During this year’s MLS Cup, the most talked about aspect of the game on social media had little to do with the thrilling finish or the fitting end to Landon Donovan’s career. It was a banner flown over the stadium that read, “US SOCCER PROMOTION-RELEGATION NOW!”
— Pablo Maurer (@MLSist) December 8, 2014
Unless you are completely unaware, the lack of promotion and relegation in American soccer has been a sore sport for many, as it is custom in every other country playing soccer in the world.
Through a coincidence, my recent post on a hypothetical relegation league for the NFL drew the attention of Ben Fast, who just happened to be the man behind the now-legendary MLS Cup banner.
This week, I interviewed Ben (@bwfast) about his motives and whether promotion/relegation is realistic here.
Q: When did you come up with the idea for the banner at the MLS Cup?
A: During the 2014 MLS regular season, some Colorado Rapids fans flew an air banner against their ownership that read "YOU HAVE WRECKED OUR CLUB KSE & HINCHEY OUT!"
I saw some buzz on Twitter about it and the air banner idea stuck in my head as a viral way to get a message across. During the MLS conference finals, the idea came to my mind as the MLS Cup final site was narrowed to LA or Seattle. I started researching options and getting quotes for banners in both cities. LA has some great deals.
Q: What goal did you hope to accomplish? Do you think you did?
A: I know that promotion-relegation is one of the two or three most popular topics in American soccer today, so it made sense to utilize the stage to bring the message of opening the pyramid further in to public consciousness. I addressed the banner to U.S. Soccer because opening the pyramid is a USSF issue, not an MLS one.
I was certain that many people would take picture tweets and make the message go viral. I've heard it calculated that ten million people were reached with my banner message over Twitter alone. I am not sure how to calculate that, but I wouldn't doubt it. It definitely increased conversation on the topic and energized those who are openly advocating for an open pyramid.
Q: Why do you so strongly support promotion/relegation in American soccer?
A: I love American soccer and I am passionate about seeing the USA be one of the greatest soccer countries in the world on both the club and international scene. I believe that an open pyramid is the most efficient way to spur player and club development that can rival the global "gold standard" context.
Also, I am passionate about the game of soccer and I believe that inclusiveness and opportunity that an open pyramid promotes and provides is part of soccer's essence. It is quite easy to argue in favor of free markets. It works in business, so why not soccer?
Q: What do you make of people that have surmised the strong support for promotion/relegation is actually hurting the cause, by making the MLS dig in their heels?
A: MLS has a monopoly on U.S. Soccer's Division 1. They are thoroughly content in a position of closed-market, single-entity D1 irrelevancy in a country which has millions of passionate soccer fans. Based off of internet traffic, TV ratings, and attendance, MLS is falling off the pace in comparison to foreign soccer leagues in terms of popularity in the USA. Through marketing arrangements via their MLS marketing arm (Soccer United Marketing, or SUM), the MLS D1 monopoly is selling off American market potential to imported soccer friendlies that parade through our country on a regular
But yes, I believe that sparking conversation and asking questions is the best way to bring reform, even if the questions are uncomfortable.
Q: In theory, how would you like to see promotion/relegation work in America?
A: Two separate pyramids, east and west. They could meet at Division 1 in some sort of conference crossover. The pyramids would probably go down at least 8-10 tiers. I could see states like California hosting dozens of D1 capable clubs. The arms race that would take place in an open U.S. soccer market would be obscene.
Q: In practice, how do you think it could be achieved? Would MLS take the lead? Would USSF have to?
A: Opening the pyramid is a U.S. Soccer Federation decision. MLS is free to choose not to participate. Leagues don't have pro/rel, federations do.
Q: Do you think promotion/relegation will happen in American soccer? If so, in how many years?
A: More soccer crazy people in the USA need to start caring about the domestic game. Part of that is due to "old country" roots and loyalties, which I understand. Another critical part is educating the average American soccer fan. I was once ignorant about the closed, limited U.S. pro soccer market we have in place. I ran in to the conversation on Twitter, thought about it for myself, and I came to a simple conclusion that the free-market soccer model used around the world is the best option for soccer competitiveness.
Q: Finally - promotion/relegation is never discussed for other sports. Should it? Or do you believe it is uniquely suited to soccer?
A: It is only critical in soccer because soccer is a global market for talent. Talent is most efficiently produced in a merit-based, on-field system of talent sorting. When we match the U.S. pay-to-play, coach decision development system versus the world's merit based model, the U.S. falls woefully short. I think promotion-relegation would certainly help the other isolated American sports if used.
Can you imagine how many Damian Lillard or Stephen Curry types would emerge in basketball in a promotion/relegation merit-based system?
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