Promoting Relegation to An American Audience – Part 1

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I read with interest recently the article by Joshua Fauvin about the possibility of introducing the worldwide system of promotion and relegation into US football. As a European MLS fan I had the discussion numerous times with American fans who generally seemed to side with the fact that the concept would be difficult to bring into reality, or would not be welcome anyway. Interestingly, since those initial discussions I’ve seen examples of polls that suggest quite the opposite is true, and that fans and players alike are in fact more in favour of pro/rel than against.

Whilst the MLS single entity model, not to mention the colossal sums involved in obtaining a franchise, creates a huge barrier to entry for most clubs, for the time being I’m going to put that one league to the side.

Competitive Edge

Sport is all about competition. When you’re a progressive and determined club at any level you’re going to want to strive to compete at a higher level. If you have a strong squad, good facilities, and a management team who can bring the best out of your playing side then you are likely to be finishing top of your league. However in the existing system finishing top means a trophy and back to playing the exact same clubs again next season, the ones you just proved you were collectively better than.

Similarly a club finishing bottom of a league is likely not good enough to compete at that particular level, although this is not necessarily true as there are factors such as playing styles altering through the tiers, morale of the squad, management and tactics.

With a hierarchy of leagues in place, each club has the ability to play at a relevant standard. Over time, the clubs that deserve to be in the highest tier will inevitably end up playing there, those that cannot sustain their position will fall down until they find a level at which they can hold their own against similarly competitively balanced ones.

So why does this benefit fans? Well let’s take the most obvious point. Whoever you support, from whatever level, you have the dream that one day your club can be playing against the big names in the big stadiums. Can it happen? English football has proved time and time again it can – Bournemouth in 2007 were on the verge of bankruptcy and one game away from losing their place in the Football League and in 2015 are sitting at the top table playing in the EPL. They have a stadium that holds a mere  12,000, and this is the first time they’ve ever played in the top flight in their history. They’re there not because they paid a fee to play in a league, but through competitive ability. Go back a few years and Wimbledon went from non-league to EPL and an FA Cup triumph. To make the point about how fluid the English league system is, Bournemouth’s promotion mean that for the first time over half of all the league clubs had played in the EPL at one point or another – 47 from 92 to be precise.

With Relegation Even Losers Can Become Winners

Onto the next point – relegation. You’re probably wondering how on earth such an event can benefit fans. This is a slightly more contentious argument but bear with me. If your team is playing at a level where they’re simply not able to match the standards of other clubs, then dropping down can often be a blessing. Fans generally don’t enjoy watching their team lose every week, although I am sure Bournemouth fans have cared little that their first two competitive games in the EPL have resulted in defeat, so dropping down can mean that the team can start to pick up results and gain momentum and confidence. Fans can see games that either side could win, plus the club as a whole can start to bring back that positive feeling. Emotion is big in football, you can’t put a price on going to see your team winning once in a while.

The last point I will raise on a sporting level is one of meaningful matches. Fast forward to near the end of a closed league and some teams will be out of the running for play-offs, and have basically nothing left to play for at all. In fact, the worse position you finish in the sorrier the league feels and you get more stuff thrown at you to try and avoid being bottom again. Now add relegation. No club is going to want to be the one that goes down. Every point, every goal, right until the final whistle of the last game of the season potentially determines which level you’ll see your club in next season.

There’s the potential for great escapes – again those of you familiar with EPL will know that pretty much ever recent season has seen three or four teams walking onto the pitch on the last day knowing that results could go a way in which they’d be relegated. My own EPL team, Aston Villa, has for four years been there or thereabouts and avoided relegation by a point or two. Trust me – it’s nervous stuff when you’re that close but it keeps us talking as fans until that last game is finished.

Finally, and perhaps slightly less important, you will inevitably build up clubs to be better equipped to compete in the CCL. I admit right now the competition doesn’t have the prestige it holds in Europe, South America, and even potentially Asia and Africa, but the fact remains that if you’re constantly pushing clubs to build better squads you’ll create ones that will make the CCL an entirely more competitive and therefore attractive proposition.

Encouraging Investment At Every Level

The other aspect of the concept is business orientated. Put yourself in the position of potential club owners who can’t afford the huge fees to jump straight to the top. Right now, there’s not really a great deal of incentive to pick up the tab in the lower leagues, but if you give the incentive of promotion then you’re instantly making the ownership of a club at any level more appealing – I’ll go back to the Bournemouth example here – bankruptcy looming to being written a cheque for over $120m for one season in the space of 8 years

Creating an environment where investment can pay off will inevitably bring more money into the sport. More money means better facilities, more involvement, more engagement, and the creation of a structure that rewards sporting endeavour rather than the transfer of a huge franchise fee on day one.

The other business point is one of consistency. Right now the hierarchy basically involves independent leagues that have been arbitrarily allocated a tier that means very little at all. Are NASL teams better than USL teams? Which one of them deserves to be called second tier and which one third? Surely some NASL teams will beat most USL teams and vice-versa. If you bring all these tiers under one larger league structure you not only introduce consistent branding and rules but also allow for league-wide broadcast deals and collective bargaining agreements. There’s also the possibility of introducing cup competitions purely for members of the overall league structure, giving fans a rough idea of how well their team would do if it was a tier or two higher, not to mention prize money and glory.

Culture Shock

Finally there’s one more element to this, and possibly the most contentious. From a European point of view the whole concept of closed leagues in football is simply “wrong”. I often hear the argument that open leagues “just aren’t how American sport works”. Correct – but football is not an American sport! It’s a worldwide sport played in America, and therefore why does it need to adhere to models applied to other sports such as NFL and NHL?

The point here is that the sport can go one of two ways, either it tries to Americanise the product so people understand it easily, or you can educate the people to understand how the product works. Promotion and relegation systems might seem alien concepts to many new fans to the sport right now, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they should be ignored.

In my next article, I’ll look at the “how” side of introducing a structure, and from there a look at why MLS might just struggle to justify the “M” if it remains isolated.