Relegation is a football club's worst nightmare. It absolutely kills the financial capabilities of the club, sending the supporters to a personal hell for at the very least one year. The torture from colleagues and friends while their beloved squad battle the no names of the world in an attempt to reach the promised land once again, is something I would only wish on my most hated rivals. Without the large revenue from TV deals, advertising and merchandise deals, and the lowered number of season ticket holders and ticket sales that come with playing lower level outfits, clubs sometimes struggle to remain competitive even in the lower leagues. They must cut the wages and sell players who they can no longer afford making the squad weaker, and ultimately set themselves up for sometimes years of rebuilding in an attempt to reach the top level once again.
MLS, a very infant league compared to the counterparts in the rest of the world, has heard pleas from supporters and global critics to adopt a relegation-promotion system. The thrill of the relegation battle in the top flight and the promotion games in the lower leagues are dramas the American fans so desperately want to bring stateside. However this system is going to be nearly impossible to implement in MLS with its current business structure and will likely never happen in the single entity structure the league current upholds.
To elaborate more on the current MLS business structure, a single entity system means the league essentially owns all of the clubs and all of the players contracts. The ownership groups which manage the franchises own shares in the league, meaning each ownership group owns an equal stake in the performance of each individual club. So the ownership groups in MLS make money by the franchises in the league being profitable. The league is only as profitable as its weakest club. The players are all employees of MLS, and the chairman works for the ownership groups. A very complicated, and unorthodox way of operating a successful professional sports league. This model was implemented when the league was started to eliminate some of the risk investors may have seen in a sport that was barely seeing any attention when it was started in the early nineties.
So how would you introduce relegation into a league where it is in the owner’s interest to have every club be profitable and successful? Unfortunately for the pro relegation/promotion crowd, MLS is a corporation driven on growth of the value of the individual franchises in order to attract new investors. If the threat of relegation loomed over investors heads, the league would see less excitement from potential ownership groups looking to bring more franchises into the league. American’s see professional sports as a business, thus why so many Americans have become invested in European clubs, taking advantage of undervalued clubs which had large commercial potential back in the early 2000s. Unfortunately as the league continues to gain new investors and teams in the upcoming years, I do not see relegation and promotion ever happening in the current MLS business structure.
So in the end if the fans want to see relegation and promotion they may have to turn elsewhere. The NASL, America’s second tier league, is set up with individual owners who fund their own teams, pay their own players, and are responsible for their own stadiums. Is there room for the NASL to move in as the American league that offers the drama of the promotion-relegation battles? This may be years down the road, but if the NASL continues to grow with this European style of club ownership, which allows for clubs to be as successful or unsuccessful as the owners allow them to be, could we possibly see a new top tier league in USA? Unless the ownership structure of MLS changes, the future of the relegation and promotion in MLS does not seem to be an idea the MLS will consider.