Yes, Twitter has 280 characters now, but that’s still not enough to get to the nuances here. Just be glad I’m not doing the “pro/rel zealots (PRZ) share the same callous attitudes toward athletes as the oligarchs in Rollerball” post.
Before I get into this, I’ll have to sum up once more:
- No, I’m not “anti” promotion/relegation. I just see practical issues that make it difficult to implement at the top level in the USA at the moment. I see no practical issues limiting our ability to do it at Divisions 2 and 3, and perhaps a well-run league at those levels could attract enough attention that MLS would see the value in making it work.
- I’ve come up with several plans for a full pro/rel pyramid and other opportunities to give lower-division clubs a chance to shine.
- We have a bloody history of pro/rel discussion that inhibits rational planning. Even Peter Wilt, who wrote a pro/rel manifesto and is trying to start a league that would kick-start pro/rel in the lower divisions, is seen by the PRZ as a sellout. (Listen to our podcast interview.) And the main players in the discussion aren’t as easily pigeon-holed as we think — the NASL is improbably held up as a pro/rel standard-bearer, but they’re looking less likely to get it done (even if they somehow convince a judge to accept their appeal to be D2 again next season) than the USL.
- There are pros and cons to pro/rel.
And that brings us to the point here: Promotion/relegation is as likely to be a detriment to youth development as it is to be a positive.
Put another: The evidence that pro/rel — not a deeper soccer culture, not better coaching education — is the driving force behind superior youth development does not outweigh evidence that pro/rel has no effect and may actually limit investment in academies.
Wipe the spit off your laptop, and let’s see why I say that.
Germany: Pro/rel didn’t make Bundesliga clubs form academies. The federation did. Here’s an excerpt from the must-read Das Reboot:
The DFB made it compulsory for the eighteen top teams to build performance centres by 2001–02. ‘It was for their own good, but we had to force them to do it, to an extent,’ recalled Rettig. Money was the main obstacle: ‘How much will it cost? Is that really necessary?’, those were the reactions, says Schott. But there was also some resistance at the ideological level against fostering the elite. ‘Werder Bremen doesn’t want to follow the principle of selection,’ the former SVW general manager Willi Lemke, a Social Democrat politician, said in 1998. ‘We have a social responsibility! We are obliged to provide leisure activities for children.’
England: Dagenham and Redbridge was relegated to the fifth tier — out of the Football League and into the National League — in 2016. First order of business: Move its academy to Category 4, which is a technical way of saying they closed it and now only have apprentices/reserves.
Torquay is a yo-yo club between the fourth and fifth tiers. Its academy has come and gone more than once.
Other academies have closed in recent years: Wycombe, Crawley, Yeovil (since re-opened) and Brentford.
Even in the EPL, Huddersfield has announced it will go to Category 4 as well, and the media wonder how soon other EPL clubs will follow suit. The issue is that the big clubs simply snap up all the best players and make money by loaning them out, while clubs like Brentford grab players who fall out of the big academies.
In the meantime, we’re seeing pay-to-play operations pop up — some charging close to $100 a month (still cheaper than the typical U.S. travel club, of course) — to give players an alternate pathway. (We’re also seeing some hybrid school/training operations that are perfectly happy to send young English players to U.S. colleges.)
Quick digression: Solidarity payments / training compensation
Even this has pros and cons. The same NYT story linked in the last paragraph notes that as a club’s potential financial windfall rises, the system is “effectively handcuffing a boy to a club just when he is free to make his own decisions about his career.”
Other issues are at play in the USA. Would solidarity payments violate child labor or antitrust laws? Did Fraser v MLS include secret provisions that would never, ever allow such payments? And do clubs with no senior-level team qualify for such payments? I don’t know, and I’ve been discussing it with Steven Bank:
Perhaps the USA can make solidarity pay work somehow. It would seem fair, and it would make some money trickle down from the pros to the youth clubs.
But the bottom line is that the solidarity / training comp system doesn’t depend on pro/rel. Canada has no pro/rel, and unless everyone speaking on SiriusXM is wrong (apologies for not having another source at the moment), they participate in the system. The FIFA statutes aren’t always clear, but I certainly didn’t see anything that says “a club that cannot be promoted to its country’s top division is ineligible for training compensation.”
If you’re looking for a pro-pro/rel argument to grasp onto at this point, I have good news. I’ve already made it. Pro/rel can help deepen the soccer culture in this country, and a deeper soccer culture — along with some good investments — might mean our kids’ kids will grow up playing much more pickup soccer and futsal on their way to legitimate youth academies that will have popped up all over the country.
I’ve also made the case that the USA can do promotion/relegation better than England, and upon seeing the clubs ditching their academies upon relegation in more recent research, I’m more convinced this plan has merit. England has an artificial barrier to the number of clubs recognized as “fully professional,” even as fifth-tier clubs pay players and have a couple of full-fledged academies. That’s based on a 92-team “league” limit that exists only because of tradition, not because it makes the game better. If you have more clubs that could make the investment if they stay in the Football League, wouldn’t it be better for youth development if the Football League has more clubs? Maybe a fifth division, maybe two regional fourth divisions?
In the USA, spread over a much larger land mass, that argument carries more weight. If a club in a city of 200,000 people has a strong academy, we don’t want to lose that. Why force that team out of the fully professional leagues?
So for you tl;dr people out there — the preceding 1,000 words establish this: Promotion may indeed bring about better youth development. Relegation can hurt.