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Liga MX can use break to tackle promotion-relegation ownership issues

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MEXICO CITY -- Liga MX president Enrique Bonilla is the most recognizable person in Mexico to contract the coronavirus, at least as of March 24. Clearly, big decisions about the future of soccer are on hold with the league currently on hiatus and Bonilla recovering.

But the unexpected recess also provides Mexican soccer with an opportunity for reflection, a pause to look inside itself.

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There are multitude of challenges and opportunities, including promotion/relegation, how much to gravitate towards Major League Soccer and the make up of its second division.

Mexican soccer has been pushed and pulled by different influences and ideas over its history. Bordering the United States and permeated by the country's unique sporting culture, Mexico is also an important part of Latin America and has a strong historical connection to Europe.

In part, those influences have led to a league system that is an anomaly, an outlier on the world stage, created by the fusion of differing ideas. No other league has the combination of two seasons and two champions per year, playoffs and a relegation system that is based on a points-per-game basis over the last three years (six seasons).

The lure of CONMEBOL and its higher standard of competition saw Mexican club teams play in the prestigious Copa Libertadores between 1998 and 2016, while the Mexican national team played in the Copa America from 1993 until 2016, finishing runner-ups twice.

But the joint 2026 World Cup bid has pulled Mexico ever closer to the United States and Canada and towards its natural geographical home in CONCACAF.

Liga MX and MLS officially partnered up in March 2018 in one of the most ambitious joint projects in global soccer. The expressed "dream" is a joint league. Ventures like Leagues Cup, Campeones Cup, potential inter-league play with points at stake, an All-Star game and increased cross-over at youth level are stepping stones in a confidence-building process.

But before taking any big next step, Liga MX needs to get its house in order. It needs to have a clear idea of where it wants to go and make the necessary changes to get there. And that's not easy in a league in which the diverse club owners have to agree on the big decisions.

At the front and center of the current debate about Liga MX's future is the system of promotion and relegation. Meetings on the issue have been put on hold due to the coronavirus crisis, but it'll be back on the table once the league resumes.

The recent example of Veracruz provided a devastating reminder of the types of ownership Liga MX doesn't want near the league. Veracruz boss Fidel Kuri didn't pay wages on time, had overt political affiliations, the team was awful on the field and the whole situation turned into a PR disaster for Mexican soccer, the type of club that garnered international headlines painting Liga MX as a footballing backwater, not an integral player in the North American sporting landscape. Veracruz was kicked out of the league last December, reducing it from 19 to 18 teams.

Liga MX's stated goal is to get to 20 teams. Among the regulations in place are that clubs are financially sound, can prove the sources of their funds, and don't have too strong a political influence. A huge issue is that multiple reports suggest that none of the Ascenso MX (second-division) teams have passed the "certification" test to be eligible to earn promotion, posing an existential threat and the question of how exactly Liga MX is to reach 20 clubs. (Spoiler: it's likely through buying into the league in a franchise-type system).

Finding ambitious owners has been problematic and has been cited as justification for allowing multi-ownership (three Liga MX owners have two clubs each), but for a country of 130 million people in which soccer is the number one sport, it's a poor state of affairs, especially when you consider the natural market in the United States and that Liga MX games consistently outrank matches from other soccer leagues on U.S. television.

Ascenso MX has struggled in recent times. There were 18 clubs in the division for the 2017 Clausura and now there are only 12. Of those 12, three clubs are owned by companies with Liga MX clubs and can't be promoted for that reason under another new relegation. In fact, for the 18 Liga MX clubs and 12 Ascenso MX clubs, there are only 23 ownership groups.

The idea of suspending pro/rel until after the 2026 World Cup has been discussed and is real. The theory goes that closing pro/rel would provide stability for Liga MX ownership groups, give time for second division clubs to develop facilities to be able to make the jump to Liga MX and, importantly, help attract new investment. In a time in which ownership of soccer clubs has become a global investment opportunity, only one of Mexico's clubs -- Atletico Madrid's sister-club Atletico San Luis -- is foreign owned.

In case pro/rel is suspended, Ascenso MX could become a development league, according to reports, with age restrictions and foreigner limits. The idea of first division clubs fielding teams has also been floated.

But if that does happen, it would only strengthen the idea that pro/rel closure isn't temporary and that this is a play to move closer to the MLS model -- which could upset Ascenso MX clubs and players hoping to win promotion.

"We are very worried about our product, our category, our fans, our stadiums, our players, our television [and] we aren't getting the answers that as team owners we need to make our teams profitable and our institutions financially stable," Club Celaya owner and president Alan Achar told ESPN last month.

Players protested by remaining still for the first minute of each game over the last weekend before the stoppage.

"Without promotion there is no advancement," is a hashtag used by concerned second division players, while a video of Mexican federation president Yon de Luisa telling reporters that "we want a league in which promotion and relegation exists" has also been widely tweeted.

There's little to incentivize Ascenso MX clubs to accept a potential closing of pro/rel, even if the idea of selling TV rights as a collective could give some boost in income.

It's clear that the status quo needs to change.

The options for change appear clear-cut: Open up pro/rel with two or three teams per year moving up and down between the top two divisions, according to total points over the Apertura and Clausura, or close it up entirely, following the MLS model and try to entice investment.

The tendency is likely to be to lean towards the latter, with the decision-making, in the end, coming down to Liga MX owners, After all, which owner would vote against a backstop that could increase the value of their club overnight?

But there's resistance from elsewhere. The Liga Balompie Mexicano was announced on Jan. 29 by Mexico legends Carlos Salcido and Ramon Morales. It's a brand new soccer league aiming to compete with Liga MX. In the initial outline for the league, which is scheduled to start next September, TV rights are set to be split, there's no playoff system and full promotion and relegation between up to three divisions.

While the idealistic project is almost certainly not going to topple Liga MX or be recognized by the Mexican federation, it does highlight that there is discontent.

Liga MX needs to take the initiative, set the agenda, make set rules and, most crucially of all, stick by them. Consistency will be key in attracting new investment, as will any advancement on a collective TV deal.

The Premier League's collective TV deal was a key factor in England's top division becoming a leading global sports brand, while even La Liga giants Real Madrid and Barcelona came around to the belief that everyone would benefit from a collective deal when the Spanish first division did the same in 2016.

There's momentum in Mexico for the same to happen, but it becomes seriously complicated by Club America, arguably Liga MX's biggest club, and Morelia both being owned by media conglomerates.

Still, Bonilla is on record saying he believes it is possible.

All of the above feeds into Liga MX's relationship with MLS. The talk of getting to 20 teams, potentially suspending pro/rel and developing tournaments like Leagues Cup and the Liga MX vs. MLS All-Stars game is all directly linked to what the future of the North American game is going to look like. Liga MX doesn't have to mirror MLS, but it does have to take steps towards it for the partnership to full flourish.

But there is also friction. Portland Timbers and Necaxa are involved in an ongoing legal case over Brian Fernandez's transfer, according to sources, and FIFA confirmed to ESPN that Monterrey launched a complaint about Inter Miami's pursuit of Rodolfo Pizarro.

Those cases envelop individual clubs, but don't exactly send out a message of unity and partnership. And then Bonilla has never ruled out a return to Copa Libertadores.

The list of issues to be resolved are long and Liga MX needs to get it right. The Mexican game could do with using this untimely break to get its stakeholders on the same page and moving in the same direction.