Column: There’s $4 billion reasons Major League Soccer should consider adding relegation

By Geoff Baker - The Seattle Times

Imagine a world where the Mariners, through their tortuous years of around 90 or 100 losses from 2010 through 2013, would have faced the prospect of being dropped down to Class AAA.

We used to joke about that back when I covered them. About how a demotion for too much terrible play might have inspired the team’s ownership to try to be more competitive back at a time they were running Adam Kennedy out there as a cleanup hitter.

Anyhow, the concept of relegation is actually quite real in soccer, where leagues in most countries but ours demote poorly performing teams. The subject came up last week when Sports Business Daily reported that Major League Soccer (MLS) a month ago turned down a $4 billion media rights offer that was contingent upon accepting a relegation/promotion system like the rest of the planet.

The 10-year deal would have started in 2023 and be four times what MLS currently earns in media rights — a serious consideration for a league where more money is needed to lure and keep top talent.

It came from the MP & Silva media conglomerate, whose owner, Riccardo Silva, runs a second-tier North American Soccer League (NASL) franchise in Miami. Under the plan, the worst two or three MLS teams would be demoted to NASL, while that lower circuit’s best squads would be promoted.

Silva has been on a mission to introduce relegation here. He paid Deloitte to conduct a survey last fall that showed 88 percent of 1,000 American soccer fans asked would go for it.

The reason Silva wants relegation included in any media deal is simple: It creates a compelling reason for viewers to keep watching bad teams. Just think of it as a Mariners fan back in 2010 when the team was losing 101 games. Would the threat of them playing against the Memphis Redbirds and Round Rock Express come 2011 have kept you glued to the TV during otherwise meaningless games in August and September?

Of course it would have.

And that type of increased interest would, in theory, help sell MLS to viewers not only here, but worldwide.

In turn, the whopping rights fee would help the league attract more international players, get Americans to stick around instead of playing overseas and convince viewers here and abroad that MLS is a force.

So, why did MLS say “no thanks?” Well, that’s also all about big money.

Sure, $4 billion is a lot. But how many of you would buy season tickets to Safeco Field to see the Mariners face AAA opposition? That’s a huge concern for MLS, a league struggling to generate TV numbers and fill stadiums in most markets.

Also, the league is in expansion mode and hoping to charge $150 million a pop to future cities under consideration. The last thing it wants is for prospective owners to balk at that amount because their expansion squad could face relegation if it struggles early.

Not to mention, if a major market team such as the Los Angeles Galaxy ever got relegated, it would be a financial blow to the league as a whole.

Back to the Mariners hypothetical, Major League Baseball doesn’t need relegation. It devised its own way to keep fans interested in sub-. 500 teams back in 2012 by introducing a second wild card entry in each league.

That formula has given playoff hope to markets that had gone years without any. And this year, in a thoroughly mediocre American League, any team sticking close to .500 has its fans thinking they are watching a playoff squad.

It’s driving some general managers nuts as Monday’s trade deadline approaches and fans howl for farm systems to be dealt away for a one-game crapshoot. But in a league where all but three teams last week were within a half-dozen games of the playoffs, what’s to say they can’t qualify?

For MLS, luring fans with an American-style playoff carrot is more palatable than relegation. After all, European soccer leagues don’t use a full-fledged playoff system like MLS does.

A last-place team like the Sounders of 12 months ago could never rally midseason to win a championship in England, or Spain, where titles go to the first-place regular-season finisher.

More than 70 percent of global soccer leagues don’t have playoffs, so they need relegation to keep fans of also-ran teams awake. Our country lets mediocre teams in to the playoffs in every sport.

Still, I’d love for MLS to try relegation. If any league was rife for an experiment, it’s MLS, which has yet to convince mainstream American sports fans to buy completely in to its product.

So, it doesn’t have as much to lose. Not enough to avoid giving $4 billion some serious thought.

For me, it’s more about merit: Rewarding teams that try to get better, while punishing franchise owners that don’t try hard enough.

Sure, baseball’s second wild card has helped convince owners of bad teams to at least strive for .500. But most teams vying for that newer wild card will eventually fade when it counts, yet still benefit from increased TV viewership and ticket sales.

So, the system rewards mediocrity. And it’s not that big a tumble from mediocre to horrible.

We don’t tolerate big prices for mediocre products in other businesses. And a year or two in a lower circuit might be just what some team owners — MLS or otherwise — need to either improve their product, or step aside and let somebody else run the business.


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By Geoff Baker

The Seattle Times