This article is very well done, and I think it’s spot on with the only available options for how you would (and how we probably will) implement pro/rel in this country but I really find issue with the primary assumption that is being made here: that a rising tide lifts all boats. I find it a pretty metaphor, but lacking.
Take your first two assumptions: that our goals should be to increase the total amount of soccer happening and to improve level of play at all levels. To that I say: maybe? Here’s an alternative: that for some, the goal is to improve the level of play at the top tier of American soccer, which may be at odds with improving it at every level. Here’s another: to encourage the most investment in American soccer, regardless of where it is concentrated. I’m not arguing in favor of those, but I think they’re equally legitimate starting points.
I think that these are legitimate alternatives, because they are in contrast to a claim I heartily disagree with: that “the opportunity to be promoted and the risk of being relegated would serve as incentive for all clubs to invest more.”
That’s not just theoretical. Let’s look at England: income from television is as equitable as any in Europe, and continuing to be more equitable. Yet spending the kind of money that is going to win you the league is antithetical to running a club. At one end you have Arsenal or Tottenham, who can’t afford to spend so much that one year out of the Champions League dooms them to pull a Leeds, and at the other you have Norwich or Bournemouth who can’t afford to spend enough to stay up because of the threat of administration.
It’s been well argued, in fact, that for England to really get investing in youth academies again it would be best served to have its top clubs go ahead and split off into a Super League, tax those clubs for the privilege of taking the history and names with them, and use those funds to develop the youth system. A Football League without the top tier could then provide an alternative for committed fans whose teams would again have a chance for success now that the glory teams have their own thing.
Which brings me to my last point: the idea that what will bring more fans, and therefore more revenue, to the league is more meaningful competition. This is a myth that sports journalists love to spout, but which has no basis in fact. If what you want is more fans, than what you need are names people know. You need dynasties. You need recognizable stars with stories and rivalries that don’t take reading 5,000 word essays to understand. College football can try to make the playoff system more fair, but what would cause ratings to soar more than any system is Notre Dame playing Texas. Most people want to see Yankees-Red Sox even if Cleveland and Toronto are good this year.
I know it doesn’t seem right in sports, but fairness is not what brings casual fans. I want the standard of the game to rise in this country, but I also believe that the standards follow revenue and the revenue follows the audience. I do not believe that the average sports fan will watch Ft. Lauderdale vs. Cincinnati even if you try explain that these teams proved their way into the top level of the sport. In fact — let me rephrase — I believe that the average sports fan will stop paying attention if you have to explain pro/rel to them just to watch a game. The structure of the system is a way of life in Europe, and I simply don’t know that we have 100 years to get there here.