Relegation in U.S. sports


One of my favorite parts of the Premier League, the top tier in the English football league, is its system of relegation and promotion. I think this idea of relegation and promotion could be applied to American sports to great effect. But before going into its possibly transformative qualities, here is a brief overview of relegation and promotion in the Premier League.

The Premier League has 20 teams; first place wins the league, a pretty trophy and a nice cash prize (last year’s winner, Manchester City, won roughly 150 million pounds). The bottom three clubs still make money — roughly 100 million each — but they also enter relegation, a very stressful time due to their shambolic performance in the 38-game season that landed them in the bottom three.

While the bottom three teams flounder in the Premier League, teams in the league below them, the Championship, work tirelessly in a 46-game season to get into the top six. If you get No. 1 or 2 in the championship, you immediately get promoted to the Premier League, and your Herculean effort of playing an average of two and a half games a week is rewarded with access to the insane television money the Premier League gets (roughly 2.4 billion last year and 2.3 the year before). The other four teams, third through sixth, from the Championship enter into a playoff that weeds out the final team, that almost-good-enough team, that will play for promotion against 17th place in the Premier League.

On the other end, the bottom three Premier League clubs are relegated, with the bottom two kicked back to the grueling Championship with no choice but to try and get back next season. But 17th place has a shot. They play the Championship team that made it through the gauntlet. Once that game is finished, the winner is in the Premier League, and the 20 teams of the Premier League, and the 24 of the Championship are set.

The Championship also has relegation. In fact, every single level of the British soccer leagues has relegation. Additionally, the Spanish, French, German, Italian, Swiss, Scottish, Brazilian, Mexican, Dutch, Swedish and Czech all have relegation. Relegation is a constant reminder to teams to not sit on their laurels, to always push for the title and to always try to not to be 16th, to rank higher than those dreaded bottom three.

Beyond the unparalleled embarrassment that comes with getting relegated, teams lose a lot of money once they go down a league.

The Premier League’s money comes from a television deal they signed with BT and Sky Sports for 4.5 billion pounds set over three years. The money from the deal gets divided between teams depending on how they finish at the end of the season and how many of their games are televised.

In comparison, The Championship was forced recently to sign a deal for 595 million pounds over five years, which is virtually nothing in comparison (there is something to be said about how many championship clubs have higher average crowds than half of the Premier League teams, but that’s a story for another time). All of this is to say that once you leave the Premier League, you are losing a metric shit ton of TV money.

Now, here is how applying relegation to American sports could make them more interesting and possibly more exciting.

Imagine the Cleveland Browns go 0–16 again. But instead of still being a wealthy team that will, no matter what, get a next season in the National Football League, they are relegated to the Canadian Football League or the Alliance of American Football. They lose money; they lose a spot. This fear of relegation would push them and would make the league more exciting in the process.

Not only are teams playing for the pride of the badge — or whatever they say to the media — but also they are playing to get paid. I believe that’s the main driver of sports these days: the flow of money.

By adding a level of instability to the income of the team, I think we wouldn’t see teams purposefully tanking to get better draft picks. Instead, each season would be exciting, each game — even the ones between the worst teams — would mean something. Watching the Buffalo Bills play against the New York Jets won’t be a form of torture anymore, but a game with real and costly consequences.

The concept of relegation can be applied to all professional sports. It would encourage the formation of development leagues and for these leagues to matter as much as the top leagues.

While this may be a grandiose idea and one that terrifies teams like the Browns and other bantha fodder who still sulk around the NFL, NBA and MLB, it could have the desired affected of injecting a healthy level of fear and thus a new level of passion and competition into American sports.

I don’t want to see another team go 0–16 without consequences, and I also would rather not watch the Phoenix Suns attempt to play in the NBA. Get rid of the bad and bring in those who care.