Pay to Play and the Link to Promotion Relegation

Pay to Play SoccerFirst, let’s get something straight.

Pay to play will always exist because there will always be a demand for such services.
Not to mention services and infrastructure are not free, and so must have a business model supporting the expenses.

Now that we have that out of the way, let’s properly contextualize.

Pay to play is an identified problem because it filters out talent from reaching the higher levels of the game.

Read that again, it’s THE HIGHER LEVELS, that is the context. If we were winning world cups and our first division were home to Champion’s League caliber clubs, hardly a soul would be talking about pay to play being an issue.

So it’s not the elimination of club fees for the average player that we’re talking about.

It’s first and foremost the potential pro talent that needs a frictionless path.

But much like everything in the world, soccer services are not a charity, nor should they be. There are bills to be paid.

So how do the bills gets paid and how do service providers (clubs, coaches, etc …) get compensated if players don’t pay to play?

In the rest of the world:

  1. If the players turn pro for the club’s 1st team, it does not have to purchase a player from another club.
  2. If the player turns pro for the club’s 1st team, he can then be sold to another club.
  3. Solidarity Payments, and Training Compensation.

With these things in mind, currently only MLS franchises have a decent incentive to form youth academies that are free. And they have.

A plus for the country? Of course.

But there’s a mere 20 MLS teams in a country with 320,000,000 people and a landmass the size of Europe.

So please don’t ever cite MLS academies as remotely solving the pay to play problem. It’s a blip.

But what if there were 40 teams? Nope.

So how can this get scaled to properly cover the country?

Promotion and Relegation in our professional soccer

If we had an open pyramid like the rest of the world, where clubs can merit their way up and down the soccer hierarchy, that shifts the incentives and alters the ‘pay-to-play’ club soccer business model.

That bursts open the 3 revenue generating incentives outlined above for thousands of existing youth clubs, and all of our lower division pro and semi-pro clubs.

What pro/rel can do is give existing youth clubs an incentive to form their own 1st teams, and aspire to something beyond their perpetual caste as ’youth club’. If even a small fraction of the thousands of clubs in our country did this, that significantly expands the ‘free-to-play’ incentive footprint in our country.

Similarly, what pro/rel can do is give existing lower division clubs (e.g. in NASL, USL, NPSL) the incentive to form their own ‘free-to-play’, or heavily subsidized, youth academies.

With the closed market system (a caste system) we currently have, only one company, MLS, LLC can benefit from its 20 franchises offering free-to-play teams.

So let’s see, that’s 20 franchises x 3 academy teams per franchise (U14, 16, 18) x say 20 players per roster …
= 1200 players that our nation can consistently count on as not having to pay to play.

Is that enough?

What is?

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  1. Phil says

    Let me start off by saying I am 100 percent for promotion and relegation in US Soccer.

    It’s a few very basic questions but I’ll ask it anyway:

    1. Can US Soccer mandate every club which claims to be a professional club to form a youth academy? (I say they should, but I see your point.)
    2. How will they pay for it?
    3. Without going into Pro/Rel 101 Mode, how soon could, in a pro/rel system, these clubs bring together academies?

  2. Robert Kleemaier says

    I’m in full agreement with you, Gary, but for the sake of accuracy, there are currently only 17 clubs in the United States. Canada’s three MLS clubs make up the rest of MLS. That being said, your error does not detract one iota from your argument, for the CSA is equally culpable in all of this as the USSF.

  3. Garth says

    All fine and good, but I’m struggling with something:

    On the global market, the value of American players is currently quite low. Domestic demand is similarly weak. More clubs in the US will spur domestic demand, but there’s still going to be a lag wherein the players being produced by a pro/rel youth system are not fetching large sums on the market.

    That strikes me as a problem given that it’s not likely to be less costly to develop players in the US than it is, say, in the top European leagues. Arguably, it will be more expensive here given the need to build facilities, educate coaches (or hire from abroad), manage education jnfrastructure, etc.

    Basically, I’m having trouble making the numbers work. Pro/rel will certainly increase near term domestic demand for players, but it will not magically cause their values to climb in the global market. You could try to rev up spending through homegrown rules, but that’s inefficient. Youth dev would necessarily be a long term investment, and so I’m not sure you get the push button effect implied in the post.

    We can get misty eyed about Raqui San Isidro and their share of the Pedro fee, but here’s the thing: they made a Pedro. Maybe all that’s standing between us and making Pedros is pro/rel…but I bet there’s a lot of sunk time and money, too. When you think about the bet you’d be making as a club, is it worth it? Many leagues require their clubs to build academies of a certain standard, and others provide large amounts of funding to do so. That sounds like maybe there are other factors than just “pro/rel=unleash the youth dev fury.”

    • Hall97 says

      Does this also mean the “Development Academy” should also be done away with? (I say hell yes!) Especially given the fact that it is also largely a closed system.

      If we are going to have a ‘national’ youth league…then shouldn’t it also be based on merit?

      Then again, I don’t think youth national leagues are necessary for developing youth players. I think a truly talented 16-18 year old is better off playing for a high level amateur/adult team.

      It doesn’t solve all the training (4-5 days per week) and other issues related to infrastructure. But it is the best option. Especially for players isolated by geography.

    • Garth says

      Quick edit: Above, when I wrote “is it worth it?”, the answer is certainly yes from society’s perspective. On the club level, the ROIs will be very shaky indeed. Like in Germany, the $ to make up the difference needs to come in the form of subsidies. There’s no free lunch, not even in pro/rel.

    • Mac says

      This is where it gets really tricky, because academies aren’t cheap. And the investment is a lot easier to make knowing you produce a $25 million player every few years to help pay for it all. No American ever came close to that value, even in today’s transfer fee inflated market. The draft every year doesn’t help either. Why spend money developing when a college can do it for you. Terrible policy.

      But you got to start somewhere. And development compensations are also a huge factor that needs to be included. Academies can get real expensive if your players are constantly shuffling around, nevermind the financial incentives to develop real players and not just sprinting machines. Imagine if Crossfire, Yedlin’s old club team and a feeder to Seattle academy, saw some of the Tottenham money like they asked. They could’ve been able to offer 3 or 4 more new prospects “scholarships”, leading to a better pool of prospects at Seattle’s academy, which in turn would better Seattle’s senior team, the MLS and hopefully USMNT.

      It can turn into a symbiotic relationship if just started viewing academy prospects as the investments they are, and not just as happy accidents.

      • Garth says

        I agree wholeheartedly that – regardless of pro/rel – training comp and solidarity fees are must haves. They will likely represent a drop in the bucket of needed revenue for youth dev schemes, but are an important incentive to the system.

        The idea that pro/rel is singularly responsible for world class youth development, though, is not very compelling. Countries like Germany and Belgium (who are the current darlings of development) both had to FORCE their clubs to spend on development. They made it part of their licensing procedures, and then instituted requirements and attached subsidies around meeting those requirements. Those countries had maintained pro/rel for a long time ahead of those efforts. Ostensibly, it took more to “unleash” their potential.

        All serious soccer people want pro/rel. But there’s a weird thing going on with all the explanatory power being assigned to it. Would it make youth-dev ROIs positive? When you wrote: “the investment is a lot easier to make knowing you produce a $25 million player every few years to help pay for it all.” I think that just about says it all.

        • Mac says

          Well the flow of revenue is all relative. For a bottom club like Crossfire, it really could be the difference of 3 or 4 more additional players they could develop into MLS first-teamers. For a first division academy, sure it’d be a drop in the bucket. But again, you gotta start somewhere, and you’re gonna need to fail to see what works and what doesn’t (I know, easier said when I’m not the one investing)

          And I think you may want to go back and reread some of Gary’s past posts/articles. I don’t want to put any words in his mouth, but I don’t think he means pro/rel is a silver-bullet/miracle cure to our development problems. But rather, pro/rel would create a domino effect of other changes that would lead to better development.

          A simple example can be seen with Rangers FC. In their quest for promotion back into the SPL, Rangers FC have gone through several managers (who failed to be promoted back into the premier league), and now hired Mark Warburton, one of the few, if only, managers in Scottish football to espouse attacking-possession football. Would they have bothered to find Warburton if promotion wasn’t possible? Or worse, just stick with their older managers, letting them ride the bottom of the table, safe from relegation? The hiring of Warburton is a direct consequence of being relegated, and attempting to promote back up.

          Consequently, Warburton’s attempt to play possession soccer, has forced him to move on from the traditional, older players. Instead, he has turned to new, younger players barely out/still in their academies, who are not indoctrinated in the Scottish(English) game of Route 1 hoofball; Zelalem (Arsenal) and Oduwa (Tottenham) are just 2 of several other youngsters who have no chance of seeing any real first-team minutes at their home clubs, but now have the chance to develop under a manager and club with great pressure to succeed.

          Playing and developing young players is a consequence of hiring Warburton; and his hiring is a consequence of their attempt to be pro/rel. Domino Effect.

          • Garth says

            It could very well be that I’m giving the above post too literal of a reading (the graphic, with its big check-mark and exclamations seems tougher to misinterpret, but okay).

            There’s absolutely no doubt that pro/rel aligns incentives in a way that causes teams to engage in competitive spending on talent. That is a very, very good thing when it comes to improving product on the field. Whether it will organically cause spending on youth-dev depends on a pretty simple calculation:

            (cost/player/year x ratio of players who need to be trained to produce one professional player) – average fee generated by sale of like-professionals in a given year

            Before anyone decides to “unleash the potential” you’d have to have a lot of people look at that number and say, “yeah. that’s where we can gain an advantage.” That number, though, is likely to be very, very negative for a long, long time.

            The money for dev efforts has to come from somewhere. In order for the US to catch up, money for staff, facilities, coaching ed, etc. have to increase rapidly. USSF should subsidize it. In a pro/rel system, private dollars would indeed be involved, but the source would need to be someone willing to take an extraordinary gamble in the face of real numbers, or someone ignorant of those numbers. Or someone who wants to build a legacy and doesn’t need a return. All of these are possible.

            Rangers represent a fascinating example: they don’t even own their youth system. The had to firewall it in order to keep any financial liabilities from spilling over between the two entities. If a prospect comes out of the “Rangers Youth Development Limited”, Rangers get first right of refusal but have to pay the mandated compensation fees. See, unleashing the potential takes a bit of financial wrangling/engineering. The faster that fact gets embraced, the sooner you can get to workable solutions. Silver bullets – or bullets of any kind – don’t exist.

    • Kana says

      “On the global market, the value of American players is currently quite low.”

      Wonderful quote!

      The American player is literally worthless in that there is for all intents and purposes no market for him on global stage. Why would any club want a college player?

      MLS and USSF should care about this. Ask “why”? It goes to rhe heart of everything. But I don’t think they give a shit. Mediocrity and protection of franchise investors is their game.

  4. Kana says

    Random sampling of just two countries and the sheer magnitude of the gulf in youth pipeline is staggering.

    First some basic differences:
    • No pay to play
    • College is for earning degrees, not springboard to pro
    • Professionally run academies with ultimate goals of identifying, developing, and progressing players to first team or sell in open market
    • There is a common style of play across club and country (e.g., tiki-taka, Creole, Samba, etc . . . .)
    • Youth coaches are of highest credentials, pedigree, experience . . . they have to be in professional environment
    • Country population 46 million
    • Promotion / Relegation up and down divisions
    • 20 clubs in first division
    • 22 in second
    • 80 in third across four groups of 20
    • 360 (yes 360) teams in fourth division
    • Hundreds more in dividions 5 – 9
    • Do the math . . . thousands and thousands in the pipeline
    • Country population 41 million
    • Promotion / Relegation up and down divisions
    • 20 clubs in first
    • 21 in Primera B Nacional
    • 23 in Primera B Metropolitana
    • Hundreds more going down several levels
    • Do the math . . . thousands and thousands in the pipeline

    And this pattern continues in Italy, England, Germany, France . . . .

    • Closed franchise system with no promotion / relegation
    • No real style of play other than “it’s physical” and “they play with heart” . . . that and a “giving it the ole’ college try” won’t work too well in world football
    • Country population 320 million
    • 20 clubs in first division
    • 9 clubs in division 2 NASL
    • 21 in division 3 USL
    • Less than 100 youth academies across all divisions
    • Numerous coaches in non-MLS affiliated clubs DO NOT have highest qualified coaches
    • More than 55 of the 70 USSDA (Academy) are pay-to-pay clubs . . . WTF!!!!
    • Gary Kleiban did the math . . . 1,200 players from USSDA pipeline

    • Severe lack of professional academies in USA
    • Promotion / relegation, the number of professionally run youth academies, and size if the pyramid are directly correlated to success at the domestic and national level
    • The USA has a long, long, long way to go . . . .

    • Robert Kleemaier says

      Good comparison. Now factor in the distances that must be travelled across both Canada & the USA and it becomes crystal clear that the whole process becomes inherently more difficult to produce a feeder system of World-Cup calibre players from every corner of each country without free-to-play pathways for the most elite-level players to work their way up.

      • Mac says

        Important to remember that about 1/3 of the US population lives either on the East or West Coasts. That’s about 120 million people, living on 10% of the land available in the US. That’s twice the density of Spain, who isn’t exactly small. Also, our interstate highway network makes travel a lot easier and faster. I took a direct bus from Madrid (center of Spain) to Barcelona; about a 15 hour drive. Compare that to the drive I made in college from Northwest New Jersey to Denver, which we did in 20 hours.

        Also, your argument may have been valid years ago, but not anymore. The internet and easier access to multiple media platforms has made the world a smaller place. You don’t need to physically scout every nook and cranny anymore. Most clubs across all ages have facebook pages, online game footage, even YouTube highlights of their star players.

        What doesn’t exist are the relationships established across the pyramid. Top flight clubs have multiple relationships established with many lower level clubs, clubs who are more than happy with their position within the pyramid. Their goal is simple: pure professional development.

        This doesn’t/can’t exist, at least on the level you see abroad, because of a general recreational-attitude toward even professional development academies (see how many people freaked out over USSDA’s policy of not allowing players to play for their HS’s; or parents reactions to the year cutoff, saying their kids won’t play unless its with their friends). That, and our stress on the draft system, and pay-to-play model; why would most youth clubs eagerly seek the loss of revenue with trials at more professionally oriented academies for their most talented players? Why would coaches risk the more safe, resume-padding youth trophies and college-scholarships offered?

        • Robert Kleemaier says

          Agreed, Mac, except for two things: (i) social media only goes so far re scouting. A Vine, for instance, cannot eclipse the value of seeing a player live in meaningful games; it can, however, be used as a tool to invite interest; (ii) a lot of Europeans prefer not to travel long distances. I lived in the Netherlands & Germany for over a decade and the shock of their citizens at the distances we are willing to travel was often a source of amusement to me… and still is. Couple that with the sense of belonging due to differences in dialect or language and the desire to represent your district, region or state/province is rather more pronounced than here in North America. And that’s where it becomes interesting, for in spite of the local/regional pull the larger clubs use the smaller ones as part of their feeder network to buy up promising young players. And this market mechanism simply does not exist in MLS in the same way.

          • Mac says

            The second I posted the comment, I was just waiting on someone to call me out on the social media/internet/etc helping scouting. I guess that’s what I get when I try to write these things quickly at work in between tasks.

            Of course YouTube highlights, Vine’s, etc. can only tell you so much. Ultimately, nothing will ever takeover seeing someone play live, in person. But they can help you filter and gain interest, as you’ve pointed out, and let you prioritize which prospect is worth the car ride.

            And I very much know that most of the world doesn’t drive/travel as much as we do. I should have explained that comment was intended more as a comparison that many of these European and South American (lets not forget about them) countries don’t have it much easier than we do when traveling.

            I simply hear the argument from some people on other sites, about it being financially impossible for certain lower division clubs to be able to travel across country for a whole season should they be promoted into the top division. But that is the beauty of pro/rel: It lets the CLUB decide what it is financially capable of, or willing to strive for.

            And regionalism exists in our country as well. They may not be as historic, or as linguistically diverse as Catalonia or Basque, but the sense of belonging to a greater place is no less prevalent here. Even MLS sees the sense of regionalism here with the marketing of Homegrown players.

            I instead would argue, that the lack of a feeder mechanism you speak of above has more to do with the general lack of player compensation we seem to avoid at all costs in this country.

    • John says

      These are some great statistics that highlight how far behind in soccer development the US is but it also got me thinking about international basketball.

      Spain, by all accounts, is basketball crazy. They have a massive 9 level pyramid with pro/rel throughout. They produce some outstanding individual players that have had success in the NBA. The NBA and the top Spanish league, ACB, also happen to be the 3rd largest sports leagues in their respective countries. Just for some context, the NBA started in 1949 and the ACB in 1957.

      So why is the US so utterly dominant in world basketball? Is there any take away at all from the basketball structure in the US, that has resulted in almost complete dominance, that could help US soccer?

      Is this just a function of population? Something about the caliber of athlete that chooses basketball in the respective countries? [Everyones favorite argument no doubt] Is the US system on youth development rooted in the school and university system just that much better? What’s so different about developing a soccer player vs a basketball player? [technical, creative, improvisational...] Is this just a coaching issue?

      If the goal is to be a world powerhouse in soccer, it seems that US basketball has laid out a pretty nice blue print for youth development. So what are the takeaways if any?

      • Joel says

        Excellent points John.
        To turn some of your questions around a bit… what would professional basketball in America look like if the players only really played in 1 game a week and two practices a week when they were children?
        Where does the improvisation of basketball come from? The youth system or countless, countless hours honing the talent into skill on the asphalt playground?
        Why do european futbol players ‘appear’ so thoroughly futbol agile while our MLS players do not? Do european basketball players ‘appear’ as basketball agile as our american players? I recongize huge disparity in speciliazed agility of similar aged players between MLS and SA or european leagues.
        To me…. while a bit reductionist, this all seems to come down to free play. The cauldrons and petrie dishes of unorganized ‘playground’ play that builds the individual neuronal highways and right brained artistry (through hours and hours and hours…see Malcolm Gladwell) which is then harnessed into collective team success by the youth academy/system. First the artist…. then the school of art.
        We simply do not play enough IMO.

        • Joel says

          Personally… I am all for detonating the travel system until at least 12 or 13….as I think this is one of the biggest culprits to our improving. Moreover the continued division of age groups hampers our growth and natural hierarchy of leadership to emerge in ‘fun’ and less scrutinized play. Let the kids play SSG. Also…why do only 7 years olds play with 7 year olds? It is silly IMO… this need to catagorize by age. I could go on and on…


  5. Larry says

    The US/Canada is already home to two of the largest youth player pools in the world. What we need now is to inject quality into the game. The best way for that to be done is to create an open market through promotion and relegation at the professional level. Open markets create innovation, and change. By not having a huge franchise fee for entry or even worse no entry “cause we’re full”. Capital spending and innovation is squashed as an indirect effect.

    The larger effect from a Pay to Play (P-T-PL) system in the context of no promo/relegation is that the lack of market acceleration which would occur if the market was open. This causes the P-T-PL market to become middle focused. The focus falls on the middle of the pack (normal distribution curve) or the 66%, which causes people to focus on managing to the middle. Some people call this focusing on the team, others want to increase club membership. What ever it is called the effect is that the focus goes towards making the majority happy (the 66%) and not towards the top (i.e. the players with the most potential). In every other country that has an open market focus on those top players brings the most value. Just one top youth player sold for big $$ can change the entire course for a youth club including subsidizing all other player’s P-T-PL costs.

    The effect of this is that the top players will be dummied down, the middle players will be happy, and the bottom will see their potential to get into the middle as reachable. But the outcome in general is mediocrity from a quality perspective. Players don’t reach, they don’t push, they don’t fight for perfection.

    The more expensive the P-T-PL costs get the more the unintended consequences effect the quality at the highest level. Parents feel that if they spent thousands $$, then they/their kids need to get something out of it. Win a Cup, get a scholarship, etc. ECNL parents spending $10K a season with club fees, tournaments, travel is a classic example of this. The more the pressure amps up on the youth clubs to serve their clientele, and just like a business, increases in numbers increase revenue and expenditure. It becomes a catch 22, clubs focus on their winning records, as do coaches. That in turn drives customer satisfaction and interest in the club.

    Openess at the pro level means anyone can step up with money. A Pro team can move from 4th to 3rd to 2nd and then challenge for the 1st division. If you finish last you’re out, you drop. Club A will take a chance on player A, Club B thinks they can up one on A by buying player B for money, i.e. market acceleration.

    If youth clubs became top focused instead of middle focused the player pool, at the elite level P-T-PL will probably get smaller. Why, the middle would become more challenged, many will just drop due to the challenge vs cost, the bottom would not even bother. BUT, the very top players would thrive and be worth a lot of money when sold. Would it become more dog eat dog for the players, absolutely. In fact, I would say that most of our so called elite youth players are soft and could not handle how tough it would be in a top European or South American environment.

    This why the link between P-T-PL and Promo-Relegation is so critical to the country’s ability to be competitive at the world level.

      • Larry says

        I know many good coaches at the youth level, but I do not see how the system can truly achieve producing top levels players until the No.1 goal is to produce players worth significant transfer/sale fees.
        As it stands right now the main mass of what we consider elite players are being sent to the NCAA, where for the most part they are going to decelerate their potential soccer careers. They may get a education, even a very good one, but as soccer players, they will never be world beaters.
        From the ages of 18-22, much of the potential talent we have is effectively being destroyed.
        Many will say the NCAA is decent, well I’ll leave that debate for another time, but what is true is that the NCAA soccer calendar of 3 1/2 months of heavy intense soccer is not the world norm of soccer periodization usually spread out to around 8-9 months per year.

    • Mac says

      “…even worse no entry “cause we’re full”. ”

      This. MLS has rejected a new expansion franchise (several of them I think) in Austin, Texas. Why, you ask? Because Texas is already covered with FC Dallas and Houston Dynamo. Why throw in more clubs to compete with? Someone should tell EPL they’re doing it wrong when they had 6 clubs from London in the EPL one year.

      Are you kidding me? You’re going to limit the number of first division clubs in one of the largest hot beds of soccer and youth development; with a massive, and growing, Latino population? Nevermind that Austin is home to one of the largest universities in the country, with thousands of soccer’s prime demographic, young adults.

      • Larry says

        There are many places in the world where two big clubs can see each other’s stadiums in the distance.
        Now this doesn’t mean Austin should get a franchise. But Austin should be able to have a club/form a club and fight it’s way to the top, just like every other soccer league in the world.

    • John says

      While I think all of these are excellent points on how pro/rel would help improve the US game it is not a cure all. There are dozen’s of large soccer countries with full pro/rel pyramids that don’t have a better record on the world stage than the US. There is much more to becoming a super power than the structure of your leagues.

      The second thing that always bothers me is the size of the carrot for getting promoted to D1. In the US it’s pathetic compared to UEFA leagues. The broadcast contacts for MLS are laughable with a drop to zero for anything below D1.

      I’ve never seen anyone run the numbers on how the carrots for moving up the ladder would be enticing in the US. So I’m at $0 broadcast revenue at D3, let’s invest a ton to get to $0 broadcast revenue in D2. Sweet! Factor in rising stadium and other requirements at higher levels and it hard to see the incentive.

      On the relegation side, where are the numbers to suggest that a big market club could survive relegation from D1? Stadium lease deals look crippling… and the already tiny carrot that barely keeps them afloat is removed.

      I think it’s beyond argument that pro/rel would be a boon on player development in this country, but there are a lot of devilish details on how to get there, particularly on the financial incentive side, that I don’t see being addressed.

      1. Enact fully open pro/rel in the US
      2. ….
      3. Profit! World Cups! Glory!

      If any MBA types know what #2 is I’d love to hear about it.

  6. Kana says

    Amazing the level of ignorance in sports media and supposed those in the “soccer” crowd who pretend to understand the game but have been brainwashed by MLS and the “NFL, NBA, MLB don’t have pro/rel, so it won’t work for MLS because the clubs will go bankrupt” mentality.

    First, those are scare tactics. Show me one pro/rel league where the league collapsed.

    Second, whenever market corrections like pro/rel occur, there are losers and winners. Losers = clubs who don’t cut the mustard; status quo gatekeepers; those who don’t want to change and improve. Winners = clubs who perform; visionaries, the fans, and yes the MLS and US soccer itself (players, owners, staff, more opportunity for a wider breath of players with a pyramid with more opportunities).

    Third, whenever a club is relegated, it naturally loses star players and lukewarm pretend supporters. They can pout and cry, but that will only result in further relegation and sorrow. So the incentive is to IMPROVE!

    Fourth, whenever clubs are promoted, it gives new players and clubs a chance at the pie, broaden the fan base. But guess what, the fight to stay up is serious. So the incentive is to IMPROVE, don’t get relegated. Therein lies the compelling storyline for the fan and the sports media. That results in serious, no crap rivalries and intense competition to stay in first division. No pretend MLS Rivalry Weeks and made up Classicos.

    Fifth, everyone needs to totally ignore the nay-sayers “sky will fall” protectionists who are either (1) talking heads for MLS owners and interests or (2) uninformed status quo merchants afraid of improvement to a world standard and throw up every excuse to stymie soccer’s growth . . . soccer has to be a progressive sport, not a stoic isolationist singular data point of protectionism in a sea of thriving open market mechanisms

    • Mac says

      “Third, whenever a club is relegated, it naturally loses star players and lukewarm pretend supporters. They can pout and cry, but that will only result in further relegation and sorrow. So the incentive is to IMPROVE!”

      This. It absolutely baffles me whenever I hear the arguement “If my team were to be relegated, I’d stop caring. Whats the point? You would lose to much support.” Are you kidding me?! Do these “fans” actually know what they sound like? That is the definition of bandwagon/plastic/fake/ fan.

  7. Kana says

    You keep banging drum on pro/rel. Why doesn’t NASL, USL, NPSL go for it? Why not beat that drum?

    I need to research that angle as silence is deafening. It will be “a long time ” before MLS considers pro/rel per Garber himself. So look for path of least resistance. MLS will take notice if the experiment works.

    • Mac says

      USL is perfectly happy being a farm/reserve league for MLS (But then people turn around and say its terrible that NYCFC should act as a farm team for ManCIty).

    • Robo says


      Pro/rel without D1 participating wouldn’t be all that effective. The reason is, the goal of getting to D1 is what creates the environment that is suitable for investment in lower division clubs. Then there’s the fan interest and the marketing strategy. It’s much easier to market the club to fans if their support could lead to promotion to D1. But if D2 is the highest league that a club can get promoted to then why should fans care?

  8. Kans says

    Literalism of myth” That is Garber’s unintended default position. The myth of league collapse, game hasn’t grown enough, and so on. You’re spot on about no league ever collapsing to pro/rel. The league hasn’t grown enough” is a common statement by Garber.

    When pro/rel started across the world, those leagues were less mature than MLS, yet they survived and thrived. Football spread from England to all corners of the earth in late 1800s. Yet somehow, without billionaire owners, mass media, franchising, merchandising, advertising, sponsorships, and so on . . . pro/rel somehow managed to not collapsed any league as Garber contends. Quite the opposite. The free market spurred growth of clubs, leagues, division. Of course clubs came and went, but that’s how it is in a free market. The end result is a deep pyramid system in those countries.

    I did some searching on this topic. There isn’t much documented, but here’s what I culled togheter:

    Pro/rel started slowly in late 1800s (circa 1885) after England codified rules of the game. It resulted “naturally” when several independent leagues formed and merged with other leagues and the number of divisions grew (first, second, third, etc.). It also stemmed from the worst teams having to win re-election into Footballing Associations.

    So pro/rel was a way to “fairly” promote and relegate teams to higher and lower levels of competition based on performance. This was made fairly easy due to being an open system rather than a franchise model. In other words, investors / clubs / owners had the financial incentive to be promoted.

    So now I understand why Garber / MLS has recently raised the bar on division 1 requirements. Artificially keep competition at bay.

  9. Danny Kogan says

    Guys it’s all about the $$$. All “major league” pro sports in the United States are protected by a special exemption given by the US government to allow them to operate as a monopoly and not pay taxes. This allows a few people, (the owners of the pro franchises) to make billions of dollars without having to put any money into developing players, or reinvesting in society in any way. Instead we have tax payer funded entities like highschools and colleges do the job for them, under the guise of education. It’s funny because you hear about the billions of dollars being made by high school and college sports yet the “average tuition rate” is growing exponentially and test scores are falling. So the money is going into “player development” to create the very best athletes in the world and make enough of them to supply the “big show” at the professional level, all with no cost to the owners of the professional teams, instead the burden is pushed onto the US taxpayer. In my opinion Promotion-Relegation is the best and fairest way to run any “game” and is true to human nature, even though it isn’t a silver bullet, it’s inclusion, should be the goal in all matters of human competition. The current cases being pursued in federal court challenging the legality of the “anti trust exemption” offers hope to a change of the status quoa. In any matter, Gary your above argument is a very real look at the underlying fundamental problem with why we can’t seem to crank out high quality intentional players.

  10. Giro says

    It’s without question players need to go abroad (primarily Europe and England) to become world-class. That’s exactly why Jurgen and ALL other national team coaches look to those players.

    Same logic holds true for coaches.

    Brian Kleiban is light years ahead of counterparts in USA. Is that because our system is so broken or he’s so good? I think a bit of both. I wish Brian would go abroad and master his craft. Lead by examle. He’s not optimizing his potential at LAG in broken MLS system. He’s limited by his environment.

    The path to great coaches and players isn’t through AYSO, competitive pay-to-pay club, college, MLS (or some combination thereof). It’s Europe, Mexico, England, elsewhere in lower professional leagues, working way up the ladder in highly competitive environments learning from true masters in teams with deep cultural and historical backdrop. This has to be part of the discussion of pro/rel.

    USA is cut off from the benefits of the body of knowledge that can be obtained from Europe/England. That body of knowledge cannot be reused in USA because we have no conduit (coaches and players who lived it). So we are left with stagnation and ignorant attempts at improvement as a proxy. All those pretend Barca tiki-taka coaches who’s closest brush with Spainish football is watching a game on TV in a Cules jersey.

    Pro/rel alone in a system where coaches and players don’t go further east than New York is no good. They need to go to Europe or other more mature leagues/countries. We need to get to a point where players and coaches flow freely to/from other teams/leagues in different countries as it is all over the world. But salary caps and out of synch domestic – international schedule prevents this. MLS also controls the transfer market. That has to change. There has to be a change from centralized league control to a true club competition, with clubs and only clubs determining how much they want to spend and who they offer contracts and for how much. Pro/rel lacking any of these is applying cosmetics to pretty up a festering wound. It would still be ugly, but we’d pretend pro/rel prettied it up.

    The seed of eternal mediocrity, inertia, and stagnation was built-in when the league formed 20-years ago by choosing the franchise model. Like a computer’s operating system, there are limits to growth. Requirements change. New ideas and models come and go. If said computer operating system as an open modular design with built-in hooks for future growth, upgrades are easily accommodated. If it was a rigid closed design, it has to be rebuilt from scratch. Either that or live with what you got and over time become obsolete as other open (modular) systems flourish. If the plan was to model the latter, MLS did a marvelous job.

    By definition, open systems have to be fluid, flexible, transparent. Closed systems do not. Hence, closed systems resist change. The people who run closed systems have mind-sets accordingly. Conversely, open systems thrive on change in an effort to continuously improve. The people in open systems have mind-sets accordingly.

    MLS (and USSF through association) sealed our fate from Day 1.

  11. Robo says

    Great article and great comments.

    I recently got into a “debate” on bigsoccer about promotion/relegation and my head just about exploded from the pure idiocy coming out of the MLS fans there. I won’t even repeat their arguments. I’m sure you’ve heard them all before.

    It’s made me wonder though if there is any survey data available showing the popularity of pro/rel among the American soccer public and also among MLS fans.

  12. Chrus says

    If you look at the way it’s done abroad, pay for play isn’t a necessary evil. Most small clubs are funded by the training fees recieved during player transfers. Especially in England, this is the biggest source of club income and how most clubs operate. Now, that’s not to say that eliminates dues completely, but it GREATLY reduces them or kids pay like £1-5 per session. As 50% of clubs in England have men’s sides, the youth are also funded by them and sponsors…. But it’s the transfer fees that keep academies running.

  13. Tyler says

    MLS can’t create pro/rel. They can’t because the teams are paying way too much money to enter the league and are in valuation bubble land.

    “The average team is now worth $157 million, up 52% from when we last looked at the league two years ago.” – forbes article – 2015

    There is no explanation of their valuation methodology in the article, so I’ll take a quick swag at breaking down their numbers. I use to do valuations for companies and could really get into it, but not worth the effort when the math is so obvious.

    They talk about revenue, “$90 million per year from TV deals”… that works out to $3.75-$4.5 million depending on the number of teams during the next 8 years. Let’s look seat revenue… use avg. attendance of 25k @ $75/tickets w/17 home games + concessions + memorabilia. Probably near $50 million per year. So, a team is making $55 million/year on average. With all of the plane travel huge costs for the old guys coming here to play, maybe the margin, with rose colored glasses, is 10%. So, optimistically they make $5.5 million. There have to be huge growth numbers in the mix, but you also discount value for risk (which is much less now), but it takes 20 years, to earn back a $110 million franchise fee. If you are a new franchise coming into the league, you think you will be OK with moving to pro/rel?

    Then you find this:
    “On a combined basis, MLS and its clubs continue to lose in excess of $100 million per year.” — MLS deputy commissioner Mark Abbott, October 28, 2014. It was widely reported in October 2014 that LAFC agreed to pay a franchise fee of $110 million.

    MLS will NEVER have pro/rel.

    Pro/rel needs to start with regional areas – where the longest trip is 3 hours by bus. It isn’t like MLS soccer is good anyway, so what is the difference between watching SJ Earthquakes and Sac Republic. I’ve seen both and it isn’t much different.

    I think what we all want is a way for all of “us” to have a fair proving ground, to show that coaches like Brian can take a team through and break into the top with their better brand of soccer and ability to identify and develop talent.

    MLS is a monopoly and kills innovation. U.S. soccer will eventually get to the top tier, but it is frustrating because the system is not setup to reward innovation, talent identification (coaches and players), and business models. So, where we could be in 5 or 10 years will take 20 or 30.

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