The ‘USA Soccer is Not Ready for Promotion/Relegation’ Myth

One of the most common responses to the movement for an open, promotion/relegation system in USA soccer is that the nation’s soccer landscape is “not ready yet.” It is natural to look at the extremely unstable USA soccer closed system of today and falsely conclude that there is a lot of preparation work to do before an open system can be implemented, but the “not ready” brigade is looking at the equation completely backwards. Open systems are not a response to closed-system successes, but rather they are a response to closed-system failures (see USA soccer today). The assumption that a closed soccer system is the proving ground for the viability of an open system is just flat out wrong. There is no prerequisite for equal opportunity for all.

All risk with no reward

From a cost-benefit analysis perspective, investors and fans have very little incentive to contribute their time, money, and energy into “making USA soccer ready” for an open system. There is no tangible and realistic return on investment (ROI) opportunity for those contemplating investment into a lower-division soccer economy that is stuck beneath a glass ceiling. If you do well as an individual or club, why does it matter? There is no upward mobility and reward for success. If you win your league (AKA have the best product in the marketplace) you are simply resigned go back and do it all over again the next year. All risk, no upside.

It is absurd to ask people to place a bet when the odds are stacked 100% against them. A few outlier people and clubs are willing to take this sort of plunge in the closed USA soccer lower divisions of today, but we should not expect a majority of constituents to undertake this almost suicidal “sacrifice of love” in order to produce lower-division vibrancy at a larger scale. USA soccer must introduce open-market incentives that reward hard work and excellence, otherwise, the lower divisions of USA soccer will continue to tread water, with most clubs breaking even or sustaining losses, and dozens of clubs collapsing each year. By its very essence and definition, investment – the “readying” of USA soccer that people are calling for – cannot exist without the presence of potential return on investment.

Closed-system victim blaming

The onus is not on the captives to prove that they deserve freedom, nor is it the responsibility of the disenfranchised to earn the right to a fair chance in their particular ecosystem. USA soccer, and sport as a whole, is a real-world industry just like any other. Tangible consequences of jobs, social opportunity, and increased GDP are at stake. It is not right to dismiss sport as “just a game” or mere entertainment. USA soccer’s closed system is economic, social, and sporting discrimination. We cannot blame people for not being able or willing to participate in the USA soccer ecosystem when U.S. Soccer Federation policy rigs the entire system against them in the first place. Stop blaming victims and start blaming the perpetrators, namely, the USSF governing federation that is supposed to be fighting for all constituents in the USA soccer ecosystem.

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The fraud of the ever-moving “ready for promotion/relegation” goalposts 

What exactly does “ready” for an open USA soccer system look like and who decides it? The “not ready yet” claim is merely a delay tactic put forward by those who oppose an open USA soccer system. Every ten years, there is another declaration saying that USA soccer is ten years away from being able to establish an open system. The goalposts are vague and always moving. USSF, MLS, and open system opposition realizes that they would look like buffoons if they try to explicitly argue against the wild success of open soccer systems all over the world. Since these people have no factual and logical arguments to refute the idea of an open USA soccer system, they resort to disingenuous delay tactics like this in hopes that the rising tide for equality and opportunity in USA soccer will just go away.

In order to have reason to mobilize and invest in the USA soccer lower division marketplace, USA soccer constituents need U.S. Soccer governance to declare an open system start date. Even before the “go-live” date, people and clubs will then have incentive to start building and investing in their clubs, and the lead-up time will provide enough time to ensure a stable start to the open-system era. Until then, while the USSF avoids or vaguely addresses the potential of opening the USA soccer system, it is 100% understandable that investors and fans refuse to invest in, or even completely ignore the lower divisions of USA soccer.

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Listen to Ben Fast on the 3four3 Podcast

I recently made a guest appearance on the 3four3 soccer podcast to talk about the promotion/relegation movement in USA soccer. Listen to the show in the player below and let me know what you think of the discussion.

Listen here:

Episode 195: How Does One Policy Cripple Our Country, From the National Team to 9-Year-Olds?

Make sure to connect with the guys behind the #343podcast, John Pranjic and Gary Kleiban, on Twitter as well.

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USA Women’s Soccer Equality for More Than Just 23 Players

With the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup in full swing, the ongoing calls for gender equality in the game of soccer are taking center stage once more. The U.S. women’s national team, backed by their number one world ranking in women’s soccer, is at the forefront of equality discussions with their fight for equal pay alongside the U.S. men’s national team. They also happen to represent a nation which has lately been on the forefront in the battle for equality in all arenas.  In the USA soccer ecosystem, most people agree that providing merit-based compensation and fair opportunity to all genders in USA soccer is the right thing to do, but the real question is how to implement this culture and structure of equality. USA soccer much search for a solution that benefits women and girls all throughout the ecosystem, not just a select few. The market mechanism of promotion and relegation is the best place to start as it creates the most real, tangible opportunity for players, coaches, employees and fans in the women’s soccer ecosystem.

The USA women’s national team seems to be on track to gain victory in its fight for equal compensation from the U.S. Soccer Federation, but what comes next if and when the the U.S. women’s national team wins its fight for equal compensation? The resulting income gain for the 23 members of the national team would be great, but what about the millions of other women and girls in the USA soccer ecosystem? Nothing really changes for them besides being able to revel at a symbolic victory at the pinnacle of the women’s soccer ecosystem. If USA really wants to be about equality for women’s soccer, why not think of structures and mechanisms which could provide real, tangible opportunities and pathways for women and girls in the game? The national team does quite well, but what about the almost non-existent U.S. women’s pro soccer landscape? The MLS-backed NWSL is barely scratching and surviving. As recent as a few years ago, the league was fielding unpaid players. The nation that hosts the number one women’s national team in the world can barely afford to pay its first-division women’s club players? How ridiculous is that!

Open the USA soccer ecosystem so that all people and clubs can compete. Create REAL opportunity for female ownership. The below quote from this piece by Mehdi Manseur brilliantly outlines how an open USA soccer market with promotion and relegation is just what is needed to sustain and grow USA women’s soccer at all levels:

Women’s Pro Sports An open sports system would also have profound effects on women’s professional sports in America, which has failed to develop in comparison with our European counterparts. Many of America’s professional female athletes seek employment abroad because of the lack of opportunities within the major team sports in America. All notable attempts to start female sports leagues in the United States have been in the form of closed systems with similar obstacles placed upon new entrants to protect the already established entities and prevent open competition from any outside groups.

As such, there is no incentive for individuals or groups to invest in new female teams unless they are provided assurances they will be allowed to enter the closed system or unless they intend to invest sufficiently to establish an entire league themselves. Since the already established entities limit and control competition to protect their investments and since seeking out sufficient investment to form an entire league is an incredibly high burden, the current dynamic works to dissuade new investment into female sports and limits the potential growth of the overall industry in America.

An open system of female sports would provide a stable and reliable structure for which new entities can enter the market and compete against already established entities upon meeting certain objective standards and criteria. Doing so would promote new investment into female sports since new teams would never need permission from established entities to enter the marketplace and never need to seek out sufficient capital to form an entire league.

Rather than permit the development of women’s pro sports to be constrained by closed systems that serve only the interests of a select few, it would be supported by a stable overall structure that allows it to grow organically with the free market determining where in America teams could thrive.

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U.S. Soccer Follows Typical Government-Authorized Monopoly Script

The MLS monopoly that sits atop USA soccer is not necessarily founded and preserved by a lack of oversight from governing authorities – namely, the U.S. Soccer governing federation (USSF). The thinking here is that the federation either did not have the capacity, or was unwilling to prevent MLS capture of the USA soccer marketplace. This line of reasoning is a bit off base. It is important to understand this key truth when examining MLS’s position in the USA soccer ecosystem: the MLS monopoly over USA soccer is knowingly enabled and authorized by the U.S. Soccer Federation. USA soccer fans must realize that blame for USA soccer closed-system ineptitude rests 100% on the U.S. soccer federation. The 100% authority that USSF holds over USA soccer must also include the corresponding 100% responsibility.

The battle to free American soccer from harmful MLS control starts and ends with appeals toward USA soccer’s governing federation. The two possible scenarios are to reform the existing U.S. Soccer Federation from within through fan or FIFA pressure, or set up a replacement USA soccer federation and acquire official recognition from FIFA. The latter scenario seems to be the best bet for success at this point. The foresight of MLS in a wild-west USA soccer era was shrewd, and USSF did fall asleep at metaphorical wheel of governance, but the important fact is that the U.S. soccer federation has been captured through either payoff or infiltration, and U.S. soccer leadership is fully aware of this. The MLS tail is waging the USSF dog, so to speak, and USA soccer fans must now intervene to restore authority back to all USA soccer constituents instead of a select few. 

This USA soccer market-capture dilemma follows the same pattern we see with truly harmful monopolies in other industries. The practice of regulatory capture, where one firm uses government as a puppet to protect itself from competition, rings familiar. Liberty and the free market are not bad at their essence. Problems arise in the free market when a government oversteps its bounds thanks to corruption or ineptitude. Do you blame private healthcare firms for simply taking advantage of the lobbying and bribery opportunities the U.S. government affords them? Of course not – the enabling governing officials are at fault. The solution for problems in the free market is not slapping on more regulation and restriction, but rather granting more freedom and autonomy. A government’s job is to be a watchdog and enforcer of fair market opportunity for its constituents, not to determine the winners and losers within the market. 

We must understand USA soccer governance duties as well as MLS’s relationship to the U.S. Soccer Federation. Blame in this case must fall on USSF since it has ultimate authority to decide on the matter. Blaming a free USA soccer market for MLS’s capture of the USA soccer ecosystem is the same as blaming USA healthcare woes on a free market. Both are sourced from crony capitalism brought about by expanded government, not true capitalism. The U.S. Soccer Federation has decided that the MLS company is the winner and everyone else is the loser in the American soccer market competition. This is clearly a case of a soccer governing body fundamentally failing in its FIFA-mandated duty.

USA soccer players, fans, and clubs must understand that priority number one in the quest for USA soccer progress is appealing for change at the policy level of the ecosystem. It is not very productive to expend time and resources building in the USA grassroots when the MLS monopoly has power to hold a glass ceiling above and topple the build work of any club it sees as a threat. It is still commendable to build in the grassroots, but if you can only pick one task between building in the grassroots and speaking up for policy change, speaking up is the best choice. Power lies in the hands of USA soccer constituents. Silent hope is just the same as complying with failing and toxic USA soccer closed-system policy. The key to reform is building enough public pressure so that either USSF, FIFA, or the U.S. government is forced to act.

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U.S. Soccer’s Ugly Systemic Racism Problem

The default presumption of most people analyzing the USA soccer ecosystem is that the country does not possess a very large soccer culture. However, there are are number of facts and figures which promptly dispel the “soccer is a small sport in America” myth, such as USA’s 24 million soccer player population total (1 of every 14 people in the country). USA indeed has all of the necessary ingredients to be a powerhouse soccer nation, but there is an ugly truth that underpins USA soccer’s inability to leverage this potential: The U.S. Soccer governing federation upholds closed-system policy which discriminates against millions of people and thousands of clubs in USA soccer. This discriminatory policy impacts USA’s ethnic and minority populations the most.

Is this structural racism and discrimination created and upheld intentionally? One would tend to think that leaders and fans within USA soccer do not truly intend to harm others, but the insistence of some to preserve this closed system really does start to amplify doubts. The good news is that USA is one promotion/relegation policy change away from correcting this problem. A promotion/relegation system would provide fair opportunity for millions of people and thousands of clubs in the USA soccer ecosystem. The creation of this opportunity is not just about sport, it extends to the social and economic realms as well (think GDP, jobs, community pride, and positive youth opportunity). Soccer is not just a game, it is also an industry just like any other. Real livelihoods are at stake in this battle, not just trophies and prestige. It is time to cut ties with the toxic status quo of USA soccer. 

In an ironic twist, the leaders and apologists behind the U.S. soccer and MLS/SUM closed-system cartel claim to be head over heels diversity in inclusion. Sadly, it seems that most of this “fight for inclusion and equality” only takes priority when profit and marketing opportunities are at stake. When will this U.S. soccer federation start fighting to create real-life equality and opportunity structures instead of just paying lip service for its own gain? The U.S. Soccer Federation of today is built upon a foundation of closed-system discrimination. If one claims to stand for equality and opportunity, then they will not comply with, and uphold closed-system policy which denies fair opportunity for millions of people in the USA soccer ecosystem.

What is the depth and nature of the massive soccer population that U.S. Soccer leadership is shunning? USA has 30 different ethnic groups with populations that exceed 1 million people. Stop and think about the booming levels of culture, diversity, skill, and passion that the future USA soccer open system will have once the ecosystem is opened to all. USA soccer would truly embody the American “melting pot” ideal with clubs representing cultures from every corner of the globe. Furthermore, USA’s Latino-American demographic of 58 million people represents 18% of the country’s total population (330 million). In a normal, open system, many of USA’s greatest soccer clubs would be built around Latino culture. The composition of the U.S. men’s and women’s national team pools would also reflect this. It would be safe to wager that USA’s Latino population represents the majority demographic when it comes to quantifying segments of the nation’s total soccer population. USA’s African-American and Asian-American demographics would also reflect accurately as large portions of the USA soccer population under an open system.

Would promotion/relegation policy forever eradicate all instances of discrimination, failure, and missed opportunity in USA soccer? No, but #ProRelforUSA policy does not promise utopia. If no policy change can create 100% perfection, does that mean that USA soccer should scrap policy efforts that would elevate it to 85-95% perfection? Absolutely not. USA soccer can do so much better than an extremely unpopular USSF/MLS closed system that caters primarily to a rich, white, suburban demographic. It is time to leverage USA soccer’s gigantic and diverse soccer potential through a free-market system that provides fair opportunity for all people and clubs. No more waxing poetic about virtues and ideals. It is time to take the obvious and tangible step of opening the USA soccer ecosystem.

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MLS’s Rushed Expansion Dilemma

Major League Soccer (MLS) is being forced to expand larger and more quickly than it originally intended. As recent as 2014, MLS Commissioner Don Garber stated that the league would stick to 24 teams “for some time.” How is that declaration panning out? As of the 2019 season, MLS has reached the 24-team mark, and it is scheduled to blitz its way to 26 teams by the year 2020. To top things even further, MLS also announced in 2019 that it eventually plans to expand to 30 teams. The “end of MLS expansion” goalposts are constantly shifting and it is clear that there is no clear roadmap or limit. The location and timing of expansion is purely in reaction to rising competition from non-MLS entities in the USA soccer ecosystem.

Some see the MLS expansion rush as nothing more a money play. MLS is now commonly seen as a ponzi scheme that relies on new “investor” teams to buy in so that the existing apparatus can stay afloat and turn a profit. While money is certainly a factor, It appears that there is a chief underlying motive behind this expansion rush: MLS is desperate to protect and maintain its monopoly control over the entire American soccer ecosystem.

The U.S. sport owners that moonlight as shareholders of MLS are not necessarily focused on raking in profits from their MLS side hustle. Their MLS teams are just tiny portions of their overall portfolios of companies and U.S. sports franchises. Though the kingpins of MLS see the soccer itself as an afterthought, it is still advantageous for them to keep soccer limited within their control so that it does not threaten the popularity and profitability of their U.S. sport empire. MLS appears to be designed to keep soccer contained in the vacant, niche space below big U.S. sports like NFL or NBA. MLS does not want upstart soccer leagues and clubs to create a real club soccer competition with promotion/relegation that could steal the attention and dollars of U.S. consumers.

This reactionary MLS expansion craze is primarily driven by emerging competition from lower division USA soccer clubs and leagues. MLS deliberately leverages its monopoly over the USA soccer division 1 sanction to absorb (see Minnesota United FC and FC Cincinnati) or extinguish (see Atlanta United) the latest external threats from the lower divisions. Of course, the growth of lower division soccer clubs points all eyes to the elephant in the room: Why no promotion/relegation in USA soccer? The realization of USA soccer’s absurd closed-system policy is fueling an ever-increasing buzz for the promotion/relegation (#ProRelforUSA) movement, which in turn is adding to the overall heat MLS is feeling from the lower divisions.

The accessibility of global soccer in the USA market, thanks to the internet and TV, is bringing about an unprecedented awakening in the American soccer fan appetite. These fans also want to see the game in person and get behind their own local club like the rest of the world. The past decade alone has seen a remarkable amount of shake up and growth in the USA soccer landscape. New lower division U.S. clubs are now being founded by the dozens each year. There is quite a bit of instability still, but despite the toxic closed system that stifles the upward mobility of clubs, there is a large net positive growth quotient with each passing year. The hopeful scent of an open-system future is alive and well in the USA soccer ecosystem.

How will the MLS expansion story end?

Will MLS decide to follow U.S. sport precedent and set a stone-cold-lock limit for expansion at around 32 teams? If so, how will the 9,000+ US soccer clubs permanently left out of division 1 react? I estimate that many will quite upset that the Noah’s ark door of USA soccer division 1 expansion has been closed forever – particularly the larger clubs in larger cities. Will MLS try to expand to 50 to 100 teams in order to create an umbrella of MLS divisions that runs promotes and relegates within itself? If so, will its shareholders be upset over the prospect that some of them might face relegation to the “MLS basement” tiers?

In the meantime, we can be sure that MLS will continue to chase after the most trendy lower division clubs and fan markets. As of 2019, a division 2 (USL) club in New Mexico, USA is drawing 15,000+ fans per game. Even if a new USA soccer club popped up in Timbuktu-Nowhere, USA and drew 15,000+ fans, you can be sure that MLS would add it to their expansion list. The MLS expansion saga may wind up with the entire MLS monopoly over American soccer imploding as the calls for a fully open system crash against it. Hitting the reset button and reserving divisional sanctions for open leagues only may just be the best thing that can happen to USA soccer. As always, if this current U.S. Soccer Federation can’t represent all constituents in American soccer, then we will need a new USA soccer governing body that will.

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MLS is Embarrassing USA Soccer

Is American soccer really the best version of itself in 2019? How long will the people of America let the failing Major League Soccer closed system squat aimlessly on the USA soccer division 1 sanction? Surely, in a land with 24 million soccer players and an insane abundance of infrastructure and resources, American soccer can do better than the paltry TV ratings and embarrassing attendance numbers of the MLS/Soccer United Marketing cartel.

It is time to reevaluate America’s commitment to MLS as the capstone of its soccer ecosystem. For years, fans have been battered with the tired old “give it time” excuse, yet two and one half decades later USA is no closer to closing the gap with the world’s top soccer nations. The U.S. national team is no better off than it was in the mid-1990s, USA club teams have not won the CONCACAF Champions League for 20 years, and the “best” American players are still nobodies in the global marketplace.

MLS launched in 1996, and it has had nearly 25 years to stabilize and prove itself as the standard-bearer for the future of USA soccer. What are the results? MLS captures a smaller and smaller slice of the entire American soccer fan market with each passing year (this slice is down to 6% as of 2018). MLS national TV broadcast numbers, which happen to be the most accurate way to gauge product popularity, are embarrassingly low. Apart from a few outlier teams with peculiar, carnival-like crowds, MLS fan attendance is sparse. Even the small, tin-can, soccer-specific stadiums are being fitted with tarps to cover empty seats.

It is not a crime for MLS to be less popular than foreign club soccer options in 2019, but the crux of concern should be that the MLS popularity share in American soccer is trending downward. Even if MLS is “growing” when evaluated against versions of itself in previous years, that marginal growth is worth little when foreign club soccer competitions (Premier League, Bundesliga, Liga MX etc.) are growing at a faster rate. MLS might be growing a little inside of its own isolated bubble, but zoom out to the entire American soccer market pie, and MLS relevancy is shrinking. Is this really a course worth continuing on?

What is the next step in the evolution in American soccer? The fork in the road is clear: Continue down a path of “we’ve always done it this way” with a failing MLS closed system, or dream and plan for an American soccer that will one day be the best soccer nation in the world. It is up to the millions of people and thousands of clubs in American soccer to decide their future. The governing authorities must ultimately submit to public pressure, so each and every person must understand that their voice matters. If enough common constituents in USA soccer decide to speak up for change, either USSF, FIFA, or the U.S. government will be forced to open USA soccer for all with a system of promotion/relegation (#ProRelforUSA).

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