30 August 2005

Soccer vs. Football, Pt II: Promotion and Relegation

It's a slow week, with the impending internationals. So I thought I'd return to this topic. (Though it's really US sport vs. UK sport, but I like this title better.)

One of the absolute best things about soccer everywhere but here is the threat of relegation, and the corresponding reward of promotion. This is an alien concept for the American fan, but it's instantly understandable and adds a lot to the sport.

For those who don't understand it: in almost every country, there are several levels of leagues, called something like "League One", "League Two", "League Three", and so forth.* These are sorted by quality, very simply. Each season, the bottom three teams in each league are demoted — "relegated" — to the lower league. And of course, the best three teams in each league are "promoted" to the next higher league.**

This is a fantastic prospect. For one thing, it means that the worst teams in each league are incredibly motivated, right to the end of the season. After all, they want to "stay up" and remain in the current league. It also ensures that there aren't any perpetual bottom-dwellers.

American leagues don't have this, and in fact it's difficult to see how they would. There really isn't any similar system for heirarchical leagues, with one exception that I'll discuss in a bit. For basketball and football, the lower level leagues are actually college leagues, which operate under vastly different rules. (As in, the players are not allowed to accept any payment of any kind.) There are less powerful leagues, like the CBA for basketball, but there's a huge drop between these levels. It would be like relegating a Premiership team to the second division.

Baseball is an exception, in that it does have a wide heirarchy of leagues. There's the "major league", of course, which is followed by AAA, AA, and A leagues. (There are actually a few different leagues at each level except the majors.) But virtually all of the lower league teams have contractural relationships with the major league teams. These lower teams form a "farm system", essentially the reserves (and lower) for each major league team. Suppose the Pittsburgh Pirates (a major league team) signs a young player. They would likely begin him with the A-league Lynchburg Hillcats. If he does well there, they would move him (in mid-season) to the AA Altoona Curve. From there, he'd move on to the AAA Indianapolis Indians. And finally, he'd get his 'call up' to the Pirates.

So there's no way to have relegation and promotion in baseball. Teams in lower leagues don't control their players; they're almost all held by major league clubs. A good AAA team could be gutted in mid-season if the parent club isn't doing well, losing all their top players. The system exists because baseball demands such skill that it usually takes several years to develop a player past high school. So this gives the players a chance to develop in actual games.

It's a bit surprising that the States can't support lower-level leagues. After all, it's a huge country, and there's plenty of entertainment to go around. College sports cut into this in a big way, since they form a whole industry in their own right. And TV doesn't help either; most sports are completely targeted to TV viewing, and so most fans would rather watch a TV broadcast of another city's major league team than to actually attend a local game from a lower-level team.

Still, I think you could accomplish this, by subdividing the current major leagues. There are 30 teams in the NBA, 32 teams in the NFL, and 30 in MLB. You could at the least split any one of these into a lower and upper divison, with relegation/promotion between the two. It would have a few advantages. It would make the games more exciting, since the teams would be more evenly matched. And it would make things interesting for the middle-table teams, since they would be fighting for something, even late in the season.

It would probably be most interesting to try this with the NBA. The talent gap there is huge, and it seems to have the least amount of change from year to year. Forcing the top teams to play each other on a regular basis would change that. And you could still have a reasonable schedule if you had 15 teams in each division. (Maybe they could even expand to 16 or 18 per division.)

But it won't happen, not in the NBA, not anywhere. No team would be willing to sacrifice it's big games, against the top teams in the league. The lost revenue would be painful. And — perhaps more importantly — the owners of the teams would not accept the ego loss (or the potential loss in team value) that would result from joining a lesser league.

Which is too bad, because it sure would be interesting to see.

*This is where England has become stupid with corporate greed. Originally, the leagues were that simple: First Division, Second Division, etc. Then the Premiership came along and superceded the old First Division. Then, last year, the Second Divison was renamed to the Championship. So now, the First Division is really the third-best league. Dumb.

**There are complications. In England, the first- and second-place teams are promoted, while the third- through sixth-place teams have a playoff for the final promotion spot. But the principle is the same.

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