Monday, January 28, 2008

Beginning the Forbidden Discussion- Promotion/Relegation in the US

Excellent chapter from Globaloney: Unraveling the Myths of Globalization By Michael Veseth

The Beautiful Game and the American Exception

Read especially page 115

"The structural organization is, in many respects, foreign to American audiences. Most American sports leagues are organized in a very simple way. Teams play each other within roughly geographic divisions (designed to minimize travel costs) to determine a play-off field. Several play-off rounds determine a league titlist. The more games a team plays, the more money it earns, which exacerbates the "winner-take all" element of the business.

Soccer in other countries has a much more complex structure. Most soccer countries have a multiple hierarchy of leagues (in Italy, the leagues are A, B, C1, C2, etc). Teams compete to be at the top of their leagues, of course, but there is also interest at the bottom because the worst teams in league A, for example, are relegated to league B and replaced by the best teams of league B, with similar movements from league B to C1, C1 to C2, and so forth. So there is something at stake at both ends of the league table, which of course gives all the games more meaning. Good teams want to advance and be promoted,; bad teams try to avoid relegation. In theory, it is possible for a team from a lowly C2 league town to advance via several excellent seasons to one of the super-leagues. This actually happened in Italy in the 1990's, a story that was documented by Joe McGinnis in The Miracle of Castel di Sangro (side note: a good read).

Teams in the middle may also compete for International competitions, giving their fans a reason to care." - from Excellent chapter from Globaloney: Unraveling the Myths of Globalization By Michael Veseth, Chapter 4, Excellent chapter from Globaloney: Unraveling the Myths of Globalization By Michael Veseth: The Beautiful Game and the American Exception.

My thoughts- while we do not have the minor league infrastructure to support promotion/relegation- why do we buy the Suits "it'll never work" theme? This seems vaguely reminiscent of the soccerphobes and their columnists (i.e., Jim Romney). The American sports model is exactly that and just because it has never been done another way does not imply it cannot be done. Is it too late- have we all become so McDonaldized that merely the thought of such forbidden subjects becomes "that which cannot be said "(visions of the unutterable portions of the Necronimicon)? We have watched as America's "past time" (Baseball) become more and more McDonaldized, more and more mercenary- that even the mythical numbers become suspect and meaningless. We accept the influence of money in amateur sports- enough to want to professionalize the Olympics and collegiate sports. Sports are becoming further and further away from the ideals sports had for us- even if these ideals were fictionalized. When kids living in norway, My brother and I used to religiously memorize the baseball box scores from the Stars and Stripes sports pages. The numbers created awe, we were fascinated; now they are tainted at best.

I question the blanket adoption of the American sports model and must ask the forbidden questions- if merely for the love of the Beautiful Game and NOT the American exception.

In the words of Cindy-Lou Who of the Grinch Who Stole Christmas fame,


P.S. More on this to follow- especially if this generates meaningful discussion.


Anonymous said...

It would be shortsighted to think that promotion/relegation would work in American soccer anytime in the foreseeable future. The mere thought of it would send prospective and current MLS owners scurrying faster than cockroaches at daybreak. Seriously, how easy do you think it would be for MLS to convince a prospective owner to invest $50-100M in a stadium project, tens of millions on marketing and branding, and untold amounts developing a viable youth feeder system, with the treat of relegation hanging over their heads? I can’t think of a single, successful business person that would sign up to that, can you?

In all seriousness, promotion/relegation only works in Europe because the infrastructure was put in place well before sports became a multi-million dollar enterprise. If England, Germany, Italy or Spain had to do it from scratch (new owners, teams and stadiums), I can assure you that promotion and relegation would be absent from their plans as well. American soccer is already a big enough financial gamble, why make it more difficult to attract investors by guaranteeing that some of them will lose their money?

Quit thinking of this as an oddity of American sports, and start considering that the current structure is necessary to ensure the long-term viability of the sport in this country.

playtherapy said...

I am very shortsighted and not only that, I lost my glasses. While I agree with much of your reasoning, your remark to "quit thinking" bothers me. Yes, the rest of the world's divisional structure predates the megamoney and evolved naturally. And admittedly, professional soccer in the US has made enormous strides as has the post 90's youth output (I'd love for Queiroz to prepare a current US Soccer Organizational Report).

Bradley's scoring would have made us ga ga in the 90's, Hell, Harkes playing the League Cup Championship was enormous back then. We've come a very long way.

Agreed, the American Suits wouldn't touch relegation but would foreign investors? Frankly, I find the state of American mainstream sports deplorable. What I truly enjoy are the Commandments-you can't even mention the Unmentionable (do not even speak of promotion/ relegation in the US). This is reminiscent of the film, The Life of Brian, when one of the characters says Jehovah and get stoned. Viability of the sport in this country- eh?- would that include such Americana as the Shootout? Crikey, the suits sure bought that one! We were lucky anyone stayed on to watch (talk about love for the game). Yep, G-14type teams (and others) would never go it but does this mean the mere thought of it is taboo (just like cannibalism)? The worst thing that could happen out of my post is heavier traffic at our site (The Horror, the Horror!). For someone advocating that we never speak of such vile subjects again, I got a very well written response from you. BTW- are you the PhD linguist blogger?

GED polyglot blogger (f/k/a Anonymous) said...

I am not the PhD linguist blogger, although your suggestion has me wondering if I should branch out beyond my current moniker “anonymous”. I am clearly being confused with other, less educated bloggers who have stolen my clever identity. Maybe I’ll begin referring to myself as the GED polyglot blogger?

I apologize for utilizing the term “quit thinking”. Clearly you have successfully driven at least one idiot to your site. Touché.

With that said, I too am unimpressed by the current state of sport. Still, I don’t see how promotion/relegation in American soccer would make the game more watchable. I may be alone in this opinion, but I don’t believe the players would work substantially harder if their team were faced with relegation. There are so few decent American players (and so few SI and DP slots) that should a team be relegated, those players would just be signed by the promoted team(s) anyhow. In the end, the entire structure likely hurts the fans more than the players.

Additionally, the suits in the MLS headquarters wouldn’t be able to manage it anyhow. Seriously, what would they do if the Galaxy were faced with relegation? My guess is that they’d just send the second worst team down, and then allocate a couple more DPs to LA improving their chances the following season. Maybe a compromise would be a multinational league that has rotating members based on their success in their domestic competitions. We could call it the Champions League and send DCU, LAG, NYRB and Houston every year.

Martek said...

Polyglot and playtherapy,

Now THIS is why I blog, for discussions that are this good. I only wish I had time off from work to leave more than just this little piss poor post because I really do have quite a lot of thoughts on this matter.

But to be quick about it, I agree wholeheartedly with Polyglot here, especially the point about if the leagues were forming today, there is no way on God's Orange Earth that relegation would even exist. It makes no sense whatsoever in MLS, and while it might be fun for fans for a short while, watching teams that get relegated go out of business is never fun. Much more on this when I get time, but Polyglot, you'll have to carry the torch for now. Go boy go!!

playtherapy said...

Hi Polygot. Very well put. I apologize for trying to guess your secret identity- the syntax obviously reminded me of someone else. I’ll write more on my lunch break though I agree with Martek- open discussion is good for all.

I seriously don’t think I’m undermining league stability (I doubt the MLS administrative Office is having an emergency meeting about this) when I broach the subject. Yet the response is often scathing- I’ve been labeled an idiot for even talking about it. Yet the most productive ides when brainstorming are often the zaniest- that when reworked and tweaked become visionary.

For years, US soccer columnists and fans have had an apologist mindset. As in, “Gee, we’re truly sorry our sport sucks. So let’s dumb down the sport- eliminate ties, get rid of the mysterious mysticism of injury time. Potential US fans do not have the imagination to understand the sexy foreplay like build up to scoring. Up to four or five years ago, game commentary included offside trap explanations several times a game!

Graheme Jones wrote this in an August 4, 2003 ”, Los Angeles Times article entitled, “Players in U.S. Need to Talk the Talk ‘What soccer fans in this country wouldn’t give for just a few angry words, a few blunt comments, a few honest appraisals, a few remarks that have the ring of truth and passion about them…At the All-Star break of Major League Soccer’s seventh season, the majority of the league’s players, coaches, and officials still have a difficult time being outspoken. Political correctness and fear of reprisal rules the day and ruins the league…it’s the same with the U.S. national teams. No one ever has anything critical to say. It’s all puff and no pastry’

Given the closed system of the MLS, I believe it’s good to speak of such things- no matter how absurd. Presently, the mere mention of such blasphemy is treated as if it has the potential to create a high school shooting spree or making our drunken father violent (again!). I don’t think the US Soccer community is that dysfunctional, nor do I believe the league to be so dysfunctional. Let’s have pastry with our puff. As we march to an adaptation of the American sports model out of a need for survival, it might be important to know what we give up to do so.

Michael Veseth said...

I think this is a good time to be having this discussion. Here in Seattle, the Sounders seem about to be "promoted" from the USL First Division to MLS, which is half the promotion/relegation system. And the notion that MLS is all about American players seems to be fading with all the international signings I have been reading about. So this is a time of change and a good time to consider alternatives.

What are the options for an uncompetitive team under the current regime? We might imagine that they stay in the top league forever, avoiding relegation, but in fact they will probably fold. Relegation under the current system is complete and the prospect of this discourages investment, too. World soccer-style relegation -- and the chance to succeed and return -- might actually be a better option than simple failure for marginal teams.

Just some thoughts. I enjoy reading the comments. Thanks for posting the excerpt from my book.

Mike Veseth

Martek said...


First, thanks for commenting on the blog. You bring up a couple more interesting points. I have always been of the mindset that relegation would be a sure path to bankruptcy for a US soccer franchise, but now you have me thinking that that may not be so. As with so many issues of this type, the primary matter is one of spin and packaging rather than foregone conclusions. Try this one on for size:

Our team, let's call them SC Center City, is so woeful that a last-place finish is assured, and thus relegation to USL-1. The stories all season long have been about how bad the team is, how woeful and how soccer itself may or may not survive in Center City.

But is this where the story ends? No, especially not if bankruptcy is taken out of the picture. Equally possible are stories about how the next season they are going to get better and fight for promotion back to MLS. SC-CC, our team above, now deals not so much with stories about its haplessness, but about its challenges for promotion and the possibility of a winning and, even USL championship, season the next year.

Now which storyline carries the day? It depends in large measure on how the situation is marketed to both sports media and the general public at large. Many who hate soccer often express at least grudging admiration for relegation/promotion. The existence of it in MLS could generate something truly different and interesting in American sports. If packaged properly by a marketing/PR effort, a buzz could be generated around this.

What is needed, other than savvy marketing, to make this happen? First, a genuinely stable top division. MLS by just about any measure, is well on its way to achieving that, and is probably already there. Next, a stable and profitable USL-1. Franchises facing relegation cannot be also facing bankruptcy and shuttering. If so, the whole system would break down. Promotion/relegation inside the various divisions of USL are issues of that league and can be handled internally. I have little knowledge of USL-2 or how that works, but a 20-team USL-1 table would make relegation/promotion between USL-1 and USL-2 immaterial to the success/failure of relegation/promotion between MLS and USL-1.

All in all, I no longer believe it's impossible, but handled properly, could give us a system that, of all things, brings in casual sports fans and tamps down soccer hatred. And that alone would be worth doing.

playtherapy said...

Thanks for commenting, Mike. I thoroughly enjoyed reading your Chapter and found it to be fresher and more to what I was looking for than the excellent 'McDonaldization of Soccer' paper. Fascinating subject and your post got Martek to at the very least consider the possibility. Heck- who knows what will happen in the next 5, 10, 50 years? In '94. there I was, sweating my ass off, with Oranje Face Paint, watching the Brazil-Holland WC Semifinal IN THE COTTON BOWL!!! In the past 20-30 yrs, we've seen the Berlin wall come down- my Irish wife has a 'supposed' piece of it, apartheid has ended, the Soviet Megastate has broken up- is promotion/relegation less likely than any of these? Perhaps we need to repost the topic to get more involved. "There is a principle which is a bar against all information, which is a proof against all argument, and which cannot fail to keep a man in everlasting ignorance-that principle is comdemnation before investigation."- widely attributed to Herbert Spencer but many are now skeptical and, yep, investigating...

Anonymous said...

Who's Jim Romney? Is he related to Mitt?

And are you sure he's a columnist and not a radio guy?

playtherapy said...

You have a point- I have lumped soccerphobes- radio and telly guys in with the columnists. For me they all say pretty much the same thing, much like the guys on the FoxSoccer posts- "Soccer SUX! First one to post! Go Bosox!" I see them as mudheads. Thanks for correcting me.

Martek said...

Thanks to Dan Loney over at ( for furthering this discussion over at his site. Here's my post there, which I'll copy and paste instead of just rewriting it.:

Promotion/relegation is indeed, I believe, an artifact of a pre-TV money time and I think it’s obvious in the extreme that if the leagues were being organized with TV money in mind, there is no way that p/r would be a part of the structure.

That being said, that doesn’t mean that p/r couldn’t succeed in the US. Three elements could make it work: 1. A financially stable and strong MLS; 2, a financially stable and strong USL-12 and 3, effective pr that portrays the teams and their situations in question, as well as p/r’s uniqueness on the American landscape, as compelling stories that draw interest and buzz.

Does this mean it should be done? I think no. At the end of a season here in the States, the main storylines are around the bubble teams, fighting for the success and potential championship glory of a berth in the playoff tournament. Storylines in a p/r-structured league are about who can most effectively avoid the train wreck of relegation, like this is something every bit as good as earning a tournament berth. If you avoid relegation, where are you? In 18th place. Whoop-e-you-know-whatting-do. If you make the playoffs, where are you? Possibly en route to a championship. Which storyline is more compelling?

Remember, there’s a reason why, except for the last 15 years, that the FA Cup was more prestigious than the League Championship. That’s because the FA Cup was about winning and moving ahead, ONLY. There’s no relegation in the FA Cup, or indeed any tournament.

Promotion/relegation is very interesting, but ultimately, I think a postseason tournament — after you have crowned a regular season champion, which MLS needs to do a better job promoting — is a lot more fun.

Jeff said...

Jeff Bull over at Center Holds It says he is having trouble posting comments, so here is his take on this issue from over at his excellent site (

My Connection (+ Comment to a promotion/relegation debate)
Posted on January 30, 2008 by Jeff

I have written witty comments to comments others have left down below as well as typing out something for the relegation/promotion debate posted on Nutmegged. None of these appear to have gotten through. Why, you ask? I suspect it’s because my connection to the larger Web-world eats balls - often and eagerly, judging by the overall situation.

The witty comments to others’ comments may, sadly, be lost forever (sigh). But, stubborn cuss that I am, I’m posting a thumbnail version of my contribution to the promotion/relegation thing here; general posting seems to be working and I don’t know how that is…apart from pointing to my connection’s continued fondness for eating balls.

OK, before getting into it, let me just say this: I might prefer promotion/relegation, but I have also learned to live without it quite comfortably. That said, if we really want to make it work in the States, here’s a suggestion: make the entire professional soccer set-up in the United States single-entity. That’s a knee-jerk response to the problem of getting people to invest in a sport/league that is relatively new and, in all probability, still not profitable in the pan-organizational sense. The idea is to make eating the losses that would hit an investor/owner of a relegated team less an individual risk than a collective one. And you sweeten the pot by having higher caps, television revenues, etc. for the top flight. Somehow someone will make money, right? I mean, that’s why people dump money into this now, right?

Frankly, I’m still shocked that people invest in MLS under the single-entity model. I don’t know how the individual operators get revenue out of the set-up. Still, that’s my idea. But, like I said, I’ve adjusted to life without.

mister3d said...

AMEN!! to the 7:30 post by martek. the cindy-lou who "why?" question is as easily inverted towards pro/rel-- why do we need pro/rel--just so our league can resemble some "pure" format? Are the proponents of pro/rel looking to burnish the league's legitimacy in the eyes of the world or themselves or both? Who cares, oh inferiority complexed american soccer fan. Now that MLS has thankfully stopped tinkering with the rules of soccer, the league stands on its own as an american outpost of the world's game. Give me a playoff race over a race to escape the drop any day. And all those that complain about the horrible injustice done to the higher seeds in the mls playoffs; aren't y'all right now rooting for the underdogs to knock off the big boys in the FA cup---interesting!? Take heart everyone, the future looks bright. consider this off season and the progress made: the dynamo have become the feeder league for the mighty austrian league...a mere pipe dream just a few months ago.

GED Polyglot said...

Martek, your conclusions regarding the feasibility of promotion/relegation are both illogical and poorly constructed.

First of all: Bankruptcy is absolutely an issue, and one that cannot be taken off of the table. This is especially true given the MLS mandate that all teams build soccer specific stadiums. These stadiums don’t get built with monopoly money. The owners that are investing hundreds of millions of dollars to develop and build these stadiums, are doing it only with the promise of receiving MLS ticket and media revenue in return. The fact is, USL-1 teams don’t make enough money to fund a $100M stadium development. And a relegated team (without the revenue to pay the bills) goes broke. Oh and by the way, these things are financed…not paid for with cash. So don’t bring the “it can work when the stadiums are paid off” argument either. They’ll still be paying for them in 20 years.

Second: Your assertion that MLS could attract more fans to the league based on the PR buzz created around promotion/relegation is absurd. “Soccer Haters” won’t become “Soccer Fans” based on a promotion/relegation model, anymore than Basketball Haters would become NBA fans if they shipped the Seattle Sonics to the NBADL if they finished last. I can hear it from my soccer hating friends now, “Columbus was replaced by Portland? Who cares?”

Also, owners of professional sports don’t give two craps about “potential” great stories, press, or marketing buzz. Those are things that idiot college marketing undergrads believe drive business. In reality, owners only care about revenue assurance. This is especially true when they have millions of dollars invested in a venture. No owner in his/her right mind would take a multi-million dollar gamble on a well packaged marketing or PR campaign. Seriously, the fantastic PR surrounding a promoted team would be superseded by negative PR around the relegated team, and in the end someone is losing money. To shrug it off with “Well, they should have played better” just doesn’t cut it for a team owner.

In all honestly, soccer is only in its second generation in this country. Fans will increase as more kids (and parents) are introduced to the game. It doesn’t take a genius to see that soccer knowledge and support has come a long way since the mid-90’s. Seriously, the game has only been televised regularly in the last few years. In the late 70’s you could get highlights (“Soccer Made in Germany”) on PBS. In the 90’s you had the odd EPL game on FSW, and Mexican league games on Telemundo. Today you can watch 3-4 stations that are DEDICATED to televising the sport (FSC, Gol, Sentana), plus MLS and USMNT on ABC and ESPN, and USL games on regional networks. I personally can’t wait to see how big the game is in another 15-20 years. Trust me…the owners believe that the fans will come, and we don’t need “buzz” around promotion/relegation to make that happen.

Third: I think we can both agree that promotion/relegation won’t happen without the support of the MLS owners (who by the way have little/no financial interest in USL). For anyone to think that those owners would agree to give up MLS caliber revenue to create a “potential good story” has their heads in the clouds.

This was a fun little dialog, but it has kind of run is course. Trust me…promotion/relegation won’t happen in the MLS. However, I think it is safe to predict that it will forever remain a wishful topic amongst soccer fans in A-League cities (and idiot college marketing undergrads). With that said, I personally wouldn’t mind seeing it happen in USL1, USL2 and PDL (do they still have that?). The financial stakes are far lower, and much more likely to take hold at a lower level.

playtherapy said...

Hmmm. I don't think Martek's thoughts are ludicrous; he's just thinking out loud (he's a relegation naysayer to tell the truth).

One thing we seldom discuss is relegation in most big leagues is not automatic. There are many requirements you need a certain size stadium, a certain type pitch, etc. Sometimes teams, despite "earning a promotion" are not ready to make the jump due to safeguards ensuring upper league stability. Ergo, even though the Akron Seaman win their league- if they are unable to show the financial stability, stadium capacity, or other built in prerequisites- they will not be promoted. While this does not take away the why would teams invest in anything other than a sure bet argument(or a losing bet, considering MLS teams' end of year profit and loss statements), it does change the idea of Akron replacing LAG or NYRB in the big leagues. Though I realize you, like so many others, have decreed the discussion has run its course, certain of the extremely silly party (myself def-fin-nitely included) may not think so and might want to take this to the point of inanity.

Anonymous said...