An Argument for Promotion-Relegation in the United States

  1. FIFA Circular no. 1132 – Sporting integrity – principles of promotion and relegation
  1. “…A club shall qualify for a domestic league championship by remaining in a certain division or by being promoted or relegated to another at the end of a season.”

  2. In addition to qualification on sporting merit, a club’s participation in a domestic league championship may be subject to other criteria within the scope of the licensing procedure, whereby the emphasis is on infrastructural, administrative, legal and financial considerations. …”

It seems no other topic in the world of American soccer puts people on edge more than the idea of instituting Promotion and Relegation. Proponents argue that, “It’s the way the world works”; opponents counter “It’s not the American Way.” This article hopes to chip away at some of the myths of promotion and relegation and provide a contextual basis for its implementation.  I’m not going to advocate a single table or a balanced schedule (which I also think is important) but hopefully take a nuanced look at the benefits, and possible detriments, of promotion and relegation.

Why Promotion and Relegation?

“It’s got to be competitive, every club has got to have that ambition to get to the Premier League, that’s why our league is so good.  … It would ruin and kill English football.”  Dave Whelan, Wigan Chairman

Drama and Storylines

Today’s sports world craves drama and storylines.  The ecstasy of promotion and relegation adds drama to what would otherwise be the dullest part of a sports cycle.  Without the risk of relegation teams at the bottom of a league, go through the motions and start planning their off season.  A common quote is “They’re playing for pride,” or even worse, “they’re playing the role of spoilers.”  Both are hopefully true, but if a team knows it can be relegated, those previously pointless late season games become meaningful.  Now they are not playing for a draft pick, they are playing for the right to remain in their current division of play.

Birmingham survive relegation:

When was the last time you saw a last place Major League Baseball team and its fans celebrate an end of the season game like this? This game means something.

Drama is also created when a team snatches a chance at promotion.  Few games end in as exciting a matter as the second leg of a semifinal play-in game between Watford and Leicester in 2013, but there is no denying the stupefying emotion.

We could have that drama here in the United States.

Increased drama and better storylines make for better television.  The most popular soccer leagues in the United States are not our own domestic league but rather the English Premier League, Liga MX and the UEFA Championship.[i]  Why?  Some of it is probably the quality of the soccer, but a big part is the lack of credible drama until the playoffs.  One of the greatest attributes of American football is the sense that every game matters.  Granted in September this is hard to remember, but by the time late October and early November rolls around, viewers are regaled with the playoff implications of every game.  That creates tension and drama which any writer knows is essential in the middle of a book. Promotion and Relegation creates that drama in the world of soccer. Coupled with the playoff hunt it would make the entire season of MLS dramatic.


In 2013 NYCFC paid 100 million dollars in franchise fees to MLS and the second team in Los Angeles agreed to a franchise fee of around the same size in 2014.  The total wage bill for the entire league in 2014 was just under 130 million.  What are those franchise fees being spent on? Currently neither NYCFC or the proposed LA teams have their own stadium, nor do they have a true fan base.  There may be people wearing NYC blue and buying tickets, but they are fans of a new entity.  Similarly, Orlando City, another new MLS franchise officially lost its four year history[ii] when it joined MLS at the cost of a 70 million dollar franchise fee.

What if that money was spent on the team instead?  What if a team could take 100 million dollars and invest it in their stadium, their players, their coaches, their youth systems?  Wouldn’t that be a better use of investment capital than marginal payouts to existing owners? The benefit of a franchise is that you are buying into a known commodity.  A McDonalds in Alabama is the same as a McDonalds in Washington.  What differentiates those franchises?  The color of their uniforms?

Instead, a team that has true roots in a region has organically grown there.  Three of the more successful, at least in the stands, MLS franchises are the teams in the Pacific Northwest.  Portland, Seattle and Vancouver all have roots that stretch back to the NASL and continued to play in different forms until their franchising into MLS.  Would they have been served to use their franchise fees on their own clubs?

There have been numerous studies which show that franchising adds little societal benefit and often serves a detriment to the investor. [iii]  What benefit have these teams received by paying franchise fees?  They have gotten the right to play in Division 1 of the United States of America. With promotion and relegation they could have earned that right on their own merits and kept their own capital in the process.

That sunk cost of a franchise fee could be used in building stadiums, investing in youth structures, buying players, or any of the other myriad costs involved in running a soccer club.  Instead it disappears into the black hole that is MLS accounting.


            If you get involved in promotion/relegation arguments (via twitter, blog comments, in a bar), one of the issues that is always propounded is that the United States isn’t ready yet.  The theory goes “one day when the US is ready, not now of course, promotion/relegation will be necessary.” One notorious pseudo pro/rel supporter on twitter[iv] is famous for saying that the US leagues are equivalent to Division 1, Division 3 and Division 6 equivalents. In fact, soccer in the United States actually compares very well to England’s Championship, League One and League Two.

For Comparison sake here are some statistics from this year (2014-2015) English leagues and last year’s American leagues.

FA Championship

  • Largest: Sheffield Wednesday 39812
  • Smallest: Bournemouth 12000
  • Average:  26,761
  • Attendance Avg: 17662

FA League One

  • Largest: Sheffield United 32702
  • Smallest: Fleetwood Town 5327
  • Average:  13553
  • Attendance Avg: 6899

FA League Two

  • Largest: 20224
  • Smallest: 4850
  • Average:  10013
  • Attendance Avg: 4542

 Conference South (6th Division of England for comparison)

  • Largest: 8840
  • Smallest: 1500
  • Average:  4220
  • Attendance Avg: 513

MLS (All numbers are the official reduced capacity figure)

  • Largest: 40000
  • Smallest: 18000
  • Average: 22344
  • Attendance Avg: 19095


  • Largest: 22500
  • Smallest: 5000
  • Average:  11071
  • Attendance Avg: 5501


  • Largest: 22000
  • Smallest: 2500
  • Average:  9319
  • Attendance Avg: 3114

The actual averages, largest stadium, smallest stadium, and attendance averages are very similar. The 6th division in England is Conference South, stadium size and average attendance are far worse than the USL and on par with the NPSL and other 4th division leagues in the United States.

The ancillary argument is lower leagues need to increase their attendance and facilities prior to promotion.  I agree in part to the need to improve facilities, but disagree wholeheartedly with attendance.  Facilities I will discuss below in the section on promotion standards, attendance will be addressed herein.

The easiest way to point out attendance will improve upon promotion is to look at the case studies of the Portland Timbers and the Seattle Sounders.  Both teams existed in some form prior to MLS.  Timbers average attendance from 2001-2010 was 7,241[v] and from 1994-2008 Seattle had an average attendance of 3,359. In 2014[vi], those two teams averaged attendances of 20,674 and 43,734 in MLS, respectively.[vii] Should those teams have waited to show higher attendance before obtaining the magic grail of 1st division soccer? It’s hard to imagine that would have helped their attendance now.  Arguments that lower leagues need to have MLS level attendance prior to promotion are disingenuous and self-serving to prop up the exclusivity of top-flight soccer at best.

Requirements for Promotion

The other leg of the counter argument against promotion in a promotion/relegation system is that many of the lower division clubs play in facilities which are not sufficient for top-flight soccer.  This is actually a better argument than most.  But, this is something that every league in the world deals with in a very simple manner.  In order to actually be promoted lower division teams need to be in compliance with upper level requirements.

The USSF already has published some requirements for 1st , 2nd and 3rd division soccer[viii] in the United States.  Some of the requirements are league specific, but for our purposes the only ones that matter are those that are team specific.  USSF sets out a minimum enclosed stadium size of 15,000.  The club must have at least a one year lease on that facility, they must show financial ability to operate for 3 years, must post a $1,000,000 bond to ensure operation and must be owned by a group worth at least $70 million with one owner owning at least $40 million (not including the team or their residence).  Further they must have a commitment to a player “commitment to player development program” and “maintain teams and a program to develop players at the youth level.”

A 2nd division club must have a stadium that can hold at least 5,000, must post a bond of $750,000, show financial capability for 3 years, have a principal owner owning at least 35% of the club and having a net worth of at least 20 million not including the team.  A 3rd division team need only have a stadium holding 1,000, post a $250,000 bond and have an owner worth at least 10 million.

The framework is already in place.  If a team wants to be promoted it must be in compliance with the USSF standards for the appropriate level.  In England this means a team must submit on or before January 31 of the league season their desire to obtain promotion if they are successful within the league, failure to do so and they won’t win promotion.[ix] The last team to be denied promotion to the First division of English soccer was Swindon Town in 1989-90 due to financial irregularities.  It would be simple for the USSF to set standards and then it is up to the lower leagues to comply if they want promotion.

Further Topics for Discussion:  Travel, Regional lower Divisions, Youth Development

I am not ignoring these issues as they are all relevant, but this article is already of sufficient length to start discussion.  The United States is ready for Promotion and Relegation and it would do our nation’s soccer a great service to increase the drama and tension in the domestic game. As a last aside, the USSF looks and acts like a child compared to its European counterparts.  You can find every FIFA and FA regulation online in easily accessible pdf form.  Finding the same for our Federation is like looking for a needle in a haystack.  This must improve.  If we want to be an international power we have to act like one.










[ix] Football League, Appendix 1 – Membership Criteria (Regulation 8)


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    • apmullaly · March 13, 2015

      I read your blog post and agree with regional lower level divisions. I may be writing something about that soon. As far as I can see the only benefit that the members of MLS receive for their high entrance fees are the right to play Division 1 soccer in American and an interest in SUM. MLS doesn’t build their stadiums, MLS doesn’t televise their games, MLS doesn’t pay their payrolls (it does act as a clearinghouse for all contracts), MLS doesn’t pay for their academies, and there is no indication of where those fees are actually going. So let the investors who paid their fees continue to get their share of SUM. If there are other hidden benefits to their membership fees than MLS should let us know.


  2. Pingback: Benefits to Youth Development from Promotion Relegation | offsidethoughts
  3. Jin DuPre · May 7, 2015

    Great article. My favorite so far this year on American soccer topics.


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