Dempsey sees both sides of promotion-relegation debate

MLS president Mark Abbott said Tuesday that promotion and relegation will never happen in MLS, while Clint Dempsey sees the pros and cons of the widely used format.
PORTLAND, Ore. — As Major League Soccer moves toward continued rapid expansion, and prepares to increase to 21 teams next season, one topic that league officials don’t spend much time discussing is promotion and relegation.

While a small segment of the American soccer fan base has clamored for MLS to adopt the same promotion-relegation format used by most of the world’s top soccer leagues, MLS officials have long downplayed the possibility of ever adopting such a format.

On Tuesday, MLS soccer president Mark Abbott didn’t hesitate when asked if promotion-relegation was a format that we could see in the United States.

“I would say it never happens,” Abbott told reporters. “The last time I got to stand in for (MLS commissioner Don Garber) was an APSE thing years ago and I said the same thing then.”

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The idea of promotion-relegation is common in world soccer, but doesn’t exist in American sports. With MLS charging anywhere from $50 million to $100 million for expansion fees, it is difficult to imagine the league ever seriously considering the practice.

For Seattle Sounders and U.S. national team star Clint Dempsey, promotion-relegation is something he became very familiar with during his time in the English Premier League. Now back in MLS, Dempsey acknowledges that, while he likes some things about promotion-relegation, he doesn’t really see it being a possibility in the USA.

“If you ask me at different times I think differently about it. I like the idea of promotion and relegation in terms of any team can make something of themselves and move up and play at the highest level possible, like a Cinderella story," Dempsey told Goal USA in an exclusive interview.

“What I don’t like about it is the way it changes how things are, and even though it’s business, it makes it even more cutthroat. When you’re playing, it’s always stress because if the team gets relegated then you’re not going to be playing in the best league, you’re going to be playing down a league. It’s going to affect people’s wages. It could affect that club in terms of what the future holds because they’ll have to sell some players and try to keep some players because you’re missing out on the money from TV deals.

“I can see reasons why both are good and both are bad, but I think the stress it adds to it can sometimes take away from the fun of the game. That’s coming from a kid’s perspective where you grow up and just play for the enjoyment. You try to find that balance of playing for the enjoyment and the love of the game, but at the end of the day it’s also a business, and cutthroat. There’s also that loyalty issue between clubs being loyal to players and players being loyal to clubs.”

Dempsey’s opinion on the promotion-relegation format changes regularly, but he makes it clear he doesn’t see it being able to work in the USA.

“I think it would be difficult because if you look at how they’ve structured the league, it’s similar to the way other sports leagues have been structured in the USA,” Dempsey said. “People buy into those franchises, and if they feel they can’t progress them then they sell them and the new person tries and takes it in their own direction.

“The way business is done in the States, and in terms of how the leagues are set up, that’s just not a model you see going on in the States, and I think a lot of these owners would be nervous of taking it into that direction. Then they have a risk where they buy into ($20 million to $50 million) and you have the possibility of losing that team, and if you don’t bring them back up then how much money is your team worth then?"

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