Guest Post by Will Adams: The “Relegating” Truth of MLS

Brad: I often lament the fact that we don’t talk more soccer here at SportsIntel so we’ve called in a true subject matter expert, my cousin Will Adams. The league championship, known as MLS Cup, will be played this Saturday in Toronto. It’s a rematch of last year’s final featuring Seattle Sounders and FC Toronto, with the Sounders trying to repeat but playing as the away team this time around. Yes, since 2012 MLS plays it Super Bowl as a single elimination home match at the stadium of the finalist with the better record. Mickey mouse stuff right? One last fact before I turn it over to Will, who’s going to fix MLS: the web domain does NOT belong to Major League Soccer, but to a real estate search engine of some sort. Not a great indicator for the status of a “major” pro sports league in this country.

Without further ado, Will, take it away!

I first want to thank everyone at SportsIntel for allowing me the opportunity to guest write on their site. My life has revolved around sports, but most importantly it has revolved around soccer. Soccer has been on a steady incline in terms of attendance and interest among fans and spectators. Yet, even with the rise of soccer in the US, the quality of the game has, at best, plateaued. Some would argue the quality has actually diminished in the last few years.

So, why has this happened? How could a sport which is growing in popularity started to become a watered down, drool fest in terms of game quality?

It stems from the lack of a relegation system. If you look at any professional league around the world what is the common theme? Relegation.

If a club performs poorly in a season they are relegated to the second tier. If they perform well in that tier, they are moved back up. Simple concept, and an effective one as well.

MLS does not currently have a relegation system, nor do they plan on ever having one. Because of this, the lack of quality games and boring play on the pitch will continue and what is currently a rising sport of interest in the US will fizzle away faster than its rise. MLS’s desire to be like the four major sports in this country will ultimately be their demise.

Currently there are 22 clubs in MLS and over the last three years they have expanded the league each offseason. It is known that the league is looking to add an additional two clubs to the league over the course of the next few years. The league has already confirmed they plan on stopping their growth at 28 clubs. The big question to ask however is why?

The beautiful thing about soccer in this country is that it is popular enough to draw in passionate fans, but not popular enough where you need a massive stadium or arena to play in. The average MLS stadium capacity is almost 24,000. Unlike the NFL and MLB where their averages are around 65,000 and 40,000 respectively, MLS has the benefits of the NBA and NHL: they are able to draw large crowds and sell out games rather easily.

They could easily expand to more than 40 clubs if they wanted to, and based on population counts of their current clubs, MLS doesn’t care if you aren’t a large city as long as you can demonstrate that you have passionate fans and money. Truthfully, MLS doesn’t even care if you don’t build a stadium as six current clubs play in venues that were not built for soccer, but are still that club’s home venue.

By expanding to 40 clubs they could create a two-tier system of relegation. MLS could choose to change it as well where, instead of the bottom and top three swapping places, they could swap the bottom and top five. Either way, by creating a relegation system they could create a sense of pride and passion because every game is important when the possibility of relegation and promotion is involved.

The common argument I have heard from others is that by installing a relegation system in the US, fans of the clubs in the lower tier would not come to games because they aren’t winning anything. This is untrue. The lower tier winner still receives a trophy for winning the league, plus if the top clubs are promoted to the top tier, this means there is a reason to come to the games and cheer. Clubs want to be in the top tier and by playing in good form for the season it gives them the chance to get to Tier 1 for the next season.

In order for a relegation system to succeed, another change would have to happen. That is to remove the MLS draft entirely and establish a transfer window. By having a draft you essentially tell clubs that tanking is okay. This is not the case in the world of soccer. If there are transfer windows instead of a draft, everyone has a shot at signing players. But what if a club doesn’t have enough money for big name players? Sign players that aren’t as expensive, but can give them similar production. Or, they could develop their players internally through team academies, which currently do not exist in the MLS system, because of the NCAA… but that’s a conversation for another day.

Any way you look at it, relegation for the MLS makes sense. It would allow cities to have professional soccer clubs, which would increase the interest in the sport. It will also raise the quality of the game that is put onto the pitch because every game has meaning to it. Even if the season has been terrible for a club they are still fighting to stay in the top tier of the league or to get in the promotion zone if they are in the lower tier.

So what are your thoughts on the matter? Let me know in the comments if you agree or disagree with the MLS initiating a relegation system.

You can find Will on Twitter @will_p_adams_jr or visit the SportsIntel Facebook page where we’ve tagged Will in this post