Franchise vs Clubs – The Future of Pro Soccer in the U.S.

When speaking with a colleague recently about the future of the MLS and what that might look like come 2025, we made a few observations that clarify the unique environment that the sport has to operate within here in America.

The one that really stuck a chord was that of the franchise vs club structure and how this could be one of the biggest impediments to sustainable growth for clubs and the ongoing issue of promotion and relegation.

With the MLS/WPS going down the NFL inspired franchise system the real power resides with the League itself and teams are (sometimes) created solely to be an MLS franchise with no history or links to the community.

The MLS has its critics in this department but until the sport is rooted in Americas sporting culture we must all work together off the pitch (clubs/MLS/WPS/US Soccer & supporters) to create enough support so that soccer can become self-sufficient and potentially move away from this model in the future.

Promotion and relegation under the current model is doomed to failure as protecting the integrity and value of franchises will be paramount. Only when the clubs have the power can this truly work. We will expand upon this issue at a later date.

It is important that we start to have a grassroots discussion about the merits of franchises vs club owned structures and the prevailing issues that will help us answer them in the future.

  • Should the MLS go through a phase of consolidating its structure once it hits 20 teams?
  • Should the MLS/WPS begin to identify future expansion areas with already established clubs and help them grow into future MLS/WPS teams?
  • Should our pro leagues invest more time into possible expansion teams that already have a local history and established links within their community rather than a perceived potential (e.g Las Vegas)?
  • Should there be a future planning document/policy produced for the MLS (and made public)?

The final point is the most interesting suggestion we had. If this was to occur it would provide not only transparency but also a clear vision for the sport to follow. Saying the MLS will be a world class league in 2020 is too vague. Also, any document of this nature has opportunities for clubs, supporters etc to provide feedback which will provide confidence and accountability to the future directions of the sport.

Soccer will always be a part of the sporting mix due to the framework of corporate sports, but if it is to realize its potential and form a competitive stance to really challenge the dominant positions of the ‘big four’ then looking at established clubs who can prove to the MLS/WPS that they are ready for the transition to the elite is the most logical step forward.

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3 thoughts on “Franchise vs Clubs – The Future of Pro Soccer in the U.S.

  1. Great article on a necessary component of any shift to the free market system that distinguishes global soccer from tightly controlled business model that NFL employs. It’s a point all too often gets lost in the shuffle.

    Completely agree with the premise that in order to make promotion and relegation possible, we must lose the entitled cartel approach that MLS is wed to, and move towards independent clubs at every level. Disagree that any entitled cartel is more inclined to break up the more support – and cash – it gets. See OPEC.

    Plenty of evidence, including a century of closed soccer league collapses, lends credence to the theory that the cloistered NFL/NBA pro-sports model does not transfer to an open international club game. Prerequisites for the relative success of our model are insulation from international competition, and/or wide acknowledgment that leagues are best in the world. This model was never used to build a league from the ground up. It has had some success in making existing dominant sports league more profitable for owners.

    It is producing neither the highest possible quality D1 nor a vibrant set of lower divisions that mark successful pyramids around the world. Sir Alex Ferguson said the end of relegation in the EPL would be suicide for lower division clubs. I think it’s fair to say the lack of relegation in MLS hurts ours.

    Perhaps the fact that MLS persistently lags behind the growth curve of the sport in the US is another indicator that we may have a system in place that protects one league from failure, but doesn’t move us any closer to realizing the full potential and quality of professional soccer – or move the USMNT forward.

    It will take a independent federation step in and implement the policies that move us to the promotion and relegation system that the rest of the world employs and enjoys. This is happening in Australia and South Korea right now.

    Of course, we don’t have one. A man who is paid by an MLS/NFL owner sits atop US Soccer. The MLS commissioner pays lip service to promotion and relegation, but says implementation is a lifetime away.

    A common argument against the imposition of promotion and relegation on the US Soccer pyramid is “wait for it to make financial sense for MLS owners”. It’s an absurd argument. It doesn’t make financial sense for the owners of any entitled monopoly to give up their market control. The ability to exist above open competition is worth its weight in gold. No matter how far the US club game falls from reaching its potential…. MLS accountants will insist that owners to cling – white knuckled – to their franchise entitlements.

    It’s going to take a independent federation to break that grip, whether it happens in this lifetime or the next. It’s going to require a major US Soccer policy switch to get us there, whether we support the current system or not.

    We’ll get there when supporters demand that MLS cronyism is replaced by a level playing field – and not a second sooner.

    • Gazza says:

      It will never make ‘financial sense’ to impose pro/rel. It is a dumb idea and belongs in the dustbin. Name the successful pyramids around the world Tinfoil Teddy? Maybe Germany and the Budesliga …. but that’s it. All the other have zero competitive balance, crippling debt etc.
      Why would anyone copy that?

  2. Plus one for Gazza’s comments.

    I knew this post would draw in Mr. Westervelt and his usual lines, interesting as they are they unfortunately deal in reality and realpolitik about as much as the latest issue of Daredevil or X-Men. For all Ted’s pretty words, there’s as much evidence that North American investors would buy into a North American pro/rel league as there is that aliens landed in Roswell. The foreign teams owned by Americans are mega-giants with minute (practically non-existant) chances of ever going down. When there are American or Canadians (or hell, non-Europeans at all) lining up to bring Stevenage Borough or Nocerina into the top flights of their respective countries you give me a call.

    Future expansion in MLS will depend on the following: do you have a stadium situation that’s acceptable, an already-existing fanbase or potential fanbase, and deep-pocketed ownership? Welcome to the league. These criteria have served the league well, while fly-by-night clueless operations like the entire AC St. Louis debacle or FC New York no-hopers are kept out. They’re obviously targeting markets with soccer history and support like Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver. If the Charlestown Battery could find an investor, they’d probably be next.

    All of that being said, beyond the league’s interest in a second NY team, Commissioner Garber has said that expansion isn’t on the front burner anymore as an issue unless a positive situation came up- so the conversation is sort of moot.

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