Sunday, July 17, 2011

Ferguson: MLS should have promotion-relegation

Following Manchester United's 4-1 victory over the New England Revolution at Gillette Stadium, Sir Alex Ferguson told the press that a system of promotion and relegation in MLS would help develop soccer in the United States.

The game kicked off Manchester United's U.S. tour and the 2011 Herbalife World Football Challenge, which showcases some of the world's top clubs in friendly matches across the United States.

"I look at the States as incredible potential," said Sir Alex Ferguson. "The potential is that you’ve got young kids throughout the country – millions – playing soccer, but how long? College football, college soccer, there’s nowhere for it to go, so until you get a league that relegates, and the soccer leagues from MLS straight down, so that young kids in the leagues and schools can go to different types of leagues depending on their abilities.

They have it in England, they have it in Germany, they have it in France and then they got the relegate system so that it enables all kids to have an opportunity like … going up to school. Once they get that, then the league gets stronger."

Although promotion-relegation is an excellent incentive for teams to improve and invest, one major obstacle to that system in the U.S. is that MLS club owners pay a high fee to operate an MLS club. Recent franchise fees were approximately $40 million and future expansion franchise fees are rumored to be as high as $80 million.

Another issue is the League's salary cap, which restricts how much an individual club can spend for the purpose of establishing parity throughout MLS. The designated player rules, which originated with David Beckham, have relaxed the cap slightly for club owners who desire a more competitive club with one to three expensive players. However, club fees to purchase a designated player are distributed to the MLS clubs without a designated player in order to retain league parity. Obviously, clubs paying those designated player fees are not pleased to see their money paid to clubs not investing or attaining the same level of quality and essentially weighing MLS down.

On the plus side, the United States already has two lower leagues that theoretically could cooperate in some kind of promotion-relegation system with MLS. The United State's second division, the North American Soccer League (NASL), operates eight teams without a salary cap and the third division, USL PRO, operates a 12-team league.

The machinations of getting these leagues to work together would be very complex and likely fraught with litigation. D2 and D3 team owners would balk or be unable to pay the high franchise fee should they be promoted and MLS clubs would be hard pressed to part with their invested franchise fee should they be relegated.

Should MLS elect to split into a higher and lower division, the extensive travel issues would be aggravated and local rivals perhaps separated.

Ferguson broaches the travel issue

Ferguson touched lightly on the issue of travel, a serious issue with players, team expenses and broadcasters.

"There’s no question that it’s take off, soccer, here – that’s absolute no doubt about that," said Ferguson. "And you’re getting some good crowds for the games now. I think that I would say that there will be big decisions on how to lay the line, i.e. the travel, maybe split the country into different leagues, something like that. For the United States to do that, I think would make for far better competition and bring more teams into the soccer."

Splitting the vast United States into two geographically divided top leagues, as opposed to conferences, is an equally complex issue. On the plus side, it would relieve some of the travel expenses and time zone broadcasting issues, and would improve local rivalries with the increased familiarity. Reduced travel would also make the League more attractive to foreign players who are accustomed to mostly busrides to and from games.

However, the obstacles in dividing the League are far too great at this time. First, with the exception of the New York Red Bulls and the Philadelphia Union, the Western Conference is far superior to the East and responsible for drawing crowds to the Eastern stadiums. Second, the broadcasters' efforts to improve ratings and draw sponsors would likely be slashed with decreased audiences, now narrowly garnered from steadfast fans across the U.S.

Ferguson on soccer in the U.S: 'It's taken off'

Ferguson's candid comments add healthy fuel to the various debates as to how the MLS should grow. The League increasingly attracts world-wide attention, which is a very good thing and positive indicator of its success.

"I’ve noticed an improvement last year when we came across," said Ferguson. "[It's] added more teams, a bigger league and I think that it’s a far, far bigger project in terms of soccer throughout the country. It’s taken off."

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