In my last article I examined the reasons why introducing pro/rel into football would be a positive experience in North America. At the very top level, the concept is mechanically difficult due to the fact that MLS as an entity is both the league and the clubs within it. Therefore, at the moment it would be incredibly difficult, although by no means impossible, to separate a team’s operations to the point where it could play in a different league.
However the issue at hand is probably less relevant to MLS than all the other leagues currently forming a loosely defined structure, as it is them who will need to put the foundations in place.
Building a North American Football League
To explain the plans in more detail it will first help to get some basic terminology sorted out. A league will therefore refer to a body who, by the mechanics of promotion and relegation, organise regular season matches between the clubs within their structure. Furthermore a league can organise itself into various divisions, which themselves will form the tiers of the pyramid. The divisions within a league must all be sequential, and it must not be possible to move up or down by more than one tier.
Building a Pyramid
The first step in this project would be to determine who will sit at the top. For a pyramid to work there can only be one division of one league that is the pinnacle. Why only one? Well ideally you want to crown the champions through one team having the best overall record by playing each of the other teams in the top division once at home and once away. Doing this has two effects, firstly it eliminates the need for play-offs, as the league winner will be unambiguous. Secondly, it allows for a clear system of qualification for continental championships whereby the order of the teams in the table sequentially produces the entrants, again with no room for dispute.
I am sure that removing play-offs raises eyebrows, however the point of a league is that it is designed to eliminate the effects of fluke results. By virtue of having the best overall record, why would you then demand that the top team prove themselves in a knockout tournament? Not only does that devalue the concept of becoming the league champion, but it also unnecessarily lengthens the season.
If we assume NASL will take the mantle of being the top tier league, it would then be up to them to decide how many levels they wished to build. At this moment I suggest that aiming for one, or two at most, would be sufficient to build their brand and allow sufficient room for expansion as more teams reach the scale and level of competitiveness required. At the top, both of these divisions should remain fully national.
Expansion should occur until the league has two divisions both of an adequate size. This is likely to be in the region of 18 to 22 teams per division. Once this point is reached, the only way to join that league will become exclusively by virtue of promotion from lower leagues.
At the next league down there starts the scope to break leagues down into regional competition, however consideration would need to be given to matters such as how the switch from this league to the next would occur. If the second tier league’s top division is instantly regional, then you would need to consider how the promotion would be determined, and also how you would allocate the relegated clubs. One thing is for certain though, at each level in the pyramid there should not be less divisions than the tier above. Otherwise you’re forming a diamond, not a pyramid.
As leagues fall further down the hierarchy, they themselves will become regional rather than just the divisions within them. The further down you go, the more regionally condensed everything becomes, this works well because in lower tiers there is less money and less travel expense.
The League’s Duties
Luckily as both NASL and USL are not single entity, there is no difficulty in allowing component teams to move freely between them. The league should be clear in its duties and the scope for involvement in commercial activities, as should the teams.
The league would be responsible for anything that should sensibly be centralised – overall sponsorship of the divisions and league itself, television and media rights, ensuring that a set of rules and regulations is maintained to which all clubs must adhere, and forming various committees to handle issues such as discipline, financial irregularity, and transfer disputes.
Clubs themselves therefore have the ability to handle their own sponsorships and commercial agreements, although consideration needs to be made to instances where a team sponsor may be a direct competitor to a league’s overall sponsor. Player contracts and ticket prices are again club specific. Essentially you are ensuring that there is very little possibility of there being a reason why a club cannot transfer into a different league with the minimum of difficulty.
The concept of a club having to pay a fee to join a league is not something that can be considered, certainly not in the franchise fee model utilised by MLS. Investment instead should be at club level, as the league will reap the rewards by way of having clubs within its structure that have been allowed to develop themselves rather than join a closed shop.
The more money that goes into clubs, the better they’ll hopefully become, and therefore make the league more competitive. If the league can sustain its own operations by way of its commercial income there becomes little need to require annual subscriptions or membership fees but at very worst these should be paid for one season at a time and not tie the club or the league to each other for any longer a period of time. Ideally the league would be commercially successful to the point where it can pay prize money and commercial contributions to the clubs.
However, in the early stages there may be some benefit to allowing a certain degree of protectionism. So for example if you have a club who is in, or would be promoted for the first time to, a division within a league, and that league has rules about the minimum size of investment, or minimum ground size possibly, then in return for the owners of the club making the necessary investment they would be granted an exemption from relegation for a period of three years. This would allow the team to retain and develop players and put them on contracts that were in line with that league, without them finding after one season that they were relegated and left with costs well in excess of their new income.
As leagues get bigger they should also protect themselves against the possibility of clubs going out of business. Rules around limiting annual accounting losses, or limiting the proportion of income that can be spent as player salaries can ensure that clubs are given sufficient freedom to handle their own matters, but simultaneously not restricting them by using tangible monetary limits.
Rights of Automatic Promotion
Each league should agree with the sequential ones in the pyramid about the rules in place for allowing teams to move up. I initially mentioned a proposal which could limit relegation, but of course this would cause an issue if it triggered in that the winning team of the division below would be denied the opportunity to move up. Unfortunately this is something that cannot be catered for easily. In fact the each division and league would need to be clear that there was never a right of promotion and that it would always be subject to the club meeting the requirements to play in the league. Sometimes occasions can occur where the winners of a league request that they are not promoted, maybe due to financial constraints for example, but this should in no way then open up the promotion place to a team who finished below them.
Making it Happen
Whilst there are a huge number of considerations to make this proposal work in reality, the fact remains that with some simple negotiation and agreement between leagues, there is no reason why the formation of the top tiers of a pyramid cannot be introduced within five to ten years. At the trigger point, it will then become impossible to join the structure in the top few levels of the hierarchy, to protect the integrity of the system. However, if there are owners with substantial investment plans who arrive after that, it should be feasible for them to be allocated a place within maybe the third or fourth tier to start with, by way or relegating a club but not replacing them with a promoted one although this mechanic should only be used sparingly, not every season.
As the pyramid grows, new leagues can join at an appropriate level, ensuring that the agreements in place for promotion and relegation are consistent and fair amongst other leagues at that level. It would be feasible to have both USL and another league sitting at the third tier, but if this was the case then the bottom division of NASL would have to allow at least two promoted clubs, one from each league beneath it. If it allowed three then you could look at systems of the runner-up clubs in both the leagues entering a play-off system to determine the final spot. However, play-offs must be kept to a minimum, semi-finals and a final at most. You don’t wish to see mid-table teams being promoted!
Within time, with new leagues being added, and clubs in them being effectively given a route to the top, the whole game will benefit and with the right protections in place there is no reason why relegation would sound the death knell for a club due to commercial constraints.
You may have seen recently that NASL is attempting legal action against US Soccer to grant them tier one status equivalent to MLS. Whilst this could be counter-productive in the sense that it causes a glitch in the pyramid system, it would also mean that MLS would potentially struggle over time, especially if club owners see that they can invest in their own clubs rather than having to pay huge sums to join a league. What would happen if a club’s investor-owner turned round and said that they’d prefer to be playing in NASL instead? The issues around how MLS could cope when they found themselves competing against the proposed league structure is a subject for next time.