For those of you that don't follow international soccer, aka, football/futbol, the top leagues in the world, most notably the European top leagues: English Premier League (EPL), Bundesliga (Germany), La Liga (Spain) and Serie A (Italy) for example all practice the system of relegation and promotion of their clubs.
What this means is, if you are a minor league club and you happen to have a good season, usually over the course of a few solid seasons, you will get rewarded by being promoted to the big leagues, literally, the same way a minor league prospect does in baseball. Only in this instance its the entire team.
If it sounds confusing it should to MLS and U.S. born soccer fans as they are one of a few countries—with Australia and Canada being others—that do not use this practice in any of their major sports, but most notably soccer.
Reasons why relegation or promotion wouldn't work in U.S. sports
The problem with this in the U.S. is the minor league systems in a given sport are so far less than the major sport that this would be counter-productive.
It's far easier to keep the Pittsburgh Pirates in Major League Baseball where they can continue to under-achieve and be the butt of all jokes than to actually replace them with a minor league team that may actually do better.
Another reason it doesn't work in the U.S. is we don't crown just one champion in the minor leagues for a given sport, as we have several different leagues (e.g. the International League, the Pacific Coast League in minor league "Triple A" ball).
We don't just have them play head to head and give them them one overall champion the same way "Serie B" does for football in Italy as their second division.
Because we don't crown just one champion, we can't just promote the Columbus Clippers who won the International League title in 2010 to the Major Leagues to replace the Pirates, a perpetually terrible team, because of the fact we don't crown an overall champion.
American sports fans would find it confusing following where their beloved team went even if it was the Pirates or Royals (just so I don't get accused of singling out the Pirates) if suddenly they weren't a major league team because of their years of ineptitude.
We would see massive PNC Park sit nearly vacant (I can hear the "What's the difference from now?" jokes already) if suddenly they were a member of the International League and not the Major Leagues.
They have a hard enough time selling tickets for their pseudo Major League games whose attendance would suffer all the more if they were literally a minor league market, if only temporarily, as soccer clubs are often the time.
Finally, international leagues don't rely on the college level as a substitute the same way American sports do.
For instance, if you want to watch soccer in Italy, Serie A or Serie B is the place to go. Why would you go any lower? Fans are so passionate there that why would they even care to follow anything else?
Which players in their right mind would agree to play on a team or a manager coach it when he knew no one would watch because the informed fans knew the talent was so void?
For those of you familiar with international structures and are still able to follow my argument/logic not only Bravo! but I know what you are thinking "You've missed an obvious developmental level" but I've got it covered.
What you are likely referencing is the U-leagues, i.e. the U-14, U-16-U-18 and so on. This is about as close as it gets in the soccer world to what truly amounts to minor leagues since these are literal minors and there is no chance of their clubs being promoted like in the case of Serie B.
The "U" quite basically stands for "Under" and the number behind it is the age limit of the kids involved in that group (league) so "U-19" allows kids on these teams which comprise this league "the U-19" league, who are under-19 years of age. These are basically the "stars of tomorrow" league the same way one might view an All-Star game or prep watch list in the U.S.
In addition to the lack of collegiate comparable teams like we see in the U.S. is since soccer is often the only show in town for an entire country that is so far and away above anything else athletically in that country, by the time you are 15 you are very likely on one of those U-teams which is basically a fast-track to the national football team if the player is worth anything, in the given country.
Again I'll use Italy as an example. Why would he play soccer at a collegiate level, say at the University of Bologna (aka Universita di Bologna) if he was good enough he'd already be playing for a U-team and soon the Italian National Soccer team (the one that competes in the staggered World Cup or European Championships every four years)?
Applying relegation in MLS
Typically how relegation (demotion) works is the three worst teams from a given league are relegated down a level to the top division two league in that same country, called the second division.
At the same time the three best teams from this second division will be promoted to the big league but they will be under intense pressure to perform because they know the fate that awaits them should they fail to meet expectations, that being a return right back where they were which is where no one wants to be of course.
In real-world application terms, the three worst MLS teams right now that would be relegated down if the season ended today would be (based on their records): Chivas USA, the Chicago Fire, and FC Dallas thanks to their last place showings in the current MLS standings which are called a table in international competition and to the rest of the world.
As you can imagine fans and these clubs take this very seriously.
It should come to no one's surprise that these three clubs are showing some of the poorest attendance at the gate and it wouldn't surprise if Chivas USA in particular ceases to exist soon if they don't turn it around soon.
They simply cannot afford another apathetic season especially when you have not only the L.A. Galaxy doing so well in the market they share.
So okay, Chivas, Chicago, and Dallas are temporarily gone. Who takes their place? For this answer one would look at the NASL table (North American Soccer League) who just revamped their format as the second-tier league in the U.S. soccer pyramid.
Think of them as the American version of Italy's Serie B). The talent doesn't compare but its the best they have so work with me here).
In this league, the Portand Timbers, Vancouver Whitecaps, and Montreal Impact are all former members of this league with Montreal actually finishing its last season now before going to MLS permanently next season.
If these teams sound familar they should, not only were they all original 1970's members of the original NASL, but Portland and Vancouver are current MLS clubs who bear the same historic names. It's all part of the unique emphasis on history that MLS utilizes (more on that in a future article) moreso than any other sport, certainly that the U.S. can offer.
Think of this as de-facto promotion, only unlike any other model in the world, no matter how bad they do, none of these three MLS clubs will ever go back down to NASL unless MLS were to fold and these soccer-mad markets would have to find someplace to go.
Nothing against Chicago, Chivas, or Dallas but wouldn't it be more exciting in a sport that could use some publicity and uniqueness that no other American sport offers than the speculation leading up to the embarrassing relegation of a club at the end of the season?
Imagine the SportsCenter coverage this new state-side concept would bring?
By having a few recognizable clubs like Chicago or Chivas down in the lower divisions, they would instantly bring credibility and coverage to those leagues whereas now these leagues are being ignored since we aren't forced to hear about them because they are irrelevant and don't compare.
It would expand the product and create a wider fan base. The reason soccer or any other league can't do this in the U.S. is the inferior product our minor league systems provide compared to the top level as well as the money disparity involved.
The Detroit Lions would be an Arena League team, and the Minnesota Timberwolves would be playing in the NBA D-League to which naysayers would agrue they are on nightly basis already.
Benefits of promotion and relegation
Promotion and relegation demands excellence and accountability as well as bringing intrigue amid speculation of who could be next to be rewarded or punished. Relegation would cause temporary markets to be lost yet new markets to be gained as they would constantly be in-flux.
Can you imagine the buzz if the Indianapolis Indians, the Triple-A team of the Pittsburgh Pirates, were suddenly slated to be a big-league market thanks to their success on the diamond and in the International League this season?
Suddenly Indianapolis is a Major League market, and suddenly Indiana, a state which otherwise will never get an MLB team, has one.
Think of the marketing possibilities, think of the coverage, think of the buzz. On the other hand, Pittsburgh would officially be a minor league market that next season.
If you are asking how the fans and players involved handle the fluid situation, I can only answer they know no other way so they are used to it as status quo. Could this system ever work in American sports? An interesting thought indeed.
Information and references from ESPN.com, Wikipedia, and MLS Soccer.com directly contributed to the content of this article.