TORONTO – Unlike many leagues around the world, Major League Soccer doesn’t feature promotion and relegation, and Toronto FC coach Greg Vanney doesn’t see that changing any time soon.
The idea of MLS adopting a promotion and relegation system, which has been the subject of a longstanding debate among fans and pundits, came to the forefront again this week when the Sports Business Journal reported that the league rejected a $4-billion global media rights deal from international media company MP & Silva.
That’s a massive windfall when you consider that ESPN and Fox currently split MLS’s English-language rights in the U.S. for $75 million per year, while Univision pays $15 million per year for Spanish-language rights.
However, there was a catch, as MP & Silva’s offer was contingent on MLS adopting promotion and relegation in conjunction with the North American Soccer League and the United Soccer league, both of them second-tier divisions operating in Canada and the United States. The idea would be that the bottom two to three teams in MLS each season would be relegated to the second division, while the top two or three teams from the second-tier would be promoted to MLS.
Promotion and relegation is a system that has worked in top soccer nations around the world for over a century. But, MLS commissioner Don Garber has long been on record as saying the league has no interest in embracing it.
A former MLS player of 11 seasons, including the inaugural campaign in 1996, and with over 300 regular-season and playoff appearances under his belt, Vanney has been around the league for quite a while, and has seen it grow over time.
While admitting to one day envisioning MLS instituting promotion and relegation, Vanney feels that’s still in the distant future. For TFC’s coach, part of the problem is providing security for owners who plunk down millions of dollars in expansion fees to purchase news teams, as any relegated club would stand to lose millions in revenue.
“It’s challenging because when ownership [groups] bought into this, they didn’t buy into it with the idea that they could be playing in a second division. They’ve put a lot of money in with the idea that they’re going to be in the first division. … So you have to convince all of them that this is a good idea,” Vanney offered.
“I think we’re a long way away from a) having enough quality to be able to really have two leagues, and b) to convince owners who’ve invested a ton of money [that they] could still end up playing in a second division.”
TFC defender Drew Moor, who’s in his 13th MLS season and is set to become one of only a handful of players in league history to appear in 350 regular-season games, argues the concept is too foreign to American sports. He also feels promotion and relegation has the potential to spell the end for teams.
“American sports have to be careful with promotion and relegation; I feel like I’ve seen in leagues in Europe where teams get relegated and they get relegated again, and it’s not easy to come back, it’s not easy to survive. While it certainly makes for an interesting battle some times and throws in an extra aspect, for me, promotion and relegation is not right for MLS right now,” Moor said.
He later added: “For me, we’re too far away from promotion and relegation to work properly in MLS.”
TFC defender Jason Hernandez, another MLS veteran, concedes that the idea of MLS adopting promotion and relegation is interesting, and that it would bring it line with most of the top soccer nations in the world.
However, Hernandez puts a great deal of his faith in the MLS brain trust, and believes the league has shrewdly exercised prudence over the years in expanding its foothold in the United States and Canada. If promotion and relegation is the right move for MLS, Hernandez is confident the league will decide to go that route when the time is right.
“In my 13 years in the league, MLS has grown by leaps and bounds, and lot of that has come because to the decisions that were made, both soccer wise and business wise. The people in the league and the front office have been very savvy about how they’ve progressed and moved the league forward,” Hernandez stated.
“The people who run the show here in MLS have made the difference in terms of making this league strong and sustainable. When the time is right, if it’s something that makes sense for the league, they’ll do it.”