As MLS continues expanding, could a form of pro/rel become necessary?
Major League Soccer keeps growing. What was 10 teams in 2004 is 22 in 2017, with Los Angeles FC coming into the league next season and five more squads getting the nod in the near future.
At the most recent All-Star Game, commissioner Don Garber said the league wouldn't expand beyond 28 teams "on [his] watch." But the longtime commissioner's watch will end (in a "he's been doing this since before the turn of the millennium and probably wants to do something else" sense rather than a "Game of Thrones Night's Watch" one) someday.
With a dozen ownership groups interested in paying $150 million or more for the right to launch a new franchise, there's no reason to think MLS will stop growing over the course of the next decade or two.
The question is: What happens when the domestic league gets to 32, 36 or even 40 squads? That's a huge number of teams. MLS would be the largest top division in the world by far.
If (when?) Major League Soccer gets to that point, there's a strong argument to be made that it should split into two divisions and adopt a closed promotion/relegation system. This format would protect the investments made by the owners who spent hundreds of millions of dollars to enter or prop up the league (or both) while also creating some semblance of the excitement and development opportunity presented by end-of-season battles.
A closed promotion-relegation system wouldn't be unprecedented in world soccer. In 2013, Korea's K League adopted a system, splitting into the K League Classic and the K League Challenge. Each year, the last-place finisher in the top division goes down while the Challenge champion goes up. Additionally, the team that finishes second-to-last in the Classic plays a home-and-home series with the second-place Challenge squad, the winner either staying in or moving up to the top flight. The format has been so successful that other leagues like Australia's A-League are considering adopting it.
It might work in MLS, too. Let's say the league has 36 teams by 2030, a rapid pace of expansion but not an unreasonable one. That means two divisions of 18 squads each, with all three dozen teams splitting revenue from national deals like television and multimedia rights evenly. Each season, the top two from tier two would move up, and the bottom two would move down, with some sort of playoff for a third spot -- or something along those lines.
The most difficult part would be creating the initial divisions. How would the league decide who would start in the top division and who would go down? But given enough lead time, they could prepare. Going from 28 to 36 would mean eight more expansion fees, which could reach into the $2 billion range (and possibly quite a bit more). That's plenty of money to build cushions into the system for teams that started in the lower division.
The drawbacks to creating a system like this are obvious.
"Americans don't consistently appreciate a second level of sports. It's there for development, not consumerism," Michael Colangelo, assistant director of the Sports Business Institute at the USC Marshall School of Business, says. "If there are 20 teams in the first league and 20 in the second, I'm just going to watch the top league. That's the American consumer's mindset."
But soccer is slightly different than more-traditional American leagues, and fans are used to the idea of promotion and relegation. If MLS got the branding right, the narrative would be less about a top division and a second division and more about the idea of a squad in the lower tier striving to reach the top flight. This would, if nothing else, fuel excitement late into the season, giving the majority of teams something to play for even if they weren't one of the best in the league. Promotion/relegation has the potential to take what can be a dull final month of the season for the majority of the teams and give them hope. That, at least, is the dream.
But if this format does come to pass, it's reasonable to ask if this wouldn't open the country up to further promotion and relegation. An MLS that can support 36 teams in roughly 15 years assumes that the soccer landscape in America continues to develop and grow, and that money flows into the game. There's no reason to think that won't be the case.
If it is, however, the success of soccer won't be limited to the top division. Even with 36 teams, MLS will only exist in roughly 30 cities. There are 53 metropolises in the U.S. with more than 1 million residents and 107 with a population of more than 500,000. Chattanooga, Tennessee -- which sits 100th on the list with 551,632 residents -- saw 12,400 fans come out for a 2017 friendly between Chattanooga FC and Atlanta United. The point is that in 15 or 20 years, the USL could very well boast a number of viable teams ready to make the jump.
That would require a different model entirely.
"Instead of artificially inflating the expansion membership fees from an artificially scarce number of slots, the MLS should probably expand to at least 36 to 40 teams and merge with the NASL and USL to form a multitiered North American soccer pyramid," says John Vrooman, a sports economist and professor at Vanderbilt University. "This is the only way to merge the internally and externally optimal league sizes, and to develop North American soccer talent on a level to consistently play the beautiful game on par the rest of the football world."
As soccer in America matures, it might come to look like the rest of the world.
Noah Davis is a Brooklyn-based correspondent for ESPN FC and deputy editor at American Soccer Now. Twitter: @Noahedavis.