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Pro/rel is chasing fool's gold
August 4, 2017
By Charles Cuttone
After a failed public attempt to force promotion/relegation with the dangling of a seemingly large sum of TV money in front of Major League Soccer owners, Miami FC owner Ricardo Silva is being joined in a court case by the NPSL'S Kingston Stockade to force promotion/relegation in the United States, citing FIFA statutes.
The case is a non-starter for a lot of reasons. First, the Court of Arbitration for Sport has no legal standing over United States law. Second, the stated purpose of CAS is to settle disputes where the parties have agreed to arbitration. Certainly not the case here.
The idea of promotion/relegation is a quaint one, rooted in the origins of England's Football League a century and a half ago. The process was begun because too many clubs wanted to join the Football League and pro/rel was a way of dividing them up. For all intents and purposes, however, the clubs were equals from the start. Even in leagues formed later, such as the Bundesliga, which took in clubs from regional leagues to form a national one, the level of the clubs were all pretty equal. This clearly is not the case in North America.
The argument seems to be that by continuing to allow a closed system, without pro/rel, MLS and U.S. Soccer are somehow stunting the growth of soccer, and not allowing for continued investment in player development, academies and facilities. And that the league's now $100 million plus expansion fee prohibits competitive clubs from reaching that holy grail of first division status.
There also seems to be a hard core group of so called soccer fans in this country who would like to see MLS fail so that an open system can be implemented, with winning clubs rising to the top, and most likely folding because they could not cover their expenses.
North American soccer history is littered with underfinanced clubs that folded before, after and during seasons for lack of money. On this day alone in 1981, two leagues, the American Soccer League and the Major Indoor Soccer League, announced franchises were being terminated because of lack of funds.
That's never happened in MLS, but is still a common occurrence in lower level leagues. MLS has never had a club fold because it did not have the money to operate.
Original MLS owners suffered losses well over $100 million in getting the league off the ground. Many of them bailed, and were it not for Lamar Hunt, Phil Anschutz and Robert Kraft, the league would have been gone in 2001.
The lower level ecosystem we have in soccer in this country is due entirely to riding on MLS coattails. So is the success of the U.S. National Team. The money invested and raised through sponsorship, television, stadium construction and promotion of the game has made soccer into an American sport. And in doing so, the value of the MLS investment has risen.
Rocco Commisso, the TV executive who saved the New York Cosmos earlier this year, essentially keeping the NASL alive, is fond of telling the story how he was offered the opportunity to get an MLS team in Toronto in in the early days of the league. The MLS asking price then was $5 million, but would have also included funding the huge losses the league was suffering at the time. Commisso says he didn't have the money then that he has now, and preferred to focus on growing his cable company. I am not sure what his financial commitment to the Cosmos and the NASL is, although he says it is pretty substantial, but likely less than the cost of what acquiring the Toronto franchise and operating it would have been. Yet he is one of the pro/rel supporters, especially since the Cosmos have won three NASL championships since joining the league. So, he was unwilling/unable to help build MLS at its outset, but feels like now he should be allowed a piece of that business at less than the earlier let alone going price?
There was some talk a few years back of the NASL mounting a challenge to MLS, as there is no restriction on having more than one DI league. An AFL/ABA/WHA scenario. Problem was, not enough (if any) NASL owners had the wherewithal to make that challenge. The reason the AFL was able to force a merger with the NFL in the 60s was the AFL for the most part had more money--owners who could sustain losses. The owners with the big money in this case are going to MLS. Mark Cuban doesn’t like the MLS system, but he hasn’t come forward to fund a rival.
I've read in some quarters where the lack of promotion has caused financial failure of some NASL teams, notably the Cosmos and Ft. Lauderdale Strikers -- that somehow moving into MLS would have solved their financial ills. If you can't afford the rent in Cucamonga, how can you expect to move to Beverly Hills?
Now, don’t' get me wrong, I am a strong believer in the lower leagues in this country. I've worked closely with and covered all of them, and have seen the problems of many of them.
Each of the leagues has a significant amount of space in our 2017 North American Soccer Guide, space that will increase in the 2018 edition (Get yours here), but pro/rel is not the answer for the soccer pyramid. Building strong relationships and stronger clubs is the answer.
Each of the leagues should focus on its strengths and lessen their weaknesses. Stronger vetting of ownership and financial and operating standards should be put into place. Both Miami and Kingston have built a niche in their communities. There is no reason they cannot continue to grow and thrive.
Instead of focusing on trying to get their clubs to move up, lower level teams should focus on getting players to move up. Otherwise they are just chasing fool's gold.
Note: a correction has been made from an earlier version, clarifying the time frame of the opportunity for Mr. Commisso to acquire the Toronto franchise.