There has long been the tug of war between the fans’ desire for sports to be a romance, and the owners’ desire for sports to be a return on investment. Fans are drawn by appealing attributes of sports: beauty, tribalism, and achievement on grand stages. Owners calculate how to turn those attributes into dollars. Fans live with this compromise because they have to, especially in America. But if there is enough of a groundswell around a particular topic, change can occur.
Take college football, for example, a monument to “owner” greed - in this case the vice of our prized academic institutions. There were cries for years for a playoff system, which fans knew would have been a more fair and entertaining process for anointing a champion. But hardheaded leaders within the regime fought it for their own gain, and the typical tug-of-war occurred. Eventually the playoff system won out, starting with the current four team playoff, and so far it’s wildly successful. There are already calls to expand the playoff to eight teams and it will be difficult to turn away the money in the years to come.
Fans of soccer in the United States have a particularly difficult challenge. While their domestic league is a typically-American closed league, the rest of the world boasts open, democratic soccer. In Sweden, a small club like Ostersund can rise from the fourth division in 2010 to the top division, and they are about to face Arsenal in the knockout stage of the Europa League. The run of Leicester City to the Premier League crown is another romantic example of a David having access to the Goliaths, and winning. Both advances were earned on the pitch. Pardon us fans that find that romantic.
In the United States, David’s have no such access. Instead, the wealthy are submitting applications to be reviewed by a board of elites with spreadsheet jockeys behind them figuring out which ones will bring in the most money for Major League Soccer. Many fans of international soccer see this issue as a significant impediment to the growth of soccer in the United States and the quality of the players on the USMNT. How can it not be? With modest ambition comes modest gain. Add risk and reward to the equation and you will inspire, motivate investment, and ultimately spur development.
There are reasons the rest of the world is obsessed with soccer, while in America it’s shut out of sport radio talk shows for fear of losing ratings, and it’s not because basketball is a more entertaining sport than soccer. The rest of the world is obsessed because soccer is the world’s democratic sport. The bunker-and-counter style of play in soccer is a physical equalizer that allows the Davids to play with the Goliaths. In the top four American sports, a team cannot organize themselves to a point that neutralizes pure physical size and strength. You couldn’t open American football to a pyramid structure because the next level of players would be physically crushed by NFL teams. Plus, it would not be watchable. However, soccer is a true sports democracy. It is entertaining, even enlightening, to watch third division side Millwall FC organize and take down an elite Premier League side in Tottenham Hotspur in the FA Cup.
And so here we sit. The American soccer fans peer across oceans or to their southern border for their romance, the MLS owners thumb through hundred dollar bills, and the USMNT suffers as a result. The MLS elite will be quick to tell you that the infrastructure and culture isn’t there yet to open up the league, that the sport is still in a fragile state and it’s their single-entity structure and investment that has brought it this far. Perhaps, there is a way to give these owners their returns and open the game.
A small step in the right direction
Like college football, let’s take a modest step in the right direction. The biggest impediment to an open system is the fact that Major League Soccer is just one company. It’s nearly impossible to imagine ways of adding and subtracting different shareholders of that company. And since sports are really run by money, the only resolution is to point owners to even more of it.
Another issue is that league rules emphasize parity among the teams. A league whose mechanisms are designed to make teams equal and neutralize ambition can’t punish those teams who fall short. All ambition must be rewarded for promotion and relegation to work. The reality is that nothing will happen with a parity focused single-entity model in place. So let’s keep it intact.
What if teams that are promoted and relegated are not technically part of MLS? What if they just play against MLS teams and can win an MLS Cup? By my count there are 20 or so cities with teams and/or owners in either the North American Soccer League or the United Soccer League that are unaffiliated with any MLS clubs. When MLS stretches to 28 teams, imagine if MLS allowed four of those teams in as well. The four teams don’t have to partake in the MLS single-entity pie. The players won’t join the MLSPU. The owners won’t have to pay franchise fees, but they compete with MLS clubs and can win trophies. They’re a part of MLS, but operate outside of the single-entity structure.
So that these clubs aren’t isolated, they could technically still belong to whichever lower league they came from and continue to partake in that league’s revenue sharing. This would create a partially open system where smaller clubs could compete for a Division I title.
These four independent teams would be part of the overall MLS table but also have their own table. Every year, the team with the lowest points total would get relegated back to the second division and the second division champion would move up. Who wouldn’t tune in to watch the Tampa Bay Rowdies take on NYCFC in Florida, perhaps with Tampa’s MLS ambitions on the line and a packed house? We caught a glimpse of what these games could mean when FC Cincinnati played the New York Red Bulls in the U.S. Open Cup semifinals in August. The atmosphere was an order of magnitude better than a typical Cincinnati Bengals game.
What’s in it for MLS?
MLS desperately needs to build a positive brand and raise the profile of their league. Adding independent teams would be a step in that direction and also help improve the quality of play throughout the country. They would also get a more realistic look at which cities are truly the best for expansion. Future expansion has to be a goal beyond 28 teams.
There are more games to be played in this model without diluting owners and presumably they would make money from the increased exposure of the league.
What’s in it for lower division clubs?
The dream of winning the country’s top trophy is now open to everyone. The profile of the Division 2 leagues and teams would be raised considerably. Owners would be incentivized to invest more in players and coaches because the independent teams would benefit from increased ticket sales, merchandise and any other way they can monetize the opportunity. It might not be the financial windfall that Championship promoted teams get in England, but it would be something. All of the benefits that pro/rel fans clamor for would be possible, even if it’s a relatively small scale.
What are the biggest issues?
Aside from the bureaucracy that would have to be tackled and contracts that would have to be rewritten, there are a number of issues to consider. The first is related to the quality of players in the lower divisions. Would the independent teams be able to financially compete with MLS teams in terms of roster quality? Would the games be competitive enough to not tarnish the quality of the league as it grows? There is also the question of fan experience. MLS has done well to create stadium experiences that are positive for the fans. Would these independent teams have the means to meet the same standard?
Another issue is the question of geography. The United States is so large that any imbalance in these independent teams could create biased schedules. For example, if all of the independent teams were on the west coast, how do you stack the conferences? Or would Eastern Conference teams simply have to make more trips out west?
There are many more problems to solve, especially around getting the NASL and USL to work together on a promotion process. But if this were to work, one could easily imagine this expanding to eight independent teams with two teams that move up and down each year. You could see MLS breaking their league into MLS and MLS2, a proposal offered before, to build drama with mid-tier teams. You could even imagine a process where independent teams eventually play for the right to join MLS outright. But, there is a way for MLS owners to maintain their profit growth and open the league to other teams.
This isn’t a call to break open the U.S. Soccer pyramid, but rather take a baby step and see what happens. There are plenty of details to iron out, but if MLS opened their doors to play with a few independent teams, you can bet that the owners of USL, NASL and perhaps fourth division teams would figure out the best, most entertaining way to make it happen. It should work for fans, players, and the American soccer leagues. We just need some leaders with a little foresight and dalliance in their hearts to begin the process. Tug that rope and romanticize with me.