Perhaps one of the most unique aspects of Major League Soccer is why MLS doesn’t have promotion and relegation. Because it has a single entity structure. In essence, no team can be promoted or relegated from MLS in the traditional sense. Rather, new teams buy into the league, just as Minnesota and Atlanta United did earlier this year. While a single entity is very in-keeping with American sports – baseball, basketball, and NFL all operate in this way. It remains a contentious issue when it comes to soccer.
Why MLS Doesn’t Have Promotion and Relegation
As a nation, the US currently has three major professional soccer leagues: MLS, NASL, and USL Pro. They are not linked in the traditional sense, but they are classified as differing divisions. MLS is considered the first division, while NASL and USL Pro share second division status, granted to them by the soccer governing body. USL had previously been considered Division III, but this was changed in 2017 following a petition by the league.
Although the US does not have promotion/relegation, discourse on the matter remains intense. A study last year – commissioned by Silva International Investments, whose head, Riccardo Silva, co-owns Miami FC in NASL – found that 88% believe that “pro-rel” would boost American club soccer. Advocates for the introduction of pro-rel suggest that not only would it aid sporting integrity, but it would generate billions for the US soccer economy. A report from Deloitte released around the same time as Silva International’s study claimed that reworking the soccer pyramid to introduce promotion and relegation could stimulate changes that would benefit the sport from top to bottom.
“I do think that for the game to realize its full potential in the US, promotion and relegation feel like part of the solution,” said Dan Jones of Deloitte’s Sports Business Group.
However, any change requires the agreement of MLS, who currently accept new teams after a lengthy process of lobbying which includes a detailed business plan. Although the approach seems alien, it was a direct consequence of the landscape in the early 90s. MLS was the by-product of the US’s 1994 World Cup bid, in which they committed to starting a professional domestic league. The organisers of MLS, both in alignment with domestic tradition and in order to generate, adopted the American closed-league model, with a twist: rather than buying specific teams, investors would take a stake in the league as a whole, which in turn controlled all the teams. Those same owners have subsidized the top division in America for years on the understanding they were buying into a closed system. Was this to change, their investments would be unstable.
Furthermore, few lower-division clubs have the infrastructure to suddenly support top-level football, or even something resembling that. NASL has attempted to rival MLS, but the league’s financial instability has made that difficult to achieve, with Minnesota leaving to join MLS and Ottawa and Tampa joining USL Pro. A report as recently as late July claimed MLS spurned a $4billion media rights deal offered by Silva which demanded the installation of promotion-relegation. “As was stated to [MP & Silva Group’s founding partner Riccardo] Silva both in person and in a subsequent letter, Major League Soccer is prohibited contractually from engaging in discussions about our media rights with other distributors,” said Dan Courtemanche, MLS executive vice president of communications.”We are not in a position, nor are we interested, in engaging with Mr Silva on his proposal.”
That was followed by a joint proposal by Miami FC and Kingston Stockade, a club based in northern New York, in which they filed a claim with the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) to require the US Soccer Federation (USSF) to adopt promotion and relegation across all divisions in US soccer. The outcome of which is still to be decided. Although promotion relegation is not impossible to implement in the US, it looks unlikely at being adopted at the top level in the near future. The consequence of cultural and financial situations, it will no doubt continue to cause discussion in soccer circles across the nation.