Lower league realities leave pro-rel warriors fighting the wrong battle

Here’s the scene: It’s late June, just after dusk, and Ted Westervelt and a writer named Kevin Koczwara are sitting in the stands at a Colorado Rapids game. That’s it, really. The game isn’t memorable. It’s so simple, two guys watching a soccer match together, and yet that moment from Kevin’s profile of Ted is one of my favorite things in the next issue of Howler. Here’s why.

You don’t know Ted, not personally, but you’ve probably seen his tweets. He’s online most of the time, attacking journalists, calling them “MLS bots” and “sock puppets.” He’s trying to bring about massive change in the American soccer landscape by way of trench warfare, or as close to that as Twitter gets. Ted’s mission is to make North American soccer leagues join together in a system of promotion and relegation, and he’s notable because, in service of that mission, he has harassed and alienated pretty much every person with any standing in professional soccer, including many who are sympathetic to his cause.

Journalists and league officials shook their heads when I mentioned we were doing a profile on Ted. Some people tried to discourage us, or said they considered taking him to court to get him to leave them alone. Very few of these people were willing to speak on the record. I assigned the profile because Ted represents a real subculture in North American soccer – probably the most active and vocal group since the Freddy Adu truthers. I’ve come to think of them as the pro-rel freedom fighters, a Rebel Alliance fighting what they perceive to be American soccer’s Sith Lords.

We finished Kevin’s story a while ago, but this week Gabriele Marcotti was in the Wall Street Journal writing about the financial difficulties that lower leagues face from Greece to the U.K. to the U.S. He argues that tiered league systems were viable back when attending matches was the primary way people consumed soccer. Beginning around 1990, however, TV money began to cause an economic stratification within the league structures. “The boom in revenues at the top made it nearly impossible for lower league teams to hang on to their best players,” he writes. “In most cases, it effectively turned them into ‘feeder clubs.’”

The pyramid structure and the system of promotion and relegation are artifacts from a specific period in the industrialization of professional soccer. It’s a way to regulate and organize a set of businesses. It might even have been the best, most rational way to do so, at some point in the past, but advances in technology and a more fluid labor market have served to limit the returns and intensify risks that come with investing in lower-league teams. As exciting as a relegation fight can be for fans, actually being relegated is usually devastating for the businesses – the clubs.

In his profile, Kevin quotes another combatant in the pro-rel fight, a guy named Dan Loney, who five years ago posted a thinly veiled critique of Ted and his comrades on a BigSoccer.com message board:

“What the hell do you care? You’re watching athletes play soccer, not balance their ****ing checkbooks. What kind of dumbass cheers for a corporate structure?”

That seems like a good point. After all, we watch soccer because it’s exciting and sometimes beautiful, right? But the truth is that soccer fans are beginning to do exactly what Loney mocks. Supporters of Premier League teams like Liverpool, Arsenal, and Manchester United have agitated in recent years against things like sky-high ticket prices and debt, or for better treatment within stadiums. There’s a growing movement, led by the Football Supporters Federation, to force the English FA to rein in club owners.

So what kind of dumbass cheers for a corporate structure? I’m not really sure, but I hope there will be more of them. There’s a common urge that aligns me with people like Ted and those fans in England, a sense of nostalgia for a time when soccer was stripped of its commercialism, for a more pure, more perfect state of being a fan. It probably never actually existed, but the idea has a strong pull.

I think I exhibit this whenever I’m working on timelines, by poring over the tiniest historical details of clubs I care nothing about. Ted does it in his fight for an antiquated system like pro-rel. In fact, in Ted’s case, I know this is true. Several times while we were working on the story, Ted reached out to Kevin and me to share specimens from his trove of vintage American soccer magazines and newspaper clippings from as far back as the 1920s and ’30s. In his spare time he runs a little company that makes T-shirts with the logos of old teams from the defunct American Soccer Leagues (there have been four).

I believe that pro-rel is a fantasy in the U.S. The story of Major League Soccer’s success is in large part the story of its ability to limit competition and control costs. Stories like Marcotti’s make it clear that pro-rel isn’t exactly a healthy business model in the rest of the world, either.

I don’t want the pro-rel freedom fighters to go away, either. In fact, I agree with something Alexi Lalas says in the story: “I still think soccer is better having a Ted Westervelt than without.”

But I wish the freedom fighters would take their energy and focus it against the corporate structures that do currently exist and would benefit from some popular pressure — against corruption in FIFA, for instance, or in favor of more transparency from MLS.

I keep thinking back to that scene outside of Denver, of Ted and Kevin sitting in the stands at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park. Professional soccer, in a soccer stadium, in America. That was the dream for so long — the faded promise in those clippings Ted loves to collect. If the way I’ve half-jokingly styled Ted and his brethren as freedom fighters has any truth, then I like to think that this was sort of like Luke Skywalker finding out it’s actually kind of fun to hang out on the bridge of the Death Star.