OPINION: Playoffs are American. Promotion Relegation can stay away.

OPINION: Playoffs are American. Promotion Relegation can stay away.

A few months ago, I was meeting our newest team member here at SoccerNation. Richard Nightengale and I sat across the Soccerloco conference table from each other and (duh) started talking soccer. He loves the Wolves of Wolverhampton. I’m Chelsea blue when it comes to English football. So, with relief, we agreed that we could be friends.

“LAFC are going to win it all. It’s done.”

This bloke is British. Although he’s been here in the US for a while now, his accent is still going strong. I, on the other hand, am 100% American. As we started talking MLS, that Brit across the table made a bold English prediction.

He stated, as though it was as obvious as the sun rising in the East, “LAFC’s going to win it all. It’s done.” (I bet King George thought the about same way about his military against those pesky treasonous colonists, Richard.)

The thing is, Major League Soccer isn’t the EPL, Liga MX, Budesliga, or Serie A. The regular season doesn’t decide the title. If it did, LAFC would already be MLS Champions. But that’s the way we Americans roll.

Playoffs decide our champions here.

Playoffs decide our champions in America. NCAA Football. The National Football League. NCAA Baseball. Major League Baseball. The Stanley Cup. The NBA. March Madness. Does the “best team” with the best record always win? Sometimes, but not always. $^it happens. One unlucky moment in one win-or-go-home playoff game can end a season. And that’s just the way we like it.

So, Richard, do you still know for sure that LAFC is going to win it all? I’m not gonna lie — I’ll be a pretty happy camper if they do. But I know how quickly a playoff run can go sideways and a great team can be left dumbfounded scheduling tee times instead of training sessions.

“We need Promotion / Relegation,” screams the European soccer snob.

I say “snob” lovingly, tongue in cheek. For anyone who’s annoyed with me, I love gorgeous European soccer. But it’s not American.

There are a few reasons why I don’t want Promotion / Relegation to come to American soccer. I have already made the first reason crystal clear: Playoffs and championship games are America’s version of promotion/relegation. I think that’s more than good enough. It’s better.

It’s all about the money

My next argument against Promotion / Relegation is the stone cold fact that it’s just not financially smart. MLS teams already have a hard time securing corporate sponsors. Ticket sales, merchandise, and TV deals are main sources of a club’s revenue. Corporate sponsors are another, and it’s already a challenge for an MLS team to sign a multi-year deal with a corporate sponsor.

If a team is constantly in danger of dropping down to a lower league with no nation-wide TV coverage and lower attendance, those corporate sponsors are going to be even harder to secure than they already are.

Soccer doesn’t have commercial breaks every thirty seconds like baseball, basketball, and football. That huge TV ad revenue potential doesn’t exist, so networks don’t pay as much for the TV rights to regular season soccer games.

Eyeballs in the stands to see the ads.

Since TV deals aren’t as big for soccer, money comes in from sponsors who are promised in-person eyeballs at the games to see their ads. I talked to a friend of mine who arranges deals between corporations and professional teams. He asked to stay anonymous, but what he told me makes sense: “It’s all about the bang for the buck. Return on investment. Eyeballs seeing the ads at the venue.” The numbers of eyeballs just aren’t there for soccer (yet!).

Soccer doesn’t have 3-5 games a week like baseball and basketball. Football is an exception, of course, but their attendance numbers are huge.

Math time.

Let’s do some math. I’ll keep it simple. Here are average game attendance and total season attendance numbers for American sports. These are the numbers of people with eyeballs at games to see sponsors’ ads:

NBA: 17,857 avg per game. 22 million total attendance
NFL: 67,042 avg per game. 17.2 million total attendance
MLB: 28,252 avg per game. 68.5 million total attendance
MLS: 21,310 avg per game. 8.7million total attendance

MLS’s attendance doesn’t even crack 10 million (yet). Even with the HUGE numbers Atlanta United are putting in the stands, MLS is still behind other sports, and most cities only dream of Atlanta-type attendance numbers.

A soccer sponsorship deal for a corporation may be a great deal compared to other sports. But, the company’s ads won’t be seen by nearly as many “eyeballs.”

Add in the constant threat of relegation, and teams that aren’t perpetually in the top half of the standings aren’t going to have a snowball’s chance in the underworld of securing multi-year corporate sponsorships.

Reason 1: Playoffs are awesome and American

Reason 2: Money

Conclusion: Promotion and Relegation should not be a part of American soccer.

What say you, Richard?


  • comment-avatar
    Richard Nightingale 3 years

    Well Carey … Nightingale here. I wanted to wait until after the playoff ‘El Trafico’ before responding AND to gloat! We can analyze all day but LAFC even with a dubious second goal had far too much quality for the Galaxy. Seattle are a different proposition. I was at the 2016 MLS Cup in Toronto when Seattle beat the home town club. Seattle did it with one shot on goal throughout regular and extra time. Frei in the Sounders net made an unbelievable save that night to deny Altidore and the Sounders will got to Banc One this week knowing they will absorb a lot of pressure and have very little possession. Sounders had a regular season goal difference of +3 compared to the +48 for LAFC. Frei, Lodeiro, Ruidiaz, Jones and Morris provide a good ‘spine’ for the Sounders and watch for Morris making his darting runs between and behind LAFC’s back line. Minnesota won at Banc One and any club can have an ‘off night’. Yet, let me be clear. All said and done LAFC will win and host the MLS Cup Final on Nov 10. They will play Atlanta and it will be a ‘track meet’. Counter attack after counter attack. LAFC have too much class for anyone in MLS this year. I will have more to add on the LAFC – Atlanta ‘match up’ next week.

  • comment-avatar
    Richard Nightingale 3 years

    Just got a coffee Carey and now ready to take on the whole ‘promotion – relegation’ conversation. In the MLS the CLUBS / TEAMS run the League and that is not the case with NFL, MLB etc. Those league offices rule, commissioner reigns absolute. 2020 will see the MLS celebrate it’s 25th anniversary. Still a VERY young league that has had a few false starts and been salvaged by a small group pf wealthy advocates on a few occasions. Long way from seeing promotion-relegation in the MLS (and USL). Owners cringe at the idea, seeing their ‘investment’ at risk. New franchises go for what now? certainly in excess of $100M. Personally and speaking from experience, relegation is a love- hate relationship for me. I’ve suffered following Wolves all my life, knowing in the end the season usually comes down to four or five teams scrapping to survive and all decided the final game of the season. On the flip side, I enjoy watching the relegation or bottom end of the table evolve more than who wins the title. In the EPL, it gets predictable and same old, same old. The days of promotion- relegation will come, all us purists crave it. Yet, doubt we will see in the next decade and in the end as that song goes, “money talks, but it don’t sing and dance”.

  • comment-avatar
    David 3 years

    I am going to be direct with this. Promotion and relegation is absolutely necessary for football in America. It is ridiculous that a team can finish bottom of a league, and get another chance again next season without punishment. Vancouver Whitecaps and FC Cincinnati finished bottom of their respective conference standings this season. What do they get? A chance to improve by getting the first picks in the MLS Superdraft. Using Nightingale’s Wolves team for example here, if they finish in the bottom three of the Premier League, they get relegated to the Championship and are replaced in the league by one of the top two sides, and then the 3rd-6th place team. Wolves, like all the other Premier League clubs and most other clubs across the world know that if they are at the foot of their respective league by season’s end, they go down. There’s rarely a second chance, and that is usually an outlier.

    In North America, particularly in the US, there is no concept of merit in sports. In the other North American sports, it’s different. You don’t have another fully professional hockey league, or basketball, American football, nor baseball. In football, it is completely different. There is the USL Championship as well as USL League One, both of which are fully professional. Keeping the playoffs is not too much of a problem, however, there needs to be a concept of sporting merit in the football system in America. Richard, you could not be any more right on this. It’s time for change in North America