Advocates for the league system that is commonly referred to as Pro/Rel in this part of the world can be…persistent in their advocating for the system.
At least the more vocal ones, anyway. There’s no need to re-hash the names here. If you’ve spend any time online in North American soccer communities you know who we are talking about.
Ironically, that insistence that EVERYONE talk about Pro/Rel ALWAYS means that no rational conversations about whether North America should move towards such a system ever happen. Instead what happens is that someone says ‘good game by the Crew last night, eh?’ and [redacted] replies ‘WHY DO YOU HATE FREEDOM??? #ProRel4USA.’
Then it gets worse.
So, last week’s revelation that The CanPL will launch with a plan to move towards a system of promotion and relegation was met with, well, fear by those of us that live in online communities that talk about soccer. The fear wasn’t related to the actual system – most of us would love to have an intellectual discussion about whether this is a good idea – but rather about how the discussion would play itself out.
It will do no one any good to set up in two separate pro and con camps that do nothing but yell at each other.
So far, so good. Perhaps it’s Canadians’ desire to be polite and morally superior to Americans (which isn’t that polite, but I’ll save that conversation for another type of article) that is reigning in the debate thus far, but it’s been fairly respectful.
Let’s keep it that way – for the benefit of both the CanPL and (morally superior alert) our American friends who might benefit from having folks less…entrenched…in their positions debate the merits and risks.
So, is this a good idea? Should CanPL launch with a plan to do something that the USA didn’t dare (or want) to do just two decades ago?
Yes. Yes we should. With a caveat.
That caveat is found in a single word in the question – plan.
A plan doesn’t mean a guarantee and it certainly doesn’t mean that it literally should launch with pro/rel in place (I think all but the clinically insane would agree with that – I mean where exactly would the clubs be relegated to?).
A plan simply means that you’re putting it on the table immediately and acknowledging that in an ideal world it would be great to get to the point where it could happen. That’s the biggest mistake MLS made. They never planned for the possibility of relegation (promotion they are cool with. Just write a cheque). Without that plan in place from the start it becomes exceptionally difficult to implement. It just does, no matter how many times you write the #ProRel4USA hashtag.
As for why it is a good idea – why it is ideal to work towards – well, here is where you have to ignore the hyperbole and vitriol of [redacted] and look at the underlying arguments in favour of pro/rel. Simply put, they are that by allowing smaller clubs to aspire to something greater you can then encourage them to invest more in the game in the hope that they might one day find glory at the highest level of the game. That, in turn, will force them to do everything just a little bit better, which, in turn, means that even if their dream comes up short the whole system benefits.
It’s a kind of trickle *up* economics theory. Like any theory it’s not likely work out perfectly in execution, but in the context of Canadian soccer – and Canada in general -- it does actually make some sense.
See, we have 100 years of history to point to that illustrates that Canadian clubs (of the youth verity, since we don’t have a lot of other types) don’t aspire beyond their own backyards. They just don’t. They’re comfortable. And, more to the point, there’s nothing to aspire to. The thinking then goes that if you provide these clubs with something to aspire to then maybe they’ll start to think bigger.
Here’s the thing though—history suggests that they’ll need to be shamed into thinking bigger. You start a typical North American league tomorrow and nothing changes at that level. Nothing. I almost guarantee it. But, if you start a league tomorrow that is structured in such a way that provides an opportunity – a challenge, really – to these clubs and, well…even the less ambitious are going to understand the need to, well, get off their ass.
Get off their ass and improve infrastructure. Get off their ass and improve coaching. Get off their ass and let someone else with more ambition take over.
The other thing this plan will provide is an opportunity for cities in Canada that aren’t currently in the CFL to aspire to having pro teams. This is a fundamental difference between Canada and the US. In the US there are probably a hundred cities that could, in theory, have a pro team in the North American franchise model. In Canada there are three – and six more if it’s the CFL or hockey (grudgingly accepted by their American overlords).
Kitchener-Waterloo isn’t among that nine, yet it’s an important city in this country. London. Windsor. Kingston. Halifax. St. John’s. Kelowna. Victoria. Saskatoon…
I could go on.
A pro/rel plan from the start will plant the seed in those type of communities that maybe it’s not crazy to dream of professional sport in their communities – even if it’s in the second tier. Even if they understand that they’ll probably never be at the very top.
What do we love about European pyramid? That it’s inclusive and that it provides everyone with a chance to find their level. What don’t we like about the American model? That traps you at a level and shuts out some from being a part of any level.
Will pro/rel guarantee a magically new world for Canadian soccer? No. Would a franchise model doom the sport forever? Also, no. But, if given the chance to plan for an ideal scenario from the get-go then why wouldn’t you do just that?
Edited by Duane Rollins