Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Is American Soccer Ready for Promotion/Relegation?

This morning, The Telegraph dropped this potential bomb on the American soccer world:
Joe Barone, the chairman of the National Premier Soccer League, has revealed he wants a merger with the NASL to kickstart promotion and relegation in North America. 
North American Soccer League commissioner Bill Peterson said earlier this week that he would like to begin discussions between the two leagues to help build a pyramid system.
This is a pretty big deal. It is the potential first step towards a true pyramid system in the United States. It is the goal of a growing sect of American soccer fans, and, for that matter, USMNT boss Jurgen Klinsmann, that want to see the domestic game fall in line with its far superior European counterparts.

But is the American soccer landscape ready for such a giant leap forward? Despite soaring attendance figures in every tier of the American system and the national team's home matches, soccer is still not a mainstream sport in this country. It's still does not have nearly the relative support that the sport enjoys in other countries that do have a promotion/relegation system.

In general, I am all for promotion and relegation in the USA. I love the idea of a small amateur club, like my own Detroit City FC, going from the lowest levels of the NPSL all the way up to the big show of MLS. I would rather see them do this through their play on the field as opposed to putting up hundreds of millions of dollars in the form of expansion fees and funds to build a stadium.

Detroit City has a great supporter base that is more than ready to embrace a jump in league. The same can be said for Chattanooga FC, who attracted more than 18,000 fans to the NPSL championship match against New York Cosmos B last weekend. That's more fans then some MLS teams can get. Imagine how this market could do with a professional team with high caliber players?

However, while this might be beneficial to the little guys like DCFC and Chattanooga, the major players in the game will never be in favor. Imagine if, after a poor season, one of the MLS stalwarts like LA Galaxy gets sent down to the NASL? The owners would be outraged. The loss in profits could be more than enough to cripple the club beyond repair.

The still fragile fanbase of MLS, accustomed to the highest level of play, might abandon the team. The average American soccer fan is a very fickle creature. If their team becomes "minor league" after a poor season, it might be game over for them. I keep thinking back to typical fans of other American sports, specifically baseball. If a team like the Miami Marlins, who don't exactly shatter attendance figures, found some way to get demoted to Triple A, would they be able to keep the franchise afloat? And this is in a well established sport with well over a century's worth of history in this country.

Compare this with DC United. They are right now in the lead for the Supporters' Shield. They might be the best team in MLS, but they are dead last in attendance, filling an average 75% of their 20,000 or so capacity. Would anyone other than the hardcore supporters stick with the team if they dropped to the second tier? I bet very few would.

The proposal that NPSL chairman Joe Barone and NASL commissioner Bill Peterson suggest is but a small step. It will only involve two lower tier leagues. Their proposed system is modest. Based on their current idea, only one team could possibly go up or down per season. They call for a two-legged playoff between the NPSL national champion and the last place NASL team, with affiliated teams being kept out of the top league. If it were in place this season, New York Cosmos B, who won the NPSL, would not be eligible to join their parent club in the top level. Instead, Chattanooga would face the eventual bottom team in the NASL.

There are still kinks to iron out. For instance, sure Cosmos B can't be promoted, but could the NASL Cosmos be demoted? Saying no gives them an advantage over the other NASL teams, but saying yes raises questions about their affiliate club. Do they take a year off? Do they fold completely? Do they drop down to the USASA to ply their trade against beer league teams?

Then there's the mixed professional/amateur status of the NPSL. If a club like Indiana Fire, who has zero support and, on numerous occasions, have struggled to play all of their scheduled matches (yet made it to the NPSL national semifinals) makes their way to the NASL, could they survive both financially and on the pitch? These are the things that would have to be sorted out before they can truly implement such a system.

I like this slow, steady approach to pro/rel. It gets the ball rolling in a low pressure environment. Plus, implementation is still years away, as the NASL is still looking to expand to 20 teams.

If it fails between the second and fourth level leagues, then it might not be the time to introduce it to the big show of American soccer. However, if it takes off and helps boom soccer in this country, then maybe MLS might have to look at it and jump in on the system. I just think it will be a while before MLS and their bigwigs are ready to adopt their very business friendly single entity model for something much riskier.

Promotion and relegation is a great idea, and one that I want to see in the United States. But I am not sure that the game itself is ready for it. There just isn't enough popularity for it to work, for now. But it has to start somewhere, and this might as well be it.

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