Even as my new eyes have been looking in on the news this week, an old argument has resurfaced about scrapping the Promotion/ Relegation system. And yes, even with me being a new fan, I even find this idea unthinkable because this was one of the concepts that drew me into football in the first place. I have to admit, last season during the waning days of the season, getting caught up in the hype of teams who were making that final push to try to stay top flight or be pushed down into the lower leagues and fo course the finishes were thrilling and even more so than watching the top teams finish out their season.
For those of you not familiar with the concept, promotion and relegation in soccer sort of goes like this: most leagues have 2 or more divisions which can be made up of anywhere between 10 to 20 teams each. The 1st division is your top division. This is the one that has the most money, TV rights, bets players, merchandising, etc. At the end of the season, the 3 teams with the best record in the lower divisions can advance to the next tier and the three with the worst records fall back a tier. The idea is, if you get promoted to a division, you will do your best to stay there. In short, there is a penalty for losing. Losing sponsors, good players and even fans is a reality of relegation.
In American sports, no one really pays attention to the losing teams in sports because there is no penalty for finishing last. In fact in some sports, the reward is getting top picks for the new crop of athletes turning pro in the following season. As I read some of the comments this week as talk once again surfaced about scrapping the current system, there were a lot of comments from people who said that wished that the promotion/ relegation system be adopted in American sports. The question is, would it be an improvement over what is already in place?
1. The idea of a 2 (or more) tiered league: In a sense most sports won’t benefit from this as anything below what we consider top flight gets little to no air time. The NFL (American football) and the NBA (American basketball) draw their pool of players from the college level (the NCAA) to play in the pros. Of course the question is, what if they are not cut out for it? What happens? That is the advantage that European soccer has. If a player is not on his A game, he has the option of finding a place for his B game to fit in and still make a decent salary. In the US, many systems have been tried to varying degrees. The NFL had the NFL Europe league which had a twofold objective: To take players who weren’t cut out for the cream of the crop to play at a lower tier and also give the rest of the world some exposure to American football. The Europe league just folded last year and now a new league has popped up called the UFL which is similar in the quality of players but is a domestic product.
The NBA simply does not have a 2nd tier system, but because now basketball is widespread across the world, players who can’t cut it here can go elsewhere. In my opinion, I don’t think that neither league could really benefit from a 2 or more tiered system because in some regions, the college divisions of those 2 sports can be just as big and popular (and some greater) than the professional level itself. Major League Baseball could probably benefit as they don’t have a system similar to the other 2. They draw most of their professional players from a farm system (minor leagues) that in a sense, acts sometimes as a 2nd tiered league. Some professionals who are making it in the pros are often sent down in the minors to get them back on track and if more was done to enhance the system especially incorporating some of the MLBs perennially worst teams into it ( Orioles, Nationals, Blue Jays and so on.) you can easily have the promotion/ relegation system incorporated.
2. Player Acquisition – This is one area where I don’t think this would work in American sports. Part of the reason why salary caps were introduced was to keep some parity across sports. In the NFL, before there was a salary cap seemingly the same teams with the richest payrolls were almost always in the big games. The Cowboys, the Steelers, and a few other long time teams were almost always in the Super Bowl, not to mention winning it. Since 1994, at least 13 (and please correct me if I am wrong) different teams have won and at least 6 more who have never gone before have played. This means that team stacking is discouraged. While some soccer fans hate this idea because this keeps good talent from coming their way, for us, it also helps in developing new talent that others have discarded. For example, Tom Brady is one of the best quarterbacks playing right now. He was one of the last picks in the draft. I need not say more. And on those sides, it’s very well known that no matter how much you overpay a player, it’s no guarantee that their talents will translate into success.
There are some teams in American sports that have made the championships and spent the least amount on player acquisition and in vice versa there are teams that have gone to their respective championships with HUGE payrolls and lost (New York Yankees and Miami Heat anyone?) which shows that in a fashion, salary caps work and maybe something that some European football leagues may want to consider so they can develop that talent instead of throwing millions away on a player that doesn’t want to be there using money that could have been used on someone else (yes, you Carlos Tevez). A few people stated that drafts encourages mediocrity. Not always so. Some teams that have always been losers have benefited from draft picks. Just to name a few players: Peyton Manning, LeBron James, Michael Jordan, and again Tom Brady have been instrumental in taking losing franchises and turning them around for the time that they played there.
3. Making Games Must See TV – As I inferred earlier, some of the best European football was right at the end of the season. In most American sports, since there are no penalties for finishing last, once teams are decided for playoff tournaments, there is almost no need to watch any of them until the playoffs comes along. There was a lot of discussion in the NFL that viewership was down towards the end of the season because if a team was at the top of their division close to the end of the season, teams rested their starters and in some cases, lost their games because it didn’t matter at that point, they were still guaranteed a playoff spot or on the opposite end if their team threw away a whole season just to get that draft pick. Depending on how you look at it, this hurts a lot of the revenue share because let’s face it, people want to see their team win. But at the same time, no one will tune in if there is really no reason to if the game is meaningless. If my favorite players aren’t playing making what was an exciting match up less exciting, why am I bothering? Which makes the way American sports are set up a little less meaningful near the end of the season especially if there is no penalty for losing. In somewhat of a contrast, some of the most exciting games are those middle of the road teams who are fighting to be that last team to get into the playoffs.
4. Complexity and popularity of the leagues and teams – I think the biggest drawback of even considering a promotion/ relegation system in the major sports of America is that some of these leagues are actually EXPANDING and if they aren’t expanding, teams are moving. Since 1994, the NFL has seen at least 5 new franchises created (one of which my Baltimore Ravens won the Super Bowl) and none have folded. The NBA has grown by at least 5 teams since the 90’s and has also seen at least that many move in that time with maybe 2 who have completely folded (again correct my math if I am wrong). Same with the MLB and NHL. All have seen growth and movement within the past 25 years. With all of these things going on, officials every few years have gone back in to re divide divisions to adjust for all of these teams to make it fair. And with how TV rights are decided, most states and cities will fight over the shares and allocations that are available even across sports. In European football, sure, you may have teams who have pitches that may be less than 20 miles away from each other. With very few exceptions here in America, teams are spread out. Even in the region (Baltimore and DC) where I live there are 7 major teams across all sports fighting for popularity amongst fans and what is odd is if you went 30 miles south, there are no major sports teams in Virginia, so in essence, Europe wins because no matter how close or how far some of your cities may be, you have a local area team to root for. In places like Virginia and some other states that have no professional sports to cheer for, some are forced to watch whatever local market they are near and worst yet, if it’s a losing team and the stadium isn’t sold out, the TV station can choose to not air the games at all. Teams can’t make money if there is no one watching.
These are just some opinions as to why the American system is the way that it is right now. However who is to say that it won’t change in the future? I agree with some readers that there are ways it could work but the situation is that we like to see different teams win and even though there are some problems with the current system, which of course as you know has caused a lot of the lockouts, it prevents, to some fashion, the same teams from always winning and forces some to acquire players who are talented to get them to the top. We have seen teams who spent large fortunes crash and burn and teams built from spit and glue win big, but if any change happens, it won’t be anytime soon on either side of the world. So no, I am not entirely convinced that promotion/relegation would work well in American sports, with maybe an exception of the MLB and NHL, given the way the current systems are set. Not that it won’t happen later, but taking into account how we already have a complex setup on how people transition through sports, regional attitudes and revenue and of course our culture, it’s just not feasible right now.
If I missed anything, which I know I did or you want to correct me or show me a different way drop your opinions below.