Don Garber: Promotion/Relegation Not Economically Viable in MLS


MLS commissioner Don Garber recently stated a common argument against promotion/relegation, a cause for some U.S. pro-soccer enthusiasts, pointing out it is not a viable economic option for the league. 

The current United States soccer pyramid, as defined by the United States Soccer Federation, is a closed system. The result is that teams cannot move up from Division II USL based on record, and teams are not relegated to Division II from MLS, either. Similarly, teams in the fourth-division National Premier Soccer League have no opportunity to rise to a higher league under the current closed system.

The closed system has been a source of controversy, with some making vocal calls to abolish it in favor of promotion/relegation. However, a longstanding argument from detractors of promotion/relegation is that the economic model of professional soccer in the United States–which includes sizable investments in facilities and franchises–prevents promotion/relegation from being a viable option.

In a wide-ranging interview with the Kansas City Star, Garber emphasized that argument when asked about the notion of promotion/relegation in MLS:

Question: Is promotion/relegation viable in MLS?

Garber: “Just because there is promotion/relegation in other leagues that were founded on different principles doesn’t mean that it would make sense in Major League Soccer. We have a vibrant No. 2 league in the USL. We have (Sporting KC principal owner) Cliff (Illig) and his partners that have just put $60 million of capital, along with the public, into this building. If all of a sudden they’re playing in a different division that doesn’t have national revenues — because the USL doesn’t have that — how does that make any sense? There’s no economic rationality to promotion/relegation whatsoever in the era that we’re in today.”

That argument is likely to be repeated given the current complexion of the sport, where an MLS expansion franchise costs $150 million and a USL franchise costs $5 million. With franchises often come substantial investments in stadiums and training facilities, with nearly every active MLS expansion bid including a concept for a new stadium that will cost hundreds of millions of dollars (and, in some cases, financed through a public-private partnership), as well as commitments to youth-development programs.

Still, the promotion/relegation system has its supporters. Just last August, Miami FC (NASL) and Kingston Stockade FC (NPSL) filed an attempt to force MLS promotion/relegation to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), arguing that USSF needed to follow FIFA rules. USSF’s rules regulating the sport have also been a point of contention since the NASL’s Division II status was revoked last September, with the league now suing in an attempt to strike down the American soccer pyramid under antitrust provisions.

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August Publications