‘Endline’ is a weekly column in which David Martin surveys the NASL landscape for a topic of interest and fires a broadside of opinion. The content below reflects the opinion of the author alone and not that of Midfield Press or other individual staff.
Several weeks ago, we learned that USSF was proposing a change to its Division I minimum standards that would require 15,000-seat stadia, two million minimum populations for 75% of markets, and a minimum of sixteen teams in the league. The prospective changes prompted a backlash from NASL who, through representative Jeffrey Kessler, essentially accused USSF of moving the finish line just as NASL felt they were getting close to crossing it. The cozy relationship between USSF and MLS was highlighted, and the conspiracy theorists needed an extra cup of coffee to keep up with all the dialogue about USSF entrenching MLS’ position as the only top-level game in town.
I’m not big on conspiracies. I feel usually it’s enough to observe and rally against something that is wrong without needing to stir the pot of secret intent and greasy, evil businessmen cackling maniacally behind closed doors. Whether the two parties are conspiring to secure MLS’ throne is irrelevant when a simpler question exists: in an American soccer landscape without promotion and relegation, what is the point of having different tiers of soccer anyway?
One word is used more often than any other in describing the guidelines USSF has set separating Division I, II, and III in this country: arbitrary. Having a D-I tag currently grants you extra opportunities in the CONCACAF Champions League, but otherwise the distinction is currently a nominal one. Kartik Krishnayer has argued persuasively in favor of eliminating the distinctions altogether and allowing the separate leagues to compete freely without the prejudices that come with any given tag. I think he may be right. But if that doesn’t happen, and the status quo reigns as it so often does, would the divisional organization in U.S. soccer keep NASL from achieving its goals?
Let’s clear up two things. First of all, full promotion and relegation – i.e., among all the leagues including MLS – is not going to happen for a long time, if ever. Personally, I don’t think promotion and relegation is right for this country at this time. You can take to the comments to make me aware of the benefits of the model; you’ll shock me if you say something I’m not already aware of. But my belief is that interest in the local flavor of the sport remains too unsteady for many markets to support a top team plunging to a lesser league, and the threat of relegation will cause investors to shy away from the opportunities they might otherwise jump at. We’ve seen a number of European clubs relegated from top leagues only to break under financial turmoil. How much worse might it be for American clubs with smaller, newer fan bases and a hundred other sporting options locally?
Second, not only is the distinction between divisions arbitrary, but it is probably ineffective. Fans and investors aren’t attracted to MLS specifically because it has USSF’s D-I blessing, but because the product looks and smells like a D-I production. If NASL earned D-I sanctioning tomorrow, the average fan would be either unaware of or confused by the distinction. They would look at the product on the field and say “no, this isn’t D-I.” Because those writing and reading about these topics are so close to the game, we forget that the less-invested fans who see a couple of games occasionally or tune in at home passively while talking with friends are not keeping up with these arguments. They instead see a quality of the sport, a stadium facility, or a television broadcast that they either like or do not. Significant investment can improve all of these factors and create increased interest without needing the arbitrary D-I sticker. Even if the D-I label were earned, only further investment would bolster the attractiveness of a club or league. In other words, this isn’t a chicken and egg quandary as some have painted it to be. Investment must come first, and that is equally rewarding and risky regardless of division standing for a less-established brand like NASL.
A great comparison is independent baseball. Currently, Major League Baseball is obviously the top league in the country and in the world. MLB has something similar to promotion and relegation in its minor league systems, only instead of moving teams among the tiers, the teams simply move players among those tiers. But separately, there exist leagues such as the American Association which are entirely separate from the MLB structure and are not designated to languish as a lesser brand by any formal decree. These independent leagues have every opportunity to unseat MLB as the premiere baseball brand in this country. But they do not, because the quality of the product and experience is lesser and the markets less lucrative; such leagues are considered a lesser option because MLB has established itself as the best there is through a long history and successful operation, and not because a separate body has demanded it be so. There is still opportunity to build within these independent leagues: the American Association’s St. Paul Saints built a brand new stadium for the 2015 season, has attracted numerous fans and had wild on-field success. If enough teams did that, the league could start to make a bigger name for itself, even as it is unlikely it would ever unseat an entrenched institution like MLB.
MLS is similarly entrenched due to its work in growing its product and selling itself well. Might there be conflicts of interest between MLS and USSF? Obviously, ones that should be addressed. But that would hardly have been sufficient for MLS to position itself so far ahead of its competition in North America. MLS was born in a relative vacuum, and has emerged from some very rough times to blossom into a strong, marketable product. This isn’t to defend everything MLS has ever done, but to say that it now is where it is and is neither bolstered nor protected by its D-I status. It is a D-I product by its own merit, not by USSF’s decree.
NASL is a new and growing league. It is a relatively healthy league for its age. It has been marred by some ownership snafus and failed team launches, but has just as many success stories in that time. Attendance has exploded over the last five years, and the quality of the product has consistently improved. The league and its fans should enjoy that success. But it has come to the table much later than MLS, and likely will not unseat it without significant upheaval. An appointment to Division I would not be enough to have any meaningful change in perception about the league or its quality. If MLS made some terrible missteps and NASL and its teams made the investments needed to start to look like a top tier project, only then would there be a real competition between the two leagues, and a division realignment might be an outcome, but not a cause, of that sea change.