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Pro/Rel report highlights potential for soccer but misses the target

A Deloitte report on the pros and cons of Pro/Rel, commissioned by the owners of Miami FC, was released to the public. Don't get your hopes up.

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David slung a pebble at Goliath, but this one won't strike the giant in the forehead. The ownership group of NASL club Miami FC commissioned an analysis of the impact that a system of promotion and relegation would have on US Soccer. Their incentive for such an analysis is obvious. A Pro/Rel system would give the club immediate hope to reach division one and such an opportunity would translate to financial value for the owners.

The Miami FC group, Silva International Investments, requested that a summary of the report be made public. One would like to think that Deloitte would publish only credible findings to maintain their own reputation, but the bias inherent in the request does raise questions of authenticity.

The report claimed that professional soccer in the US was facing a number of challenges and that Pro/Rel could be a tool to grow the game. According to the report, the primary challenges facing MLS are inconsistent television audiences and a growing interest in foreign leagues, and those issues are limiting the potential of the sport. Pro/Rel would foster larger television audiences and attendance as well as motivate owners to maximize investment in players and development. A survey of fans presented lofty numbers supporting the upside of the system. For example, the report claimed that fans would be eight times more likely to watch the US National Team play if a promotion and relegation system were in place.

The biggest hurdles to the movement are the quality of players and infrastructure in the lower divisions, and compensating the MLS owners for their potential loss of value. Another hurdle could be that owners are incented to spend beyond their budget for players, potentially putting the franchise at risk. This has certainly happened around the world, but the report doesn't address the fact that MLS is a single-entity where all of the owners possess shares of one company. A Pro/Rel system wouldn't just have to address these issues, it would have to untangle a system that doesn't necessarily promote accountability. Have you ever been presented with an opportunity to have more accountability while losing money? No, you can't count having kids.

The reality is that the powers that be in US Soccer, namely Major League Soccer and the US Soccer Federation, control the direction of soccer in the states. US Soccer can dictate how the US Soccer pyramid works, but they are completely dependent on Major League Soccer for seeing their goals realized. US Soccer wants to develop the sport in the US and MLS is their key investor. That gives MLS leverage and the league has no incentive to opens its doors. Yes, MLS and US Soccer are partnered, probably in an unhealthy way, but money and near term results are the driving force behind the situation.

Perhaps the private report addresses these issues, but the public report only scratches the surface of how deep the issues are that need resolution. There's not a soul in the offices of US Soccer or MLS that believes Pro/Rel wouldn't benefit soccer in the states over the long term. The potential is clear. But right now Major League Soccer's big money is talking and those dollars are the immediate hope for the soccer growth hard core fans long for. You can imagine a better, more engaging structure, but it's hard to imagine a way the investors earn their return.