Almost every football league in the world has an “open” league system where at the end of each season, winners get promoted to the division above them, and losers get relegated to the league below. Typically, the bottom three teams in the first division get relegated to the second division. Subsequently, the top three teams in the second division get promoted to the top division. This pattern runs all the way down the football pyramid, as teams will get promoted/relegated to and from the second and third division, and so on. It is an incredible society of football clubs moving up and down the social classes of football leagues. It gives lower-league clubs a reason to dream in hopes of reaching the top flight and gives top division clubs a reason not to rest on their laurels (or yannys, depending on what you hear) for fear of dropping down a division.
Promotion and relegation is a critical element of what makes the world of football so exciting. First division relegation battles at the end of the season create drama that isn’t replicated anywhere else in sport. Footballers are fighting for their lives in hopes of maintaining their status as top division footballers (as well as not having next year’s paycheck cut by 10%). Promotion battles are equally exciting as players are fighting for their chance to play in the top division. Cinderella stories are truly written within the most unlikely of promotion campaigns.
Despite all the excitement that promotion and relegation brings to football leagues, Major League Soccer (MLS) has a “closed” league system, meaning that teams do not get promoted to and relegated from the league. Instead, lower division clubs submit a proposal to join MLS and once accepted, must pay a $150 million entrance fee. Currently sitting on 23 teams, the league will expand to 26 teams by the start of the 2020 season. Despite rapid expansion and growth, the 22-year-old league is still in its infancy. MLS clubs are still trying to grow their fanbase and attract attention as most big market teams are only the fourth, fifth or sixth most popular sports team in their city.
While promotion and relegation would create more exciting football at all levels of the American football pyramid, USA’s second division, the United Soccer League (USL) is not quite ready for an open system. Most second division clubs often rent stadiums from local universities. The infrastructure is simply not built to see relegated MLS teams survive financially. An MLS team getting relegated to USL would force them to sell off or loan out their highest earners due to the lack of funds available to USL teams. Granted, they would receive parachute payments from MLS to help subsidize their loss of revenue, but relegation for a club in its infancy (10 of the current 23 teams in MLS are less than 10-years-old) would set a football club back several years in terms of building their brand and fanbase, and this would ultimately hurt MLS. Despite this, football is growing every year in the U.S, and it is the fastest growing sport in the country. In the next decade or so, the interest in lower league football in the U.S. might be strong enough to sustain a promotion/relegation format.
There is more than just lack of lower division infrastructure that is holding back football in the U.S. from an open league system. The most significant factor preventing promotion/relegation in MLS are the club owners. When MLS owners purchased their clubs, they made purchases with the promise that they were buying into a closed league system, just like in basketball, baseball and American football. The values of the MLS clubs were based on the assumption that they were safe from being relegated into lower-league oblivion should the team suffer a few bad seasons.
The only way that football in the U.S. will see an open system is if the United States Soccer Federation (USSF) steps in and forces a change. Due to the closed league structure of MLS when the owners purchased the clubs, the USSF would break team ownership agreements should they implement an open league structure and force owners to suddenly worry about having to avoid relegation each year rather than focus on building and growing their club. After all, MLS owners would not invest so heavily without the financial security of guaranteed MLS football every year. If the USSF decides to implement an open league format, the value of MLS teams will drop instantly, as any club could drop to the second division. Owners might even sue the USSF from breaking closed-league agreements. Some owners will surely sell their clubs due to the lack of financial security in an open league system, and the USSF may have to subsidize these owners for the difference in market value of their club. One thing is for sure, and that will be the increase in the value of lower league clubs, particularly those paying in the USL because each year the best teams will be promoted to MLS.
Carlos Cordeiro, the newly elected president of the USSF, is not a big supporter of promotion/relegation. Former United States striker Eric Wynalda finished third in the voting for USSF president in February of 2018 and was the biggest proponent of promotion/ relegation among top presidential candidates. According to those in favor of promotion/ relegation, not only would an open league system grow football at all levels of the game, but it would help the U.S. identify top talent for the national team and prevent talented players from “falling through the cracks.” As it stands, football in the United States is extremely fragmented, and it is very difficult for young players to develop into professionals under the current system.
An open league system will unlock the full potential of football in the U.S. but only once MLS and the USL are ready, and if the USSF decides to step in and make a big change. As of now, the USSF is still trying to grow and create interest in the game, and the only way to do that is to make sure that MLS and its clubs are as relevant and financially stable as possible. For now, the USSF’s total focus on MLS is the best way to establish stability and maintain growth in football.