What's behind Liga MX's decision to suspend promotion and relegation?
The coronavirus crisis has swept the globe over the last two months and caused a sense of uncertainty about the future. Liga MX is no different, but instead of waiting on the outcome of the crisis, the league has used the break to implement one of the most important changes in the Mexican game in recent times: The suspension of promotion and relegation for the next five years.
The official word from Liga MX is that Ascenso MX clubs asked for help during the current economic situation, one thing led to another and a deal was struck. In exchange for suspending pro/rel, Liga MX clubs will make annual payments to the 12 Ascenso MX clubs to guarantee their survival.
But that's only part of the story.
Q: Why does this move feel like it has been in the pipeline for years?
A: There is a wave of opinion within Liga MX that the league needs new investment and certain minimum guarantees from club owners. Three Liga MX ownership groups currently operate two clubs each in the first division (and each also has a second division franchise). The rationale for permitting multi ownership -- unthinkable in many leagues -- is that there aren't alternative investment groups.
A cynic would also point out that the value of Liga MX clubs may well increase without the threat of relegation and the stability that brings.
The Veracruz saga last year was a sizable blow to the league's credibility and generated further momentum to suspend pro/rel. Unpaid wages, political involvement, botched protests and a historically bad team on the pitch -- it all flew in the face of suggestions that the league legitimately wanted to "internationalize."
Then there was Lobos BUAP. The small university team from Puebla was promoted from the second division in 2017. The club didn't initially have a TV deal -- in Liga MX the rights are sold individually by clubs -- the stadium was small, the fan base outside the student population was even smaller and it ended up having financial troubles before the franchise was sold to FC Juarez.
It's not a financial easy proposition being in Liga MX, where each club must have a women's team, plus a youth system that provides under-20, under-17, under-15 and under-13 sides.
Q: It would be better to pick and choose which clubs/ownership groups can win promotion though, right?
A: Bingo! That's the conclusion Liga MX came to, implementing a "certification" system ahead of the 2017 Apertura to vet the clubs that qualified for promotion to the first division. But there was a twist: None of the second division teams earned the certificate and the "promoted" side Cafetaleros de Tapachula was denied its place in the Liga MX 2018 Apertura.
Second division club owners faced tough decisions about whether to invest in the necessary improvements, earn the certificate and then try to get promoted, or give the dream up. The result was a drop from 18 clubs in the league in 2017 to 12 for the recently-concluded 2020 Clausura.
Aside from the Diego Maradona-mania at Dorados, Atletico San Luis (owned by Atletico Madrid) and FC Juarez (who bought its way into Liga MX last summer), the reality is that the league has been slowly suffocating, struggling for sponsors, TV revenue and attendance.
Q: Was it because of the certification system? Or was the league sliding into insignificance anyway?
A: The certification definitely sucked some of the life out of the league, but even beforehand it wasn't attracting much interest. The system allowed only one team to win promotion per calendar year and relegation was based off the points-per-game over three years, with one eye on protecting the big clubs.
It was already a very closed pro/rel system compared to most European models.
Q: So who actually took the final decision?
A: This is where it gets interesting. Clubs owners in both the (old) Ascenso MX and Liga MX voted in favor of suspending pro/rel.
The basic reasons the second division clubs effectively ended their own chances of promotion comes down to money. An already difficult financial situation was further compounded both by the coronavirus pandemic and the price of the U.S. dollar floating around 24 pesos, compared to close to 18 pesos a couple of months ago. These are tough times in Mexican soccer.
Liga MX enticed the votes for suspending pro/rel by promising an annual package of 20 million pesos (US$845,000) every year for five years for each of the 12 current second division teams. One idea being floated is that the last three Liga MX teams in the relegation table are charged the 240 million pesos (US$10 million).
It at least guarantees the second division clubs a minimum income to work with. And the promise has been made that after five years, pro/rel will be reinstated, giving time for the second division clubs to, in theory, improve facilities, strengthen finances and reduce the current gap that exists between the Liga MX clubs and many of the second division clubs.
Whether (a) pro/rel is opened up after five years and (b) the second division teams have used the time and money to strengthen remains to be seen.
It's also worth mentioning that the votes in both leagues were split almost down the middle, not exactly breeding confidence about everyone being on the same page and marching as a united front towards a spectacular future on and off the field.
Finally, Liga MX still wants to move up from 18 to 20 clubs and you can bet that at least one or two of the Ascenso MX clubs believe that they have a chance of securing one of those spots, probably via a bank transfer after proving they have a worthy long-term project.
Q: So what will the new second division actually look like?
A: *Insert shrug emoji*
It is still to be defined, but it's important to stress that the league isn't disbanding, as some have mis-worded it. It's the dream of promotion that has disappeared.
The talk is that it will be labeled an "expansion" league. But the fact Liga MX will be doing away with its minor rule means that in all likelihood the new league will involve some kind of stipulation to field a certain amount of players under the age of 23.
Just how many of the squads or teams will be made up of under-23 players is being negotiated, with the players' association naturally concerned that current overage players will be out of work if there are strict age and/or foreigner limits. What would happen to players as they hit 24 could also be a stumbling block.
The league is also set to expand from 12 teams. There is room for a couple of third division teams to move up. And don't be surprised if Liga MX teams end up fielding "B" or reserve teams, keeping in mind that one of the biggest developmental problems for younger Mexican players has been getting enough minutes in that step up from under-20 level to professional first team soccer.
A couple of other interesting nuggets: The league is likely to sell its TV rights as a collective and there may even be a push for league-wide sponsors.
Q: What has the reaction in Mexico been like?
A: Not positive, to put it mildly.
The players association was livid it wasn't included in the negotiations. The partners of Ascenso MX players put together a video asking people to think of the families that may lose their source of income. Pundits on TV have slammed it as a selfish decision by Liga MX owners to look after themselves. Mexico international Hector Moreno called it a "grave error."
It's also hard not to feel sorry for clubs like Leones Negros, which seems to be reasonably well-run, already has a youth set-up and women's team and could move up into Liga MX without too much difficulty.
Liga MX president Enrique Bonilla has countered by stressing that attempting to shore-up the second division will mean more jobs on and off the field. He has implied that the Ascenso MX was only heading downhill in its current format.
Q: How much of this is down to the Major League Soccer/Liga MX "super league" idea that keeps doing the rounds?
A: Mexican football needed to tackle its second division problem for its own sake. The existing system was a failed mishmash of ideas. Liga MX had the choice to go for an all-out, open Euro-style relegation to increase interest, or go with a model more closely replicating the closed MLS system.
Liga MX has spoken very clearly with the decision to suspend pro/rel. This is a firm and big step towards moving closer to the north.
"It's probable that the possible creation of a North American super league is best for MLS in the short term and for Liga MX in the medium term, but over the long term it is best for both and the potential to add value and create jobs is immense," wrote Santos Laguna and Atlas owner Alejandro Irarragorri.
As the relationship develops between Liga MX and MLS, the latter needs guarantees that there will be minimum standards, and certainly no more Veracruz situations. The suspension of pro/rel is an attempt to provide security for club owners and the importance of Bonilla pushing through the move should not be underestimated.
That said, the alignment of Liga MX and MLS is a gradual process. It is one that both leagues are intent on exploring, as evidenced by the formal partnership, the All-Star game, Leagues Cup and Campeones Cup.
But while a combined league is the eventual goal, there are lots of steps to be taken along the way, including an expanded Leagues Cup and potential inter-league play. Much could go wrong along the way, but the journey has very much begun.