Promotion/relegation advocates often point to these benefits:
- Teams play/work harder to avoid relegation.
- The threat of relegation makes more matches more interesting, which can improve viewership and the stakes of games of the bottom ranked teams.
- Pro/rel attracts more investment, as investors buy 2nd or 3rd tier clubs hoping to win their way into the top division.
While I think all that can help, if I were to say soccer could be 100% better with pro/rel, I think these reasons would make up 10% of that improvement and what makes up 90% gets no attention, even from pro/rel advocates.
I also want to establish that I am in an open pyramid, I would expect that the teams with the deepest pockets to become super teams. I just don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.
American sports leagues have been successful at using special exemptions granted by the legal system to essentially legalize collusion among owners to “protect” themselves from outbidding each other for the best players to build super teams. They sell it to the courts and public as a necessary evil for a sports league to keep the competition more level, but the main purpose is to reduce the bargaining power the best players.
After all, nobody wants the Yankees to win every World Series, do they? Well, that’s what the owners want you and the players to believe, anyway.
They pass this argument off without much push back, even while there are plenty of counter examples of lucrative soccer leagues with perennial, deep pocket powerhouses around the world.
I think that itself deserves some close study. You will find that many soccer fans around the world have a super club favorite or three that they watch on TV and their local favorites that they watch live, which counters the common objection that people will only watch the super clubs.
You will also find that a plethora of competitions have emerged to keep fans interested, even with these powerhouses, and many of these competitions have linked stakes. So, not only do you have the league standings and the relegation zone, but you also have the ability to earn your way into the Champions League or the Europa League based on your league placing. Plus each country tends to have other competitions that run concurrent, like the FA Cup in England. All the while, the players regularly go back and play for their home countries in international competitions. As a fan there’s a lot to look forward to.
So, I think moving to pro/rel would better enable these types of competitions to gain traction. For example, it might be more interesting to watch Seattle Sounders team, not tethered to MLS roster and salary rules, go up against clubs from Liga MX and see how they fare, rather than watch the watered down “evened playing field’ MLS pretend they are true soccer clubs and barely stand a chance (though the MLS is trying to go the other way and take over Liga MX, so they can water down that competition, too, and it appears to be working).
Anyway, I digress. Up to this point, this still only makes soccer in the U.S. 10% better.
So, where’s the other 90% of the benefit?
The pro/rel discussion rarely touches on what an open pyramid could do for grassroots soccer, but I believe that’s where 90% of the benefit would come from.
First, it would connect up parts of soccer culture that are disconnected and work against each other today.
This, in turn, would provide young players and their parents with a clearer view on long-term development, getting multiple times more players on that path much earlier than the disconnected system we have today.
An open pyramid also better propagates best practices AND new practices that work to make better players, teams and coaches.
Our current system has too many isolated bubbles where unproductive practices can persist for too long, including the highest-level, because they get just enough results to fool people into thinking they are onto something. Example: many Americans still hold onto kick-and-run soccer because it works well enough against kick-and-run teams to get results, even though it’s a big reason why US national teams to fare worse against teams that come from the competitive crucibles of open systems. It’s also why the US national team relies heavily on dual nationals who happened to grow up, at least some of the time, in these crucibles.
An open pyramid makes the jobs of our national coaches about 10x easier and gives them 5x better chance of success. But, they may not be the same folks, as the better coaches, like better players, will more naturally rise to the top. Currently, it’s a bit of an old-boys network.
Finally, I think these changes at the grassroots could substantially increase interest in the game, which ultimately is going to be the real driver to viewership of the top league.
Connect the soccer culture
In grassroots soccer we have several disconnected groups, but I will focus on two disconnected groups as an example: club and school soccer.
These are disconnected and unfriendly to each other. During high school soccer seasons, for example, high school players are forbidden by their high school athletic associations from even going to their soccer club to practice or assist coaching a younger team.
To me, it’s madness to have two organizations fighting over the same group of kids and splitting time with them, rather than looking for ways to work together to help these kids become the best they can be.
In countries with an open pyramid, soccer players have a seamless experience from the time they start with the club at around age 8 and have a clear line of sight to what it takes to make the club’s first team in a few years, which is analogous to our varsity school teams, except they tend to sell more tickets.
Young American soccer players don’t get this because of the disconnect between club and school, which is a key reason American soccer players are years behind.
Our youth players are content to be the best on their team at something. Their youth players have close contact with first teamers from a young age and they are striving to become like them. Winning on Saturday becomes less important than players progressing toward becoming the type of player they see at the first team matches.
What is good soccer?
For too many people in the U.S. good soccer is winning soccer. It can be the Bad News Bears against the Bad News Bears (at the beginning of the movie) and people think it’s good soccer because it was a close game and neither side is aware they are Bad News Bears.
Listen carefully and you can hear the miscues of good soccer, when parents dote on their little ones. “They’ve been playing for years.” “He scored 4 goals.” “She’s playing UP an age group.” “They won their division.” “Their coach played college ball.” “They won their division/tournament.” “She’s fast/aggressive/physical.”
The following questions will be met either with blank stares or justifications on why that’s not important.
What skill level are they playing? How’s their touch? Can they keep possession? Can they consistently work with their teammates in planned fashion to to set up scoring chances or defend their goal, or is it more of a random chasing of the ball around the field and luck?
It’s not their fault. It’s the system’s fault. This is exactly what I mean by being isolated in a bubble. Parents and players can make it years into their soccer not having been exposed to good soccer, so these miscues are all they know.
An open pyramid helps because it pops these bubbles. In an open pyramid, you know where your club’s first team at each age level sits within the national or regional pyramid and that feedback gets clubs, coaches and parents more attentive on things that drives toward success.
In our current system, it’s very difficult to figure that out.
Change the top
I feel sorry for the folks who run the national teams, because how they’ve structured soccer in the U.S. makes them work harder, not smarter, in an game they can’t win.
In countries with open pyramids, the open pyramids do the work of sorting out the best coaches and players, through competition. Their federations just need to keep score to find the best players, coaches and styles of play.
In the U.S., it’s like we have music companies that restrict their talent search to Julliard. That sounds logical because Julliard has some very talented folks. But, it misses huge swaths of budding artists that are slogging it out on their own in small venues across the country, while learning to produce things that people want to listen to, rather than just the things that the teachers at Julliard think are good.
A connected pyramid increases interest in lots of ways.
In place of high school varsity teams, you get your local club first team that competes with other nearby clubs, because clubs can make money by getting players under contract and selling those contracts to teams further up the pyramid.
Rivalries build. Interest comes from the youth that have been involved in the club from a young age to adults that grew up in the club and now maybe play Sunday league there and volunteer coach a group of young ones.
As a “supporter” you are a real supporter of the club. You actually pay a club fee and get more than a season ticket to first team matches. You get access to play in the club’s leagues and attend their events. You might have kids playing in the club and you might play there yourself in an adult league. “Supporter” isn’t just a marketing term for season tickets. You are actually IN the club. You might even rent out the club’s facilities for wedding receptions and parties.
Over time, you see kids move from your club to teams further up the pyramid and you watch their careers with interest.
You might develop an affinity for one of the bigger clubs in your area because you happen to know quite a few players on that club and watched them develop at your club.
You also develop an affinity for one of the super clubs in your region, well, because you just appreciate the high quality players they bring in and their desire to kick ass, or do the best they can with their budget.