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Opinion: Is promotion/relegation a bridge too far for Canadian Premier League?

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With the Canadian Premier League’s first season in the books, it looks like Canadian soccer fans finally have a league of their own – one that spans from coast to coast. A league where we can see Canadians get on-field opportunities, outside the three Major League Soccer cities and without having to move abroad. 2019 saw communities, towns and cities rally around these new professional local heroes. The future is bright.

And now some fans wonder what shape the fledgling league’s future will take? Expansion, playoffs, sustainability, travel issues and profitability are subjects often discussed.

However, there’s one appealing topic that stands out for many fans.

Should the Canadian Premier League (CPL) use promotion and relegation once enough clubs join the league?

Canadian Premier League commissioner a fan of promotion and relegation

Leagues with a promotion/relegation system reward the best-ranked teams in a lower division by promoting them to the higher division for the next season, while the worst-ranked teams in the higher division are relegated to the lower division for the next season. The system is a mainstay in the world of soccer. European and South American leagues have used the system for decades.

Do you think the Canadian Premier League will eventually implement a promotion/relegation format?

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CPL commissioner David Clanachan has said he would like to see the CPL eventually use promotion and relegation once there are enough clubs to support two divisions. But, can it work in Canada?

It’s easy to say this system is inevitable and one would have a difficult time to argue it is an issue, as it is a frank reality for purists, but not for the casual fan. Does the league only want to appeal to the knowledgeable soccer fans who have grown accustomed to the concept or do they want to appeal to the casual North American sports fans and try to win over their interest?

Maybe it’s not a question of either-or, but it is a mistake not to know the answer before implementing it or dismissing the idea.

Let’s take the view of the life-long fan vs. the new fan. Let’s posit the life-long fan as someone who grew up watching the English Premiership or similar leagues and the new fan as someone who grew up playing hockey and has recently found the beautiful game. The life-long fan may say a promotion/relegation system even makes bottom-of-the-table battles exciting the significance of every game. League standings become more important even for those at the bottom.

Are North American sports fans ready for promotion/relegation?

The new fan, on the other hand, may say we need playoffs, the excitement of finishing at the top and having the playoffs determine a true champion, also valid, especially in our North American brains.

But this new fan may also ask, can the promotion/relegation system work financially?

As a writer from Ottawa, I ask myself, would the Ottawa Senators be able to survive being relegated to the AHL after a bad season? Not a chance. This might seem like an apples and oranges argument, but it does allude to the North American psyche of sports.

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We cheer for the team in the highest league knowing full well they will be in that league next year and things might be different (although seemingly I’ve been waiting a while for the Senators). We always know there’s next year.

The CPL is not the NHL, and the difference between the NHL and AHL is stark when talking about salaries and TV money. The question remains though, can relegation/promotion in the CPL work?

Canadian Premier League should prioritize stability

The CPL is a fragile league. This is not a slight as we have all been waiting for this league, but the worst possible thing the CPL could do is fold. It must work. Its frailness comes in the form of making the right decisions as it moves forward in its goals and closer to sustainability.

As mentioned, CPL’s commissioner Clanachan says he wants the promotion/relegation system in CPL. There is no second division to speak of yet. So, unless the commissioner is talking about it as something he wants to see implemented, I think this question is a little premature.

MLS has stayed away from the promotion/relegation system, and it has seen it’s league grow from the butt end of jokes to one of the biggest leagues in the world by running it’s operation much more like the NHL or NBA rather than the English football league system.

Perhaps the likes of Hull City and West Bromwich Albion can withstand these ups and downs but to assume this would not be an issue for North American fans (or a potential issue) would be a mistake.

Personally, I would love a full promotion/relegation system implemented in a two-division professional league structure, but what I want more is to have a Canadian professional league become sustainable.

The biggest question to me is will the North American psyche, specifically Canadian, continue to passionately follow a brand new CPL team when it drops to a lower division following relegation?  What happens when attendance drops in half, or worse?

Grow fan base before implementing promotion/relegation

The logical, though frustrating reality, might (and I stress ‘might’) be to run the league as one entity ala MLS, with only one division, until sustainability is not a serious issue.

This should give the casual Canadian soccer fans, or even potential new soccer fans, time to acclimatize to world football. If that is the strategy going forward then maybe it is a mistake to try to get everyone excited about having a promotion/relegation system until that time, and not have the commissioner tout it after the first year.

All this is to say, I would like to believe we are ready to accept the promotion/relegation system, and that this is a warning that does not need to be heeded.

Hopefully, we are ready for the thrill of the promotion battles and the relegation tumult and all the excitement it brings. I truly do.

But, you only have to ask the casual Canadian sports fan if they think promotion/relegation is a good idea, and watch them ask you, “What is that?”

This is why I ask myself if this might be a bridge too far and maybe too much too soon.


About Author

Ryan Stead is an Ottawa-based writer and life-long soccer fan. He has covered soccer and boxing for various outlets and is a published novelist with the book "Nation Man", available at Indigo. He covers Atlético Ottawa.


  1. Relegation will eventually need to be implemented if we want Canadian football to be successful. I still believe implementing this system is years away as you’re quite right in saying the league is not yet sustainable and it’s a very dangerous move to relegate a brand new team when we are still at the “catering to casuals” stage. Eventually, it needs to happen, for a couple of reasons.

    1) It is far more exciting to watch as a fan. Personally as a Vancouver Whitecaps fan, this past season was insanely boring, we all knew from the off that the team wouldn’t make the playoffs, and by the halfway mark, they were miles away. This meant that the remaining half of the regular season turned into glorified exhibition games for the Caps. No chance of playoffs and no relegation made for very dull viewing. That’s not going to attract any fans.

    2) It will actually improve the quality of Canadian players. Touching on the above point, with no danger of relegation, as things stand in the MLS for example, it leaves players of the lesser team with very little incentive to perform to a high standard. I mean isn’t it actually better to be worse since you get a better draft pick?! Anyways that’s besides the point. If you implement a relegation system it forces players into a sink or swim situation and the swimmers will have the drive to better themselves and their team, at the moment, there is genuinely no point putting your all in with 5 games to go if youre near the bottom, as it makes very little difference.

    American football is simply not successful, I’m not sure how you can consider the MLS one of the biggest leagues in the world, as it is continually laughed at by all across the globe. The prime example of the state of football in the states is the 2018 World Cup Qualifying campaign. Yes the MLS is marketed well, but when it comes to the end of the season and the teams at the top not needed to fight for a meaningless “Supporters shield” and the bottom feeder teams playing for pride(?) it does not implement a competitive atmosphere, which ultimately costed the USA against the almighty Panama!

    • It’s a bit narrow to say that the USA’s failure to make it to the 2018 WC is a reflection of the MLS and its standard of play. By that metric the Eredivisie and Series A are also joke leagues, because neither the Netherlands nor Italy made the last World Cup as well. Italy, especially, is made up of nearly entirely players from their domestic league. The Netherlands is less so, but the point still stands. The Netherlands lost to Bulgaria and Italy couldn’t beat Macedonia. Flukes happen. While I completely agree with you that North American sports could use (and should use) a promotion /relegation system, I believe you’re off base with your assessment of the MLS (the Kick Algorithms supports that claim). To the former point, The Edmonton Oilers, or Buffalo Sabres – perennial bottom feeders – would be better served in a 2nd division and increasing the competition/ meaningful games among themselves and the top NHL teams. Better yet, if the NHL were split into 2 sixteen team leagues (NHL and NHL II). The AHL could become a 3rd division (or 3 and 4) and maintain them as affiliates without having them compete against their owner clubs (like U23 teams in Europe that can’t be promoted past a defined level).

      • Fair enough, it is certainly not completely down to the MLS’ format etc, but I do believe that plays a big part. The counter I would have in regards to the Holland/Italy not qualifying is that as a whole, they are playing superior teams than the USA are. Sure the Bulgaria and Macedonia results do happen, but they are usually outliers. Dutch football has been at an all time low until 2019, when the new influx of top young Dutch players have come through, they have come through their transitional phase as have Italy. I understand your point completely though, It is strange that those two big nations have recently faltered as much as they have.

  2. William Corliss on

    My question is how big is each league going to be? We just got an 8th team. I see only about 16 realistic markets though. Maybe 18 at most but that’s pushing it. It seems like we’re having a tough time finding the right people / stadiums in a few markets that would seem obvious. I can see why people want it but we’re not getting to 20+ cities with our population, though. So 8 + 8? 8 + 10? 10 + 8? Is that better than just a 16 team league?

    • Feebee the best dog on

      We can probably have 2 leagues of 10 but if you look at 2nd divisions around the world a lot of the teams there come from areas with a reletivley low population compare to the big cities so i do think it can work in the long run and its better than rewarding a team for finishing last

  3. Andrew Jefferson on

    What about “Pro” with no “Rel”? Only until the pyramid in question is strong enough to clearly allow a 1st teir team a good chance of survival in a 2nd teir,

    I’m thinking CPL in Canada due to the need for expansion but maybe it could work in the U.S. as well?