promotion & relegation survey: owner results

WSOTP - Blog - Promotion & Relegation Owner Resultsfw.fw

This is the second article in a three-part series based on the results from a survey that ran on the site in December and January that looked to gauge the actual fan and owner interest in the implementation of Promotion & Relegation in the US and Canadian professional soccer pyramids.

Read part one: Supporter Results  |  Read part three: Personal Reflections

When I first devised the idea of running the promotion and relegation survey, like many that had come before it, it was nothing more than a supporters poll.

In itself, that wasn’t a negative thing that the survey would wind up similar to other polls that have already been run. But pondering it a bit further, it felt limiting to go down that path again.

To truly gain a deeper understanding on the subject, we would need to broaden our perspective on the subject. With the largest constituent base of the North American soccer market already surveyed and analyzed — the fans — I wondered: who else should have a say in this debate?

As mentioned in the last article, we the fans are the end consumer in football. And so far, the promotion and relegation movement’s primary goal has been to try to influence the demand that we drive for the game enough to force US Soccer and the Canadian Soccer Association’s hands.

But if you’ve ever taken a simple course in economics, you’ll recall that in order for there to be consumers, there must also be producers.

And what we’ve not heard to this point is what the producers of football want.

Now when we say “producers”, who we’re actually talking about are the owners, the chairmen, the CEO’s — you’re stereotypical “big wig” types. Do they favor promotion and relegation? Are they fine with the current system? Or do they want something entirely different?

However there’s also the question of why we should want to know what they think.

This is probably obvious, but ownership opinion obviously matters a whole hell of a lot. And for many, many reasons. They potentially have the most to gain from the implementation of a promotion and relegation system, but they also potentially have the most to lose. And too, and not surprisingly, owners and club presidents are almost always fans of soccer themselves. So much like the supporters that back their clubs, they have hopes and competitive aspirations, too.

But perhaps at its most basic level, without owners opening up their check books to take a often large financial risk, successful and viable professional soccer in this country becomes a much more difficult task to achieve. As such, they speak for the clubs themselves. And or that reason alone, their input matters just as much as the fans’.

Too, supporters of pro/rel often claim that the lower league clubs — like those in the NASL, USL, PDL and NPSL — want promotion and relegation themselves. But as alluded to above, to this point, I don’t recall many North American soccer clubs’ owners publicly supporting the system. Though admittedly, maybe I haven’t been looking hard enough either.

So, with that in mind, I set out to find out what the clubs want.

And just like with the fans, I want to know more than just whether they want pro/rel. I wanted to know why they want what they want. While lower league clubs get to mingle with and occasionally topple the big boys in the Open Cup, do they feel they could do that consistently? What concerns would they or wouldn’t they have if they moved up or down the table? Are they feeling held down by “the man” — erm, USSF/CSA?

Actually gathering the answers to those questions from the decision makers in US and Canadian soccer, however, proved significantly easier said than done.

But read on to find out more about who we talked to, and what they actually said.

Believe it or not, I reached out to every single club in the upper four divisions of the North American Soccer pyramid. From division one MLS down to division four NPSL and PDL, I ended up reaching out to 199 clubs in the discombobulated American and Canadian soccer pyramid. (NOTE: A few clubs have since closed up shop and a few others opened their doors since the survey was sent out.)

In order to do so, I had to reach out to over 350 individuals. If an owner or CEO or president’s contact info was readily available — which it rarely was — then I attempted to reach directly out to them. Each club’s media contact — assuming they had one, and plenty did not — also received an email, where I politely asked that they pass the survey along to their supreme leader. And I did all of that twice; calling it laborious doesn’t really do it justice.

Unfortunately, owners, CEO’s and chairmen tend to be tight-lipped individuals. And understandably so: there are plenty of reasons for them to keep their mouths shut. Owners and club front offices toe a precarious line between pleasing fans and pleasing players, all while attempting to stay in the black and not lose their own shirts. Saying the wrong thing to a member of the media could potentially be disastrous.

So to help coax out responses, I offered them anonymity. No individual clubs or club names would be used unless the explicitly gave me permission to do so. But even with that trick up my sleeve, I still expected the response rate to be extremely low.

It was. But it was better than I had hoped for, too.

Prior to sending out the survey, I set the bar for my expectations pretty low: I had hoped to hear from at least ten clubs in two different leagues. But after the survey was closed and the numbers tallied, I was delighted to see we actually received responses from fifteen clubs. Not only that, but those clubs came from a total of three different leagues from two levels of the pyramid. Great success! Well, kind of… (click to zoom)

WSOTP - Blog - Promotion & Relegation Owner Demographics

Yes, I was pleased to exceed my expectations. But fifteen clubs still represents just a tiny sliver of the American professional system. That translates to just 7.5% of the total pool, to be specific. Statistically speaking, that’s a pretty insignificant portion of the population. So whatever results we glean from this study, it’s important to remember they might not fully represent the thoughts and desires of the collective of American and Canadian clubs.

That doesn’t, however, mean that the few responses we did receive are insignificant. Quite the contrary.

Anyway, who did we hear from?

The two leagues and levels that lacked respondents probably won’t surprise you: MLS and USL were the only two clubs to blank me. Honestly, I hadn’t expected to receive any from the sealed vault that is MLS ownership. Transparency has never really been a priority for that league. But the silence on the USL front did catch me off guard, even though it shouldn’t have given their close ties to MLS.

Getting response from an NASL team was a goal from the get go. The league sits in a very precarious position in the North American soccer landscape due to its very publicly stated desire to compete with MLS, even though some of their clubs are well-known to be courting a “promotion” to MLS. So a response from one felt like a very valuable data point. Luckily, we did get that one club — though unsurprisingly, that club was one of 20% of respondents that requested anonymity.

The remainder of our results came from the two fourth division leagues. Seven clubs from each of the USL affiliated Premier Development League and the National Premier Soccer League gave us their thoughts on promotion and relegation. I’d anticipated we would get a good number of responses from the lowest rungs on the professional totem pole, as they’re the type of clubs that stand to gain the most from a pro/rel system.

Since the clubs themselves are inanimate objects, we also tried to hone in on what people at the clubs actually responded. In total, we only heard from four club owners, so perhaps calling this an “owner survey” might be a little inaccurate. Though to be fair, the definition of certain titles varies so much from club to club, I’m not going to put too much stock in the specific roles the respondents held. And regardless, the roles provided were those of some of the highest decision makers at most clubs.

The questions asked of the ownership were, by and large, was identical to the supporters survey. The three main questions we asked remained the same, too:

  • How strong is your desire to see promotion and relegation implemented in the North American soccer pyramid?
  • Is promotion and relegation a necessity for professional soccer to succeed in the US and Canada?
  • Do you believe we will ever see a system of promotion and relegation in the US and Canada?

In our supporter survey, we found that 55% were for the implementation of promotion of relegation (4’s and 5’s on a 5-pt scale) — that number jumped to 69.5% when we rounded in those who were neither for or against promotion and relegation. The ownership survey yielded similar results: 4’s and 5’s accounted for 60% of the responses. Add in the 3’s, and we get to 80%. So much like the fans, it appears that a large majority of clubs want promotion and relegation too, and pro/rel mercenaries can rejoice in the accuracy of their claims.

And for the record, the three clubs that indicated they were against pro/rel (1’s and 2’s) all came from the fourth tier PDL.

But just like with before, those claims start to unravel again when the additional questions are added into the mix. (click to zoom)

WSOTP - Blog - Promotion & Relegation Owner Desire Graphs

While only 31.8% of supporters thing a promotion and relegation system is necessary for professional soccer to be successful in US and Canada — whatever they took that to mean — even fewer owners think it’s a necessity at 13.3%. Delving into that number a little bit deeper, we find that of the nine clubs that indicated they were strongly for promotion and relegation (4’s and 5’s), 55% don’t think that system is a necessity for professional soccer to be a success in this country. That’s up from just over a third from fans with similar opinions. And when your round in the threes, that jumps that number even higher to 66.7%.

When it comes to whether the clubs and their owners see the system ever actually being implemented, there numbers were nearly identical. 60% don’t think we’ll ever actually see it in the US and Canada, including 55% of the hardcore supporters (4’s and 5’s). Roping in the threes sees both of those percentages climb again, as well. And those owner/club numbers, like those regarding pro/rel’s necessity, climbed from those of the fans, too.

So once again, we’re left with results from a survey that show there’s a discrepancy between what clubs would want and what clubs think they need. I, as you might expect, wanted to know the reasons behind those discrepancies and understand why clubs think the way they do.

Surprise, surprise: what I found was also very similar to what the fans told me.

First, I wondered, “How many clubs actually have a desire to play at a higher level to begin with?” Playing devils advocate: just because you’re for pro/rel, that doesn’t mean that you necessarily do want to move up.

As it turns out: an overwhelming majority (93.3%) do want to move up.

So if they do want to move up, do they feel like they’re being prevented from doing so by the federations they’re play under? The answer: probably so. 80% felt that the USSF/CSA give preferential treatment to a particular league.

Asking what kind of system they’d be open to moving to get away from that oppression also yielded some interesting results. A resounding 86.6% would accept a unification of all four levels of the pyramid under a new regulatory body. But other palatable options for some included MLS expanding oversight to some/all of the other levels and bring them under their umbrella (26.7%) and exploding everything and starting over from scratch (26.7%).

Okay, so even though they feel like there’s currently a glass ceiling, I still wanted to know where exactly they hoped to play in the pyramid if there wasn’t something stopping them. The way many supporters of promotion and relegation often explain it, every club wants to be able to play at the highest possible level. Instead, most clubs had much more modest expectations. Eight wanted to move up to USL, while just three clubs a piece desired to play in NASL and MLS. For most (60%), that equated to a one rung jump up the ladder — though two ambitious fourth tier sides did express a desire to climb all three rungs above them.

Right, so we now know what they want and where they want to go. But what happens if the (currently) hypothetical world where American and Canadian clubs were allowed to move up and down came to fruition? What would clubs expect to happen then?

While a quarter of fan respondents said they would be concerned about the survival of their clubs if they were to be relegated, owners were far more optimistic. None indicated they thought their club might not survive a trip down the pyramid, though just shy of half admitted they were already on the lowest rungs of the North American professional pyramid. On a side note: I really wish we could have seen an MLS team’s response here — I’d wager there might be concerns from them on this front.

But in a very odd twist, owners were far more fearful of promotion than the fans. Three out of every five owners didn’t believe their clubs in their current states would survive promotion. Just 7.5% of fans feared the prospects of moving up.

Alone though, that information doesn’t give us the full picture of why a club might be for or against promotion and relegation. So I again dove in deeper.

Reasons why clubs desired the promotion and relegation system again mirrored many of the fans’ reasons. Most clubs believe that the implementation of promotion and relegation in the US and Canada would inspire increased competition (60%), reward clubs for their performances (60%), and properly motivate ownership (53.3%). In fact, 86.7% of the respondents I heard from said they would have been more likely to invest in a professional soccer club if pro/rel had been in place prior to their arrival.

But then when you ask why they think promotion and relegation should not be implemented and reasons why they’d fear a relegation, things diverged a bit. Popular reasons included: 60% believing that the soccer market is just not ready to support promotion and relegation in its current state — a view I share — and a third fearing a decrease in ownership investment/interest, sponsorship dollars, and the overall value of their clubs.

However, the most interesting aspect of the owner and club survey results were the optional comments that some of the front office individuals. I’ve provided a few below:

“From a soccer perspective it is (almost) a must. From a business perspective it is very hard (almost impossible) because of the cost associated to play in higher Divisions (especially travel). The only way to achieve that in my opinion is to have a more regional set up in both MLS, NASL, USL PRO and USL PDL and NPSL, so cost would stay “low” for traveling. But that would decrease the value of a league (and therefore license) playing for less fans in some places, and since that is key in the current business model of soccer I don’t see it happen very quickly.”

A balanced response: it’s needed and desired, but there are current limitations that will make pro/rel’s adoption difficult.

“I think that people who say that it is “needed” in this country are absolutely incorrect.  All you have to do is look what we’ve been able to accomplish over the past few years and where the game is (when it comes to fan base).”

Okay, that guy doesn’t think it’s needed at all.

“It is absolutely imperative that this happens in US Soccer!!”

This one, however, would strongly disagree with that statement.

“It does not make any financial sense at any level in 2015. Until you have an entire division below that is as fiscally sound as the division above, it cannot and will not work.   Going from $20M+ budget to $2M budget tells you the two leagues are light years apart and that it won’t work.  Most D2 and D3 teams play in stadiums that hold less than 10,000 people so they couldn’t possibly survive financially if they did move up. … I think that the financial side of the game in this country is the ABSOLUTE “be all – end all” of the discussion. Until we can correct that side of things, in terms of salaries, tv rights, sponsorships, etc” we will NEVER be able to succeed with Pro/Rel.”

Some look at the numbers and feel the math won’t ever work out, while others feel that it might be feasible down the road.

“It’s a dangerous, difficult project, but US Soccer needs to at least have a clear, long-term “master plan” and use every opportunity to move towards that vision. Might take five years, or might take 25, but it has to happen eventually.”

If there’s one thing that can be taken from all of that? It’s that lots of owners have lots of different opinions. And getting them all to agree to a singular system — should one ever arise — will be an extremely tough task.

I feel like a broken record saying this again, but that was a lot of data. And too, sorry that it took so long to get this second piece out again.

So, as before, what conclusions can we draw from all of the above?

First and foremost, remember that this is a very limited subset of the overall club population. Two, remember that the individuals who responded may not even represent the overall desires of all of the other individuals — co-owners, presidents, boards, etc. — at their club. Given all of that, I feel less confident about saying “these are the definitive desires of clubs in US and Canadian soccer” than I did with the larger sample size in the fan survey.

That said, there’s plenty to still take from the results. Clubs, on the whole, seem to share similar sentiments with fans. Promotion and relegation here would be great, but we don’t have to go that route. There are benefits to its introduction, and there are fears about its effects. And on the whole, things do need to change in some capacity.

So, part two is in the books. We’ve heard from you the fans, and we’ve now heard from the clubs themselves. What does that leave us with?

My opinion.

I’ve tried very, very hard to not insert my own opinions along the way in this process of working on this project. Admittedly, I’ve slipped up here and there. But I wanted to let the data do most of the talking, and let everyone develop their own interpretations without letting too much of my biases slip through.

But with repetitive attacks I’ve received on social media over the past year from certain members in the debate — where they never give you a chance to get your point in and spin each 140-character reply in its own direction — I’m going to voice my full thoughts on promotion and relegation, and my thoughts on the surveys, once and for all

And believe it or not, my opinions have been swayed by the data I’ve collected. Yes, that is possible. Stay tuned…

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