Selling the Drama: How to make promotion and relegation work in America

Four billion dollars. And now a court case. You’ve got to give it to Riccardo Silva, when he puts his mind to something he really goes at it! Loads has been written about the merits of promotion and relegation and if it can work in North America.

I think it’s something that needs to happen but there’s obviously some opposition. So how do we turn a few more people on to the idea? How do you sell the terrifying, gut-wrenching fear of relegation to American sports fans? Well here are some options.


What IS promotion and relegation anyway? Well if you’re here you likely have an interest in the European soccer leagues. So if you look at England’s Premier League there is a scrap every year to not finish in the bottom three, as at the end of the season the three worst teams are sent down to the English Football League Championship. They are replaced by the best two teams from that division, plus the winner of a four-team playoff contested by the teams who finished 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th. It’s simple, it’s accepted and it works all the way down the top four professional divisions. At the bottom of that 4th division the two teams with the worst records, the two worst professional teams in England and Wales, are kicked out of professional football to be replaced by the two best semi-pro teams.

But this was not always the case.

Until 1986 the Football League was a virtual closed shop similar to the MLS. There was no direct promotion and relegation between the professional and amateur leagues. The worst teams in the league had to re-apply for their places at the end of the season and non-league teams were invited to pitch to replace them.

The reality was that very few teams ever lost their place in the league. Between the establishment of Division Four in 1958 and the implementation of direct pro/rel in 1986 only five teams were voted out. In three of those five cases teams in unfashionable and remote northern locations lost out to teams around London. In 1972 Hereford United ousted Barrow after a sensational FA Cup run that included a giant-killing of a mighty Newcastle United team. Southport were the last team to get the boot in 1978 after a great election campaign from nearby Wigan Athletic.

In my six years in the USA I have come to find that Americans love a good election. In most places an election happens swiftly and decisively. Here it’s a hotly contested event dragging on FOREVER with wall-to-wall coverage everywhere. So why can’t an election system work to open up the MLS? Garber will get to do his favorite thing for the rest of his career. Travel the US and have owners suck up to him.

It has benefits for the MLS too. Because just like in England in the 60s and 70s, few MLS teams will be actually relegated and the ones that are will probably deserve it through years of mismanagement. It gives a safety valve to release badly run franchises with terrible owners back into the lower leagues and gives second-tier teams that are well run a chance to take their place. The MLS will also be able to turn round and say we are open, the route is there. It’s a way to ease the system in.

Barack Obama swept to victory on a platform of change. Can we promote and relegate? Yes we can!


U2 once sang: “you’ve got to cry without weeping, talk without speaking, scream without raising your voice.” Although you may not care for the Irishmen’s dated brand of stadium rock, with this they may have a point. What about promotion without true relegation?

The MLS currently has plans to expand to 28 teams. Well if you’re going to have 28 then why not have 30? And fill those two spots with places for the best two D2 teams? Looking at it in today’s terms, give the NASL and USL champions a season up in the MLS. If they win the MLS, let them defend the title with no promotion from their home division that year.

This neatly sidesteps the biggest bone of contention, that existing MLS teams don’t want to give up what they have. Yet D2 teams get a chance to show what they can do. Have a pyramid below D2 and you can still get a Leicester City story of a team climbing the leagues to win the national title. When it comes to more MLS expansion, favor those teams who have done well when they’ve come up.

Sure it’s a big compromise but it’s a start, it’s feasible and scaleable. As people warm to the idea expand it to a system similar to Mexico’s where the team with the worst record over three seasons goes down. Quite a few ideas that mean pro/rel could be eased in. It could work.


Then there is the drastic plan. The biggest, best relegation pitfight you’ve ever seen on Earth.

Take the MLS teams that didn’t make the playoffs. Take the same amount of the best D2 teams by overall record. Each MLS team plays a D2 team. Play out rounds until there is only either one MLS team or one D2 team left. If it’s one MLS team, remaining D2 teams play off for the right to play them for their spot in the MLS. If it’s one D2 team they get to challenge any of the MLS teams for their place.

Gimmiky? Yeah. Complicated? A bit. But BOY is it marketable. All those games and playoffs and drama and analysis? TV company’s wet dream.

We’ll take your pro/rel, do it our way, make it bigger and better and before long you’ll all be doing OUR system!

The point is, there needs to be a discussion on how we make an effective and palatable system because it doesn’t have to be two up and two down. What changes can we make to the European system to make it more accessible to a very different North American market? The best lower league teams DO deserve a shot at going all the way because otherwise it’s not really soccer.

You haven’t lived until you’ve lived through a relegation battle. Throughout history soccer and philosophy have been intrinsically linked. So I’ll leave you with the point of view of one Arthur Schopenhauer.

Life without pain has no meaning.

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