forget the shear size of North America. Most flights within Europe are a few hours at most. The North American travel required to play opponents scattered across such a wide swath of land introduces a layer of logistical and operational challenges to the league that other top tier leagues don’t face. They are sheltered by the challenge because of borders. Each country has independent leagues. The leagues are regional.  MLS had to find another solution. To mitigate travel teams are placed into geographical conferences. And conference play dictates that you will face teams in your conference more frequently than teams in other conferences. In that type of structure there needs to be an equalizer to the overall point system because one conference might be tougher than another conference. It might be much easier to get three points in say, the Eastern Conference than the Western Conference. And that equalizer is the playoff system.


Fun fact: Did you know that Major League Soccer is just a year younger than the Premier League?


It’s all About the Money.

The final nail in the coffin of the North American tiered system debate is a financial one and it is probably the one most difficult to change. Teams in Europe get paid to be in a tiered league. The smaller the league, the smaller the revenue. But if a team can make it to the top tier, it means an additional 120 million pounds, or about $200 million dollars, of revenue. That’s the carrot. If they fail, they get relegated back down to the lower league. That’s the stick. Sports Darwinism. If a team can claw their way up the pyramid and into the top tier, they need to be scruffy enough to remain in the league until they adjust to the new reality. If they fail, the consolation prize is their share of the year’s take, a parachute payment agreement, and some lovely parting gifts. That Barclay patch looks great on the cork board of the Chairman’s office. In the Premier League last season, relegated team Queens Park Rangers were awarded 1.2 million GBP for their part in the season. As for Chelsea, who won the league, to the victors go the spoils — 24.7 million GBP. That’s not including gate, merchandising, and licensing rights.

Soccer is big business. With a well cultured and nourished fan base, being in a European top tier means money. A lot of money. Global money. The most valuable team in MLS are the Seattle Sounders with a current value of $245 million. Not too shabby, until you look East. Real Madrid has an estimated value of $3.44 billion. Manchester United is valued at $3.1 billion. You can keep the machine running well with that amount of fuel.

The bulk of that revenue goes to the owners of the team as they took the risk. Not so in MLS. Teams in Europe are independently owned. In North America they are franchised. That is a huge difference. The European leagues are entities separate from the team. The leagues bring in revenue, take out operating expenses and donations to things like the Referee Retirement fund, and then split the remaining between the twenty teams in a tiered scale. In England the league also provides “parachute” payments to teams who have been relegated to the Championship League. The logic being that they will have players contracted at Premiere League level salaries that remain on the payroll until their contract expires.  And if the clubs have been there for a few years, they have gotten used to the extra EPL revenue. Can’t go cold turkey once you get a taste of that sweet, sweet, Premier League cash.

Television revenue for the Premier League for the 2010-2013 deal was 1.17 billion GBP approximately $2.4 billion USD. By comparison, Major League Soccer recently signed a three-network deal between Fox, NBC, and ESPN which is reportedly worth $90 million. Roses with sunflower seeds.

And that is why Major League Soccer is a closed system. The league is currently taking the risk. An owner wanting to come into the league must pay a franchise fee to join. The teams are not owned by the owners group, but by the league. The owners are actually investor-operators who act as team owners act in the other leagues. They own the right to control the team, but they don’t own the team itself. Players are contracted to MLS the organization. If you want to have a team in the league, you need to put up cash to have a seat at the table. It’s a pay to play system like the NFL and Major League Baseball. It’s a system which doesn’t support the concept of promotion and relegation. There is just not enough money to go around. For the pyramid system to work in North America, MLS would need to change their entire structure and revenue model. That’s not going to happen.

To put it bluntly, relegation just doesn’t have the ecosystem here to survive. It would be a polar bear in New York.

For what it’s worth, there are those on the other side of the pond who argue that the Premier League should change to the MLS model. Go figure.

The Man in Seat 9