On Monday there were shock waves sent through MLS and the entirety of US Soccer when a multi-billion dollar offer to the league was made public. Sports Business Journal reported that international media company MP & Silva offered to pay $4 billion to MLS for their worldwide television rights deals over a ten year period as soon as their current contracts with Fox, ESPN, and Univision expire. Right now MLS only makes less than $100 million a year in domestic rights deals so it would be an enormous cash influx for the league. There’s just one catch…

MLS would have to adopt a promotion-relegation system as seen around the rest of world soccer.

For MLS, it’s a non-starter. Given MLS’s hardline stance against promotion and relegation, this appears to be mostly a headline grabber and a fantasy scenario. Most relevant in the here and now, MLS can’t just go ahead and sign a new rights deal today. The current broadcasters (Fox, ESPN, Univision) have an exclusive negotiating window with MLS when it will become time to renegotiate their contracts in the next decade. Silva could offer $400 billion to MLS but it legally can’t happen until the window with the current rights partners passes.

MP & Silva also have a decisive interest in MLS going that route as Riccardo Silva is an owner for Miami FC of the NASL. He even paid to have the Florida International University football stadium named after him as they host Miami FC home games. There’s no way for Silva and Miami FC to make it to the big leagues of MLS unless a promotion-relegation system exists across the US Soccer pyramid. It’s also not a coincidence that a study put forward by Silva says that promotion-relegation would be beneficial for the whole of US Soccer.

Of course, there is some truth in that. And those in favor of the USA adopting promotion and relegation are just as fervent in their stance as MLS is in their stance.

Stepping back from those entrenched positions, there has to at least be some intrigue from MLS here, doesn’t there? I mean, we’re talking a quadrupling of their rights fees. Four. Billion. Dollars. And sure, that money would have to be spread over the entirety of the pyramid, but that sudden cash windfall can’t be overlooked.

Imagine what American soccer teams could do with a few extra hundred million dollars lying around. Could it be put to signing more top quality players? Improving the depth of quality not just across MLS, but the NASL and USL as well? Would adopting a promotion-relegation system make MLS more attractive (and thereby more profitable) on the world stage to players and investors?

And then there are the traditional arguments in favor of promotion and relegation. It makes the regular season more exciting from top to bottom. While every other sport has to address issues of tanking and games between teams at the bottom of the standings not meaning anything, the threat of relegation adds a sense of urgency to every single regular season game. I’d imagine at some level that would make MLS’s television partners more interested as the league looks for any and every way possible to raise its beleaguered television ratings. A billion dollar rights deal like this could also boost NASL or USL as those games (with spots in the top division on the line) would become infinitely more important. Imagine following a long-time MLS team like the Chicago Fire or Columbus Crew in the lower leagues as they try to fight their way back to the top.

But therein lies the reason why promotion and relegation is still far away across the horizon. MLS teams and owners don’t want to risk the threat of dropping down a division. They don’t want to risk leaving MLS and heading to the USL or NASL, where the average attendance is 25% of the top league. Then there is the reality that prospective MLS owners aren’t forking over $150 million in expansion fees with the threat of relegation even as a remote possibility.

MLS, as a single entity, has been built first on the survival of its franchises and then the growth of the league. That’s been the lesson learned from past boom and bust efforts to make professional soccer a staple of the American sports scene. And with a promotion-relegation system suddenly thrust upon teams, owners, and fanbases, the unknowns of those risks are front and center of the minds of MLS. Given the different rules and regulations across the board, you would have to rebuild the entire US Soccer pyramid almost from scratch.

Fans may want promotion and relegation, but do they want a world of free spending and no salary cap with it? Do they really want MLS and US Soccer to look like England or Spain where just a handful of teams (aside from Leicester’s miracle) have a realistic chance of winning the championship? Then there’s the question of what would happen to the club and the fanbase for the first MLS team that gets relegated? Would fans of DC United show up to games if they were playing Indy Eleven instead of NYCFC? Even with the guarantee of parachute payments and TV rights, it’s impossible to predict the widespread impact.

It’s fun to play the what-if game with promotion and relegation. Could it be the switch that needs flipped to grow the game and make the league more relevant, especially with televised regular season games? Could it be something that drives interest in the pro leagues across America? Is it the pathway towards making MLS more competitive with major leagues around the world? Perhaps, but there are so many obstacles to it that even billions in rights fees can’t quickly overcome.

Right now the biggest obstacle is the willpower of MLS itself. Don Garber and the league have built MLS on the model of American professional sports rather than world soccer. Their single entity system and quickened pace of expansion to 28 teams runs counter-intuitive to a traditional promotion-relegation system. Simply put, the dream of MLS is to be the soccer version of the NFL rather than the American version of the EPL.

About Matt Yoder

Award winning sportswriter at The Comeback and Awful Announcing. The biggest cat in the whole wide world.

  • Edward Greene

    Couple things I would say. Miami FC could become part of MLS through expansion. Raleigh and Charlotte (and other cities) recently hosted MLS officials trying to get new teams in town. I believe it would be similar to what happened with the Minnesota team. Second, the offer wouldn’t be ‘quadruple’ the current deal; it would be quadrupled and then another 10x on top of that (100 million to 4 billion), or quadragintuple times the current deal. Lastly, if teams were very concerned about relegation (and I believe that’s a very big and real issue in a still nascent league) having an extra billion dollars to supply as parachute payments like the EPL does for teams might mitigate some of that resistance.

    • Mark Meckstroth

      No saying it quadruples the current tv rights deal is correct. The MLS currently gets $100 million per season or $1 billion over 10 years. The proposed deal would be $400 million per season or $4 billion dollars over 10 years.

      • Gazza_55

        No. Quadruples is Not correct. MLS and SUM make much more from media rights than $100m per season. Also, 20% of the $4b Silva proposes is for the lower leagues. This is a non-starter. MLS wouldn’t even consider this until the offer is at least tripled.

  • DC

    “Then there is the reality that prospective MLS owners aren’t forking over $150 million in expansion fees with the threat of relegation even as a remote possibility.”

    This is the reason why MLS (and pretty much any other league in the US, no matter what the sport… seemingly even up and coming sports like lacrosse or Ultimate) won’t implement a prom/rel system within their sport (not even a “Regional prom/rel” system… which realistically is what would need to be done in a country as large as the U.S…. everywhere else P/R is done are in countries the size of Montana…. you can’t have a system when you are trying to replace Portland, OR with Charlotte, NC… eventually you get a league that isn’t geographically balanced, and is too regionally focused for a national TV partner… you don’t have those worries in countries that are much, much more compact.) In the U.S., it is all about owning the team in the “Top league”…. you aren’t paying hundreds of millions of dollars to have a “AAA” team, no matter what the sport.

    I guess my main question would be… I understand how prom/rel cam into being decades ago, in small land mass countries, with a pre-mass media world and owners who were more invested in the team than the “business”, came into being. I am wondering though how it is still in place, with now teams owned by people who, I would assume, wouldn’t be very happy if their team fell from the “A” league to the “B” league. I admit I don’t know the intricacies of European soccer leagues, so, interested in hearing replies.

  • TonyV123

    Why couldn’t you have a pro/rel system and still keep your playoffs? Hell if you wanted to North Americanize it you could have your top 16 teams make the playoffs and your bottom six (I’m pretty sure still 22 teams in MLS) in a round robin format with the bottom three teams at the end being sent down). You could conceivably have a last place team playing to a packed house knowing that the season is on the line.

    Someone would argue travel given that this would just be 16 teams in a playoff not broken down by conference, but in 2017, I think the travel argument is severely overated, especially since you’d likely be playing home and away and not on back to backs, so plenty of time for rest.

    USL crowds aren’t great, but just like any league I think the top teams are going to still draw and those MLS teams aren’t going to lose many fans if they are winning soccer games. Plus, as Edward Greene points out… there’s going to be some extra money floating around that can ease the pain of everyone just a little bit.

    The biggest hurdle to me would be the draft… because it’s conceivable that the 16th best team was worse than the top team of the USL, but them’s the breaks.

    • DC

      Playoffs have nothing to do with the issues Tony… it is what I stated below…. a combination of how Top Tier U.S. leagues are created (financially), and also the geography of the U.S. vs. European country leagues (although you could do a regional replacement system as I stated), although, you also have a market size issue…. US TV Networks are not going to invest a TV contract in an MLS that could lose NY, LA and Chicago in 3-5 years and be replaced with Buffalo, OKC and Indianapolis. Of course, I guess to an extent I am “wrong”, since we are talking about at least this person wanting to give MLS $4B TO do prom/rel…. whether he could make that work long term in the U.S. though is questionable.

      For whatever reasons, European leagues don’t have these issues/concerns, for a variety of reasons.

      • TonyV123

        Honestly, I swear I read something about playoffs this afternoon. This article clearly did not mention playoffs, though that is something that people against pro/rel usually go to.

        One point I did not emphasize that I do feel is needed is more time. I think this could work down the road but not now.

        To your one question about how it works… I’m not sure if you’ve had the pleasure of experiencing a sporting event in Europe but the fan bases are typically extremely loyal. Whether it be soccer, hockey, or games like hurling or handball… The fans love their teams. I think that’s part of why it works so well because you’re going to be sad your team is relegated but as soon as that next season starts, you’ll be there cheering them on. I’m sure that someone from Europe could prove me wrong, but in my travel experience the passion Europeans have for their teams is unparalleled and they’ll stick with them no matter what… At least more so than in North America where your team is out of playoff spot and arenas are half empty.

  • This offer is suspicious to say the least.

  • Shawn Diiorio

    Half the clubs in MLS would go bankrupt if they were relegated right now. Pro/rel will not work at this time, credit MLS for realizing this. Maybe in 30-40 years after clubs are established it could work, but to take that kind of risk on at this point is a terrible idea. MLS is smart to stay away from promotion and relegation, at least for a few more decades.

  • Dale Moog

    What teams would be moving up NASL or USL. AS a newer Us Soccer fan I do not know the pecking order of the second tier Also could you merge the lower tiers creating a larger pool. I Also Waht about the Canadian Teams in MLS is their an impact to the Canadian teams. the questions over this are huge and I do not think the model would work now in North America.

  • Unak78

    I’m not sure that MLS is ready for pro/rel, but it’s a common fallacy to say that the system inevitably leads to leagues like the EPL where a few teams have a chance. Just look at Mexico, they have pro/rel and a fair bit of parity on par with MLS. What do they have in common? PLAYOFFS. That has more to do with parity than pro/rel.

  • Nuri abdil

    MLS is loosing the ratings war while they’re on ESPN to Cornhole which was on ESPN2. This is not a joke. Look the ratings up yourself. What does MLS have to loose honestly? I honestly don’t see how this league is going to survive without a “Better” TV contract. Just yesterday they were showing the International Cup which,btw is preseason garbage yet they still TROUNCE MLS TV ratings. What will happen to TV money when Cord-cutting becomes a BIG factor? What will happen when ESPN goes after the EPL’s new US deal? MLS never really wants to answer critical questions. If I’m a fan i’d be worried about the league’s vision. Is being 3rd most watched soccer league in your own country lucrative?