After an exciting Copa America Centenario, the MLS is returning to its normal self as teams enter the second half of the season. The focus has shifted from national teams to clubs, and once again, put a spotlight on the structure of the league.
A couple weeks ago I mentioned the idea that a promotion/relegation system would be an easy switch for American soccer. There are two professional leagues below the MLS that are profitable, there are players being traded from these lower divisions to the top, and teams are playing each other occasionally in the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup, so it seems like a perfect fit.
However, one word gets in the way: business.
The United States does not have the history in soccer that other countries do, and it ultimately leads to the reason a promotion and relegation format will not be happening anytime soon for the MLS.
MLS franchises are businesses that require investors who want to be guaranteed a large return on their investments. Since the soccer culture isn’t as strong as in other countries, it is less about the passion and status that comes from investing in a professional football club and more about the amount of profit you are able to make off of your investment over time.
A relegation system would not ‘guarantee’ profit to investors. Obviously, because the team they sunk millions of dollars into could be moved down to a lower and less profitable league in one year, and may have to sell key, expensive, star players that draw fans and make the team worth watching.
This risk is not something that investors want to take with the MLS, which is understandable given that the league, although showing fairly large growth in the past few years, is nowhere near being the most profitable league in the world.
It also does not help the MLS business model that no other league in the United States has adapted the concept of relegation and promotion. The NFL, NBA, NHL, and MLB are all more profitable than the MLS at the moment, and all except the NFL have one thing in common: lower division affiliate teams.
Every league has affiliate teams in lower divisions that develop and give players an opportunity to grow into becoming a top tier athlete.
This is where the MLS is going.
After integrating the MLS Reserve League and the USL in 2013, affiliate programs have blossomed.
Most teams already have an established affiliate. For example, the Oklahoma City Energy of the USL is the FC Dallas affiliate, Saint Louis FC is the Chicago Fire affiliate, and the Bethlehem Steel is the Philadelphia Union affiliate.
Some teams even play in the same stadium as their parent club such as New York Red Bulls II (Red Bull Arena) and Real Monarchs SLC (Rio Tinto Stadium).
It seems that the farm league setup is what works in the United States because it provides a sturdy business plan for investors to grow profit as affiliate programs grow and gain popularity.
This is not necessarily a horrible way to do things, it’s just different. It obviously works with the other leagues in the country and, as soccer grows in the US, so will the profits of these clubs. League commissioner Don Garber still firmly believes that the league is growing toward being one of the top leagues in the world.
Is the affiliate program a better match for the United States than a promotion/relegation system?
Only time will tell.