Liga MX ending promotion, relegation could have dangerous impact
MEXICO CITY -- It's always a tiny bit jarring to witness so many grown men openly weeping. The medals and the trophy were still in the league's hands, but the banda was at full volume, the confetti was in the air, and the journalists were out on the field.
There's a special kind of ambiance behind a promotion battle. It's not just a trophy at stake but the opportunity to play in a bigger league. On May 21, 2011, the city of Tijuana and its team, the Xoloitzcuintles de Caliente, were celebrating their first climb into Liga MX, beating Irapuato in the two-legged Final de Ascenso. On the field amid the celebration, a player was asked if he was worried about being able to play in the first division altogether due to the state of the team's new (albeit incomplete) 15,000-seat stadium. "I don't know, we'll see," he said.
The league considered cracking the market in Tijuana as a badge of honor. Prior to 2011, the city was long enamored with "American" sports and not soccer, but Xolos rallied the town around its badge in a short time. Now, Liga MX could flaunt teams in every corner of the country, from northwestern Tijuana to southeastern Cancun with Atlante.
Cut to seven years later and Liga MX is looking to get rid of promotion and relegation altogether. "Yes, we are looking at that. We're analyzing what we're seeing in regards to it, and we'll keep analyzing it," said Enrique Bonilla, the league's president.
As of now, only six of the 16 teams in Mexico's second division's Ascenso MX are authorized for promotion. A decaying infrastructure, not to mention the especially difficult road to achieve a spot in Liga MX, are singled out as culprits for the decrease in interest for business owners to invest in Ascenso MX.
Promotion to Liga MX is inherently difficult -- the league grants just one spot per year -- and it's not enough to win the league outright or gain it via the final pitting the two tournament champions. Certain conditions must be met to achieve promotion, mainly infrastructure and a declaration of economic assets that prove players will be paid on time. In Tijuana's case, the stadium demands were met and the team now plays in a 27,500-seat stadium complete with a VIP area, bars and restaurants. However, they were granted special permission in 2011 allowing them to expand the Estadio Caliente on the fly, something not afforded currently to the rest of the teams.
"Liga MX is liable here for not creating an environment where promoted clubs stand a chance to be sustainable at the top level, excluding Xolos and Leon," said Walter Franco, a consultant with Victus Advisors who has worked with Mexican clubs. "Look at how TV deals [are structured]. Leon was able to get more money because of their financial backing, but Lobos BUAP was a disaster."
It must be said that even with two-thirds of Mexico's second division not meeting the standards to play in Liga MX, doing away with promotion -- even temporarily -- sets a dangerous precedent in the country.
"Relegation battles are intense for everyone included. As a player, you don't want it to happen," said Damian Zamogilny, former Liga MX player who is now an analyst. "Even though I went through that pressure [with Puebla and Estudiantes], I think it's necessary to have promotion and relegation."
During the initial meetings in which abolishing relegation from Mexican soccer for four years was proposed, sources tell ESPN FC that the attempt is to create an "MLS-type" model in which the league would eventually be expanded to 20 teams, with a possibility of pushing to 22. Key geographic markets not involved in the first division right now would be targeted for expansion, and historic teams in the lower divisions would be granted opportunities to buy into the league.
Voices initially opposed to the proposal -- mostly emanating from the Ascenso MX -- say that U.S. leagues such as the NBA, NFL and even MLS, offer incentives to teams unable to compete for titles such as preferential order in the draft. These are incentives Liga MX cannot and should not offer, thus making the concept a tough sell.
"I understand you need to protect the business somehow, but it would be a bad decision to do away with it," Zamogilny said. "It's a bad decision. The issue with copying formulas from other leagues is we don't follow through with the whole thing. What works elsewhere may not work in Mexico."
Opponents say the gap between big-spending teams such as Tigres, Monterrey and Club America is too big as it is and eliminating relegation will only encourage teams into embracing mediocrity and thus diminish the league's overall quality; those teams stuck in the bottom half might feel they can't compete directly with the economic elite. In turn, that affects contracts with sponsors and TV partners, defeating the purpose of protecting the league's cash flow by locking the door on promotion.
The league will say the reported four-year period is just a trial, an opportunity for those Ascenso MX teams who aren't cleared for promotion to shore up their finances, invest in their stadiums and present a more long-term project that will attract fans and advertisers.
"The majority of revenue would be broadcast rights and sponsorships. The suspension of promotion and relegation doesn't really affect those revenue streams in my opinion," Franco said.
It's true that teams joining Mexico's top division of late have had an especially rough time: Of the 10 teams promoted since 2008, only Tijuana, Queretaro, Leon and Necaxa have lasted more than year in the top flight, and even those teams have struggled. Necaxa has won promotion twice in the last decade, while Queretaro bought Chiapas and moved the team to the Estadio Corregidora in order to maintain its status.
From a business standpoint, eliminating relegation could offer the type of stability Liga MX craves, though the short-term solution would more than likely create larger, more serious problems in the future, as well as eliminating a time-tested, integral part of the sport in its organized form. The months ahead have the potential to become a watershed moment for the league precisely because of the implications of this move.
"There's no substitution for relegation," said one executive, who wished to remain anonymous, to ESPN FC. "There's a special adrenaline that goes with it. Then again, it would be nice not to worry about going down."
Eric Gomez is an editor for ESPN's One Nación. You can follow him on Twitter: @EricGomez86.