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Promotion and relegation is not a silver bullet: a thought experiment

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Hate the idea of moving the Crew to Austin? Get ready for a lot more relocations if the US ever gets pro-rel

Promotion and relegation has entered the mainstream conversation in the US soccer community ever since the USMNT failed to qualify for the World Cup. But it is also deeply touched by the decision by Anthony Precourt to move the Columbus Crew to Austin, Texas, and MLS giving its tacit approval to the move, despite offers on the table from locals to buy the team and keep the Crew in Columbus.

The league is moving into its third era. The first was merely surviving the 90s and early 2000s; the second was expansion and growth. The third is an era of profit, and it is one that leaves fan concerns behind in the pursuit of money. Some look to promotion and relegation to return soccer to its recent past in America, one where teams and their ownership were accessible and responsive to fans.

Depending on the team, that fan-centric era may still be here, or may have just gone in the past few years; we still grasp at its shadow and want to remain there. It is right for fans to push back against this, and to rage against the fading of the light for as long as possible. But what would happened if US Soccer decided to initiate promotion and relegation immediately, and Major League Soccer joined in without a fight? I think it would be just as corporate and profit-driven as MLS is now, and likely moreso.

For the sake of ease of argument, let’s assume that the USSF institutes an England-style process: bottom three down, top three up. There is no way this is what actually happens; they are more likely to institute a Liga MX-style system that is weighted over years or a German-style system that has a playoff between the some of the teams being relegated and some of the teams being promoted.

Every team already in existence would be brought in at its current level. Major League Soccer would immediately freeze itself from expansion, and MLS2 teams would be moved into a third or fourth division. USL and NASL would merge, if they hadn’t already, and would also be locked down; anyone who wanted to start a new team in this new era would have to start in the third or fourth division.

Once that lock-down was imposed, there would immediately be a bidding war for second division teams. What is happening to the Crew at the MLS level would be immediately in play many teams in the USL, NASL, and NPSL. The United States is a very large country, and the demand for first division teams will always be higher than the supply. Some of the owners in USL and NASL are geared towards trying to get into MLS and would be immediately pressing towards gaining promotion in the first year. But my guess is that some teams in the USL would rather take a payout of tens of millions of dollars (or more!) from an outside investor.

These outside investors would have no tangible reason to accept a franchise's current location. The United States has too many viable options. It would just make sense for someone to buy the rights to a USL team and then move that franchise to Philadelphia, or Chicago, or Boston, or any other number of cities to try and find a place downtown to box out already existing teams, or to take advantage of large markets and affluent communities. Whereas MLS has restricted the amount of teams in each market, opening the system would lead to no restriction on where teams could move in the short term. Teams would have no reason not to seek out shinier markets, and play different communities off of each other, just like Anthony Precourt is doing with Austin.

This same bidding war would play itself out, just with somewhat less money involved, on the NPSL and PDL level, especially if new teams could only join the frozen structure at the fourth division level. For those people not interested in moving a USL team or without quite the kind of money that would entail, buying in at the third division level would already give them access to the bigger markets where the USL has chosen not to compete with MLS. Many of these teams would stake out less-saturated markets, but some would move or pop up in big markets to try and be their underdogs, railing against the bigger and more established clubs.

And then the season would play out. The format would be fairly close to what it is now; playoffs would still crown the end of the year, but there would also be relegation battles at the bottom of the table. In a year of massive turmoil, the actual year of soccer would be a bubble of normalcy.

Once the season comes to an end, turmoil would once again rear its head in the positioning for year two. I’m not Hari Seldon, and won’t try to extend the thought experiment further, but a number of things could happen: teams could go out of business, or teams could purchase other franchises in order to stay in the first division (as has happened in Mexico). 67 English teams have gone into legal insolvency proceedings in the 28 years between 1982 and 2010, requiring saving by outside investors or a complete reorganization like Rangers FC in Scotland. That is with their centuries-long history of soccer.

The study cited above, by noted sports economist Stefan Szymanski, points out that overspending and "lack of discipline" isn't the reason so many British clubs have struggled. Instead, part of the reason is promotion and relegation:

Clubs exist in a hyper-competitive environment due to the incentives of the promotion and relegation system. In a competitive environment firms generate negligible profits and are always close to insolvency. A sequence of negative shocks can drive a club over the edge, no matter how rational or disciplined the owners.

Pushing back against the corporatization and commodification of soccer in the United States is a worthy goal, but I am not convinced that advocating for promotion and relegation will do anything to that end. Financial fair play has done nothing to prevent this in Europe, where the gap between the upper crust of each league and the rest of the teams grows ever larger in England, Spain, France, and others.

We as fans can (and should!) demand transparency from the league and especially our local governments when money is thrown around for sports teams. We should demand better treatment of fan communities that have helped to build this league when it was an experiment, and kept it going when it was on life support. And maybe there is nothing we can actually do, but we should try, and keep trying. But promotion and relegation is not that answer to that; it only gives us a different set of problems.