Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise
Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise

Does Liga MX’s Axing Of Promotion/Relegation Pave The Way To MLS-MX?

Illustration for article titled Does Liga MX’s Axing Of Promotion/Relegation Pave The Way To MLS-MX?
Illustration: Eric Barrow (Shutterstock)

Logic would dictate that in a world crisis like the one we’re currently in, major business decisions in any industry would be put on hold. But of course, that’s ignoring the cloak of darkness that something like this can provide the powerful and rich only looking to become more so. So it went this week with the owners in Mexico’s Liga MX voting to end promotion and relegation between it and the Ascenco MX (second division) for the next five years.

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Of course, any digging into this and you might suspect that Liga MX is trying to move itself closer to another league with no promotion and relegation, one that just happens to be just over the border to the north. The one in the country where Liga MX still is the most popular soccer league. And one it has hinted at merging with in the past.

It’s important to note that even before this decision, promotion and relegation between Liga and Ascenso MX was not nearly as smooth as it is in pretty much every other league in the world. Only one team is relegated from the 18-team Liga MX, and one team is promoted to it. Maybe. Most leagues see two or three teams swap places between divisions. And relegation didn’t depend on the team’s performance that past season, but on their points-per-game average over the last three seasons. Which in Mexico is really six seasons, as it’s the last major competition to use two “seasons” per year, an Apertura and Clausura (Opening And Closing) consisting of 17 games each. To get promoted from Ascenco MX, a team had to win either the Apertura or Clausura championship, and then win a two-legged playoff with the team that one the other. Or win both the Apertura and Clausura.

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And that wasn’t all. For the past three years (including this interrupted one), Liga MX installed a certification process that Ascenso MX teams had to meet in order to be promoted. These involved stadium size, transparent and stable finances, owners without a political affiliation, and some others. Reportedly, no teams in the Ascenco MX met these standards at the beginning of this season. So if a team won promotion to Liga MX through their play but didn’t qualify for certification, the Liga MX team that was supposed to be relegated could just hand the Ascenco MX team their prize money for winning promotion on the field and stay in the top division, while the second division champion would stay in the second division and use the money given to them to try and improve their standards to be certified for Liga MX in the future (at least that’s the cover story). Lobos BUAP was able to avoid relegation this way in ’19, paying Cafetaleros de Chiapas to stay in the top division. Veracruz was able to avoid its rightful relegation last year by also paying its way back into Liga MX. Though this was due to the league’s desire to expand from 18 to 20 teams, and Veracrus simply stayed in the league alongside the team promoted from the second division for this season.

In essence, Liga MX has now done this process as a whole, as it will pay every team in the second division just under $1M every year for the five years of this “freeze.”

We’ll take a break in case you need to sit down after all this.

Clearty, if your nostrils are flaring and itchy, you have cause. Liga MX owners deciding to close their shop step-by-step seems in the fashion of a cabal. Buying your way out of trouble is always a hallmark of the crooked. Without promotion, it’s hard to see how second division teams can attract the ownership, sponsorship, and fanbases that Liga MX desires and now requires. Fans and clubs know when there’s a lock on the ceiling, and it affects everything. The visits from the big clubs like Chivas or Club America make a huge difference for newly promoted teams, as does the hope that they will happen one day for lower division clubs seeking promotion. Without that, things go stale.

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Which puts them in line with MLS. Cooperation between the countries’ associations, along with Canada, had started talk that the leagues could merge one day. While Liga MX remains popular in the U.S., it has not been able to attract foreign ownership, or even enough domestic ownership in its own league, to grow. The problems with ownership in the league are numerous. Like groups owning multiple teams is common in Mexico, unheard of in major leagues across the globe. Of the 30 teams between Liga MX and Ascenso MX, there are only 23 owners. Three teams in the second division are owned by Liga MX teams, which means they can’t be promoted. Another is teams not being able to pay players for periods of time. Veracruz went months without paying its players.

Fans of UANL Tigres cheer the team during the 8th round match between UANL and Pumas UNAM as part of the Torneo Clausura 2020 Liga MX at Universitario Stadium.
Fans of UANL Tigres cheer the team during the 8th round match between UANL and Pumas UNAM as part of the Torneo Clausura 2020 Liga MX at Universitario Stadium.
Photo: Getty
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Liga MX’s popularity in the U.S. certainly makes it attractive to the U.S. league and its owners. Univision’s over-the-air Saturday night broadcasts are widely viewed, and Fox secured an English-language deal with the league recently. Liga MX’s ratings dwarf those of MLS.

It’s not just TV that would make MLS owners sit up in their seats/thrones made of skulls. Visits from traditional powers like Club America, Chivas (who unsuccessfully ran an MLS club under their name for like 12 minutes), or Cruz Azul would spin turnstiles and get a lot more eyeballs on some MLS teams that struggle with those, and boost the coiffeurs of those who don’t. Liga MX would get to introduce itself to a whole new fanbase.

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The two leagues have already combined on a “Leagues Cup” featuring four teams from each and an All-Star game between the two as well. Both were seen by some as initial first steps toward a future merger.

The obstacles are not small, however. A merger of this type would be unprecedented. Sure, the English football league contains Welsh teams. But that came about because when those clubs were formed, there was no Welsh league. The Australian national team plays in the Asia Federation after leaving the Oceania one, but that benefitted all parties as Australia had certainly left their Oceania compatriots well behind. A merger of two leagues just hasn’t been seen.

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Still, FIFA would have to approve, and everyone knows that takes more than a smile. But it also can be done with heaps of cash left in strange places, too.

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Logistically, how you combine one league of 26 teams (soon to be 30) and another one of 20 (If Liga MX can expand to 20 teams, which isn’t a lock) is a question. There would have to be some sort of division system, or even a promotion/relegation system within the new, combined league. But considering how adamant MLS has been about having no promotion/relegation system, lord knows how that would work when you’re talking about 50-teams. There’s also the teensy issue of MLS salary cap and wage structure, which is not going to fly with Liga MX teams and more importantly their players.

Somewhere down the scale is travel, as you can imagine Toronto FC making some kind of face about a road trip to Mexico City, a five hour flight. And MLS is still a league that still flies commercial.

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The benefits are clear as well, though. A combined U.S.-Mexico league would stack up a lot better against South American and European leagues, while still some way from equaling the biggest ones, let alone overtaking. Though if entry into the Copa Libretadores could be figured out (South America’s Champions League, essentially), that would be even more of a boost. But if Toronto-to-Mexico City was a pain in the ass, what will say the New England Revolution do about a trip to Sao Paulo? Then again, money always seems to find a way to solve these equations, especially the amount potentially in play here.

In the immediate, what becomes of Mexico’s second division is still up in the air. Some have speculated it will become more of a developmental league, somewhat similar to MLB’s minor leagues. They won’t be directly affiliated with “parent clubs,” at least those that aren’t already, but as under-23 teams, a place for MX clubs to “farm” their youngsters. How profitable that can be for the league is questionable.

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But those at the top rarely concern themselves with those beneath them. Especially when this kind of potential is at their fingertips. Liga MX’s president has talked about it. MLS’s commissioner has, as well. With the league now mirroring each other more than ever, it now feels like this has gone from an “If?” to a “When?” question.

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