USL: Making soccer work without relegation/promotion

You’re really not supposed to grow a soccer league too quickly – study the NASL in 1984. Yet United Soccer League (USL) is exploding theirs successfully.

United Soccer League (USL) has grown like such a mountain leading to the 2021 season that no one remembers the molehill. It’s second-tier U.S. professional soccer that has no clue it’s second-tier.

So far, the explosion of growth has worked.

The league has grown to 31 teams in USL Championship and another 14 in USL League One, the second group third-tier sides. But who’s counting? USL is not! Instead, the league focuses on the size of the media market in which each team plays. That focus is meant to maximize the impact and attendance of each team.

That focus has worked perfectly. Following USL Championship alone, the league has six teams in the top 15 Neilsen TV markets; 12 teams in the top 25, and 26 teams in the top 50.

Strategic team placement has spurred a 33%-increase in total attendance from 2013-2018. The operation is now positioned to reach a population of more than 84 million.

It’s attracted enough attention to get a partnership agreement inked with MLS. It has a staff of over 50 involved in marketing, communications, and sponsorship. This number will keep growing depending on how their ESPN exposure goes.

PHOENIX, ARIZONA – MARCH 07: Lagos Kunga #70 of Phoenix Rising FC scores a goal against Hunter Sulte #62 of Portland Timbers 2 at Casino Arizona Field on March 07, 2020 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Joe Hicks/Getty Images)

Soccer is the most popular field sport in the world, except North America. If things stay that way, it won’t be the fault of USL.

Players instead of leagues in relegation and promotion

While some North American soccer fans long for their leagues to adopt a system of relegation and promotion, it’s never been a go for upper-tier United States-based leagues. And it never will be.

In relegation and promotion, teams get transferred between leagues based on their performances.

Don’t ever expect to see, say, Toronto FC sent down to one of the USL leagues, while Los Angeles Galaxy II or New York Red Bulls II take the team’s place.

North American believers emphasize how that system pushes teams to perform better to get promoted and stay there. However, their claims that poorly performing clubs somehow maintain fans’ interest is misplaced.

Teams that fall to relegation in the next league down get substantial financial ramifications. This means they’ll find it difficult, if not impossible, to keep their best players.

USL avoids these consequences by developing teams that may promote players to MLS. Players not able to stay competitive in MLS may, in effect, get relegated to a USL by signing with it. But the teams stay right where they are.

And so do their fans. For North America, it works.

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