A Conversation With Ted Westervelt, Pro/Rel USA’s Most Outspoken Crusader

In the contentious #ProRelforUSA landscape on social media, one voice is the loudest, if not the most consistent: Ted Westervelt. We sat down with the man behind one of the most infamous soccer Twitter accounts in the country to discuss the pro/rel battle, European Super League, and the United States’ longstanding soccer history. 

You cannot talk about promotion and relegation in the United States without touching on Ted Westervelt and his polarizing Twitter account. Westervelt is not only an informative and comedic follow, but he also really knows his stuff. We interviewed him about a month before the European Super League was introduced, and while he may not have been the first to predict its formation (rumors had been circling for years), he had enough foresight to see its incoming quick demise.

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While it may seem funny to some of our readers that we’re doing an in-depth discussion about pro/rel because of some of our recent op-eds, we assure you this is no laughing matter. Not everyone on our staff agrees on the subject, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth discussing, especially in light of the recent Super League developments and the impacts they could have on the game for years to come.

Even if you don’t recognize the handle, odds are you’ve seen a screenshot of one of Westervelt’s tweets or you’ve heard him mentioned in conversation. In his mind, that’s a good thing and he’s probably right — as more people talk about pro/rel, more people will begin to be open to and maybe even outright support the concept.

The tough thing about pro/rel in the U.S. though, is how complicated it is. There is the “history” of pro/rel, the false nonexistence that FIFA alludes to in a recent ruling, and the fact that MLS teams did fail early on, in addition to the many other U.S. leagues that have folded as well, making the country seem like not the most fertile place for the beautiful game.

Because of all this, the pro/rel argument isn’t as black and white as people make it out to be. On social media however, that’s all it really is. Quick ideas that must prove why the other person is an idiot and you’re a genius. It’s divisive and puts people on opposite sides and removes any sort of understanding and middle ground — remind you of something else? We were tired of hearing other people’s opinions and wanted to learn more about pro/rel, and also the person behind the @soccerreform handle, so we reached out and got to speak to Westervelt himself.

Below is our conversation edited for clarity.

Urban Pitch: What’s your background? Where do you come from and how did you arrive to creating Soccer Reform?

Ted Westervelt: I was born in Elgin, Illinois in the Chicago suburbs. I grew up there, went to boarding school in Iowa, Scattergood Friends school, then went to Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana. I played soccer, then moved on to play lacrosse, and some ultimate frisbee. Majored in political science and then ended up in D.C. Got a pop up internship in the White House briefly and then went on to become a Democrat fundraiser for 10 years. And then decided I was done with that and moved out to Colorado and got excited about this promotion-relegation thing about 10 years ago.

ted westervelt bill clinton

What made you leave D.C. and make the switch to become an advocate for promotion and relegation?

I kind of felt like my time in D.C. was up. I was getting a little jaded on what I was doing. I worked for some great guys in D.C. Everybody from Adam Schiff, Sharon Brown, Barney Frank, dozens of others, glorious and inglorious — Rod Blagojevich. Quite a wide array. I was privileged to work with a very wide range of some really great people, but fundraising wasn’t my primary interest. I was an idealist and I wanted to go and try to make a difference doing something.

It was great and I was very lucky in that I was working for people that kept me going for as long as I did. But it got a little stifling. And like I said, I’m sort of an idealist when it comes to politics, and that’s not a field you want to be in if you’re an idealist.

And promotion-relegation stuff came about — I was an MLS season ticket holder and I love DC United and followed them in the early dynasty years, and then came to Colorado at about the time Fulham, aka Ful-America, was in full swing — Brian McBride and Clint Dempsey, all those guys. And that’s when I found promotion-relegation. The most compelling sports drama I’d ever seen was watching Fulham stave off relegation.

So what was the big difference between DC United and Fulham?

Well, DC United spoiled me at first because they went to the Interamerican Cup and won the CONCACAF, what stood for the CONCACAF Champions Cup back then. And then suddenly it was like, meh, it’s not really happening.

There was something funky about an MLS team standing up with the world one second, and then the next they had the second-worst record in the league. And then watching Fulham then it was like, “Ahh, here’s the solution!”

Here’s how you can move out of that situation of American sports leagues and salary caps that are ridiculous in an international format. But that’s the key, you’ve got to open the leagues. It’s the only way that’s going to work. I don’t think you can remove salary caps and leave leagues closed because that’s when you run into all sorts of other problems. But the two issues are intrinsically connected, and that’s when I discovered it.

There’s a political component to this. Anti-competitive behavior has always been sort of central to this, and how the U.S. economy and free market has kind of been corrupted into a rich boy’s game, and it’s not nearly as open as it used to be too, which is a weird dichotomy for a liberal to have. But that’s been one of my challenges all the way through. Free market isn’t necessarily a bad word, but it shouldn’t only be the bottom 90% having to live in a rugged free market. Everybody should have to do it and that should include U.S. pro sports owners.

So that’s it. That’s a translation that’s difficult to make for some people, especially of the liberal ilk. But that’s the challenge.

How do you feel the 1922 Federal Baseball Club vs. National League Supreme Court case plays into all of this?

Yeah, I mean, that’s a seminal moment in this whole conversation. That’s when American closed sports leagues were cemented, and that’s one of the interesting conversations I have with my attorney friends. I think there’s a lot of people out there who see that as a pretty bad embarrassment on courts and court decisions in general, especially Supreme Court decisions. At some point it will be overturned. I think a lot of people say when the right case comes along.

It’s central to the conversation, I mean, it’s all about that monopoly power that baseball has and the different flavors of monopoly power that the other leagues share, some to a greater extent than others. But certainly the NFL is probably in second place there with the antitrust exemption officially.

But there’s stuff with the Sherman Act that doesn’t work with Major League Soccer in terms of the federation system and amateur athletic organizations controlling professional sports, so it’s all a legal mess that hasn’t been quite sorted out yet in my mind.

And what about the recent court ruling saying that countries without a history of promotion and relegation don’t need to adopt that to be officially sanctioned by FIFA?

That’s one of the reasons I go out and do a lot of the history and show that. There’s definitely a tradition of promotion-relegation in the States. It’s just too often ignored and forgotten.

I mean, the National League of Chicago, San Francisco Soccer League, the Cosmo League of New York, just these three have been using promotion relegation for, I think it’s about 100 years now. And those leagues included professional clubs, so I think there’s a case to be made that we do have that history, amongst many other points.

American players were being paid as much as English players up through the 1930s, and there’s a great clip I shared — Babe Ruth made a big comment on that. English players in ‘35-’36 were being paid about $40 a week and he just scoffed at that and said, “You guys are way behind” and made a joke, “How do I get involved in this racket?”

How do you find things like this?

I think I probably have the biggest digital library of soccer history.

What do you see out there that’s the best sign for the promotion and relegation movement? (**Super League Prediction incoming**)

The best sign for me is that MLS, MLS advocates, and MLS owners are out trying to close leagues in other countries. They’re not going to win this battle here, so they’re going to have to win it over there. And I think they’re getting a little ahead of themselves. I think it’s proven that it’s not going to go well and they’re not going to be able to do it.

Italy is going to be the next interesting point because American ownership there is approaching a tipping point. So I think they’re going to probably see an attempt to shut Italy if they can’t get their Euro Super League, which I don’t think they’ll be able to get any time soon.

Mexico is a great example of MLS owners getting out there and trying to find a way to close that down. There’s just been a lot over the past 10 years — the Court of Arbitration of Sport case, Ricardo Silva, Kingston Stockade — I mean Ricardo Silva offered $4 billion dollars to open MLS and I think that speaks volumes in and of itself. Of course MLS attacked that as not real money but if MLS is attacking anything as not being real money that becomes a slippery slope awfully quickly. (Laughs.)

Where do you think this battle was lost in the U.S.?

We lost it in the late ‘20s. I mean you’re talking about the NFL in a nascent stage, the NHL is basically still in Canada, the NBA is nonexistent at that point, and soccer is second to baseball in terms of professional sports. Then it gets all screwed up — there’s a giant war over the U.S. Open Cup basically, and this is the super abridged version, but people in the American Soccer League wanted to emulate baseball, and then there’s people who certainly wanted to have a more international structure and use the Open Cup, and it got all screwed up. There was a huge fight. And that dove tailed perfectly with the beginning of the Great Depression which wounded soccer pretty badly.

We are huge fans of the history portion of your Twitter account, what inspired you to share all of this good stuff?

That’s such a huge deal to me to change that universe of American soccer. If you’re my age, you tend to think soccer started with the Cosmos. If you’re younger than that, if you’re a millennial, you might think soccer started with MLS and MLS has sort of wrapped that into their marketing. But to get this story of American soccer history in which you can see how things flow and how things have been and how we make the same mistakes over and over again, I think that’s such a huge piece of what I want to communicate, so I want to appreciate that you’re seeing that.

What do you think about lower divisions, like the USL and NISA, experimenting with promotion-relegation but then keeping the top league, MLS, closed?

Without opening the entire pyramid, it’s never going to work and we need to make sure that the focus stays on that. Experimenting in lower divisions doesn’t change the monopoly. For me, it goes into that direction pretty quickly and you’re going down a dangerous road. The fact that they’re not getting a lot of investment and not a lot of buy-in on that — that should lead you to believe that, and if you believe that your struggles and doing minor league promotion-relegation have anything to do with Americans not understanding the concept or it’s somehow not a germane concept in the United States, that would be the wrong way to go. If you’re not opening the entire system, you’re not going to experience the benefits.

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What about the argument that promotion-relegation and salary cap-less leagues are bad because they somehow create dynasties?

Yeah, I mean, that argument, that’s one of the oldest arguments out there. The challenge for me is always — how do you get people out of that little solar system and let them see that there’s a whole galaxy around it? And you’re talking about an argument that works for like 2% and the other 98% you just lop off and say that doesn’t exist because that’s your experience in American professional sports. But that’s the hurdle. That’s the big one.

There’s a funny community of pro/rel people online to help you make the argument. What do you think of the pro/rel gang? Are you the leader?

(Laughs.) Yeah we’re pretty disorganized and I kind of like it that way. It makes it difficult for a lot of the people who are aligned against us to figure out what’s going on. You asked before, “What’s one of the biggest indicators that the pro/rel argument is gaining ground?”

One of the biggest ones is that MLS and aligned interests have been forced to spend money to battle the promotion-relegation idea. There’s no doubt in my mind, and it’s a significant amount of money and some of the firms they’ve hired are firms I knew when I was in D.C. so it’s not a conspiracy theory, it actually happens. It’s not a conspiracy to say that companies of all kinds hire social media and digital PR firms to do their social media, so it’s happening in MLS. They’ve had to devote a lot of resources to challenging this promotion-relegation stuff and God bless ‘em for doing that. (Laughs.)

A few weeks following our initial interview, we caught up with Westervelt after the European Super League announcement. 

When we interviewed you last you said the thing that gives you the most hope about the pro/rel movement is the arrogance of MLS owners and U.S. bankers, how are you feeling about that now? 

(Laughs.) Just this morning I’m looking at all the [CONCACAF President Victor] Montagliani garbage that’s coming out and the other stuff, the Beckham stuff, it’s like — hypocrisy just seems to have this weird hold on U.S. Soccer. Like I think somebody like Beckham is so used to putting American soccer in a different category, and I’m guessing it’s because he’s heard it for so long from guys like [MLS Commissioner] Don Garber: “The U.S. is not a soccer country. We’re so different.” And these guys become so used to that paradigm, that they just insult it without even knowing. Like, “Yeah, I’m here to save football. But the only way I could do this is…” and it’s without even realizing that he’s dissing MLS 100% and then nobody calls him on it, you know?

So then what’s the disconnect, if any, between American soccer fans and European soccer fans? They protest when the system starts to look like ours and we don’t protest our system at all, we just accept it.

The disconnect is interesting between the poll numbers and the intensity of the feeling too. If you give a proponent of promotion-relegation 30 seconds with any American, most people are going to say, “Oh, that sounds much better than what we got.” Right? But it’s that lack of intensity you’re talking about. I agree. It’s one of those cultural phenomenons in the United States when once you get used to sort of being robbed and whatnot, you just go with it. You just think it’s inevitable.

Were you surprised at how quickly the Super League folded?

I was thinking a month, not 48 hours. I was thinking it could be done in a month and then they would leave with much bigger concessions. I mean, the trick is always the same, it’s how do you navigate the American psyche? This is always the problem. I think people don’t like to admit that they supported something that was so wrong for so long and they just took it for granted. And they bristle. And that continues to be the hurdle, I think.

We’re told and conditioned to think soccer isn’t going to work here and this current system is the only way it’s going to work.

Or that soccer doesn’t have history or all that. It’s the paradigm. And that’s why Marvel movies work. You know who’s good and who’s bad, they dress them that way and it’s straight up. My head is still kind of spinning around the whole thing, like how to grasp onto it.

And I think if we can make this connect in Europe, I think that’s a really big deal, because a lot of what the American status quo rotates around is this notion that soccer is small in the U.S., that we’re idiots, we don’t know, we don’t like promotion-relegation, we don’t understand it, and that’s [former USSF president Sunil] Gulati, Garber, and [former USSF Vice President Chuck] Blazer, and those guys have been playing off that for 20 years now.

And it goes back to that thing I was saying about Beckham. I think it’s like when you just put American soccer in such a different category then you have no idea when you’re dissing it so broadly. So if the European clubs start doing this and if more people in Europe start recognizing that the U.S. does have a big soccer history, they’ll see that a lot of the stuff that they’ve heard about U.S. soccer is bunk. I think that’s a really big front in the battle. And I would love to make some progress there.

What if anything can an American soccer fan take from the folding of the Super League?

I think the obvious one is anything can happen if you stand up. I mean, people have told me for years that there’s no way. There’s no way you can stand up to U.S. pro sports billionaires. Closed systems are all inevitable and you’re just kidding yourself if you think otherwise. And so that was proven pretty conclusively wrong. I mean, those guys backed down quickly. And the other interesting thing I was going to say is with Red Sox owner John Henry  — I’m hearing that he didn’t want to be the front man for this and none of the Americans did. And so they brought up Florentino Perez to do it and he was awful. (Laughs.)

Politicians also made some statements which was a little unusual. 

I think Boris Johnson and Macron and those guys all came in and were like, “Not happening.” That was a pretty big deal, but they wouldn’t have done it without the mass outcry. And that’s been my theory all along. If we can get the mass outcry enough, then I’ve got something to take to my old friends in D.C. and make this happen.

What’s your takeaway on coverage of this whole fiasco?

The thing that really pisses me off is that you’re still dealing with all these publications in the U.S. coming out with these postmortems on the Super League, and they’re not mentioning promotion-relegation, they’re not using it to contrast honestly the way that pro sports are run here against Europe, and it dumbfounded me. How do you not include this in the conversation?

It’s not talking about blatant stuff like the salary differences. If I could repeat something every five minutes, it would be that one. In lower divisions of English soccer they are being paid a mint compared to lower divisions or minor leagues in American baseball. And I think that’s part and parcel of the situation.

But the more I go through this, the more that that becomes one of the most central issues in this is that somehow athletes — they’re just treated less than, they’re not respected. And if you’re an accountant, you get treated with more respect than a professional athlete.

“You really should be playing for the love of the game.” But an accountant should be doing his job for the love of accountancy? Like, I don’t like the whole premise, but that’s normal. That’s a big part of it.

At least there would be a few more opportunities [for more athletes] if the system was run right. I mean, you can make a little money doing it. It doesn’t have to be a few incredibly rich guys making money and then nobody else.

I’m convinced that it’s not like these guys don’t know that and it’s not like it doesn’t cross their mind. But it’s not a battle they want to have. They don’t want to be on that side. It’s kind of a “clicky” mentality and it’s kind of an employment mentality. It’s like you cannot want to get out there as a sports reporter in the U.S. and pick a fight with everybody and every sports owner and everything. I just think that they’re just wired against it. And that’s why social media has been and will always be my hope. I think that’s the only way that’s going to happen. It’s got to be people who don’t have anything to really lose from speaking out. Once you’re credentialed by the NFL and the NHL and MLB and everything else, you can’t. I find It’s very difficult for you to have a conversation on this in the right way.

Follow Ted Westervelt on Twitter for more U.S. soccer history updates and impassioned pro/rel arguments. 

2 COMMENTS

  1. Ted is not wrong. The sport in America is constantly being suppressed for the benefit of MLS. They squat on the D1 sanction, with disproportionate influence on what PLS rules are in play and how they define a pro team so that only mls stakeholders can reliably take advantage. USSF and MLS share direct leadership and many indirect contacts, cemented together by the money diverted to MLS through Soccer United Marketing, an MLS subsidiary awarded by USSF a no-bid contract unilaterally to manage all national team and international friendlies/tournament appearances. The Fed is a captured regulator, diverting revenue from WNT excellence to subsidize MLS existence. USSF refuses to require or regulate solidarity/development/transfer fees between lower-division clubs and the MLS single-entity.

    MLS has no clubs. Not real ones. All player contracts are with MLS. MLS shareholders operate their monopolist-protected team with limited autonomy, and are ok with mediocre results because MLS directly influences what ‘good quality’ means here in the states. They keep the season out of sync with the international calendar to suppress player wages. They have great influence with lower-division clubs and seek to control the whole pipeline. They’ve consolidated all the boys development academies into a handful of direct MLS affiliates, and the rest don’t matter. MLS and USSF don’t put much or any effort to scout outside their pipeline, and definitely don’t use resources to develop outside it. All other us soccer stakeholders are left to wither and die, or subsist in a ‘market’ considered too small to care about. Meanwhile 19 professional clubs live on for a century or more in London alone.

    The corruption of USSF, SOccer United Marketing and MLS needs to be cleaved. No one has to force MLS into an open pyramid. No one has to make those poor little rich owners do anything they don’t want. What they cannot be allowed to continue to do is squat on the D1 sanction, and control the rules the define how leagues work. The rest of America has to be brought to the table.

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