Sports League Relegation in the U.S. – I Can Dream, Can’t I?

With seven games to go in the 2010 Major League Baseball season, fans of the American League are focused on the race between New York, Tampa Bay and Minnesota for the best record in the league.  Just one game separates all three as we head into the last week of the season.  The team with the best record gets home field advantage for both the American League Division Series and the American League Championship Series.

At the other end of the spectrum, just four game separate Baltimore, Seattle and Kansas City from having the worst record in the American League.  However, no one is really watching those teams.  There’s no interest there.

Should Durham Be Promoted to the Major League?

Imagine, however, if the team with the worst record in the league at the end of the season were demoted, or “relegated,” to AAA the following season?  That would make the “race” not to be last more interesting and more impactful on the teams involved.

Imagine, if, correspondingly, the team with the best record in the AAA International League was promoted to Major League Baseball the following year.  For 2011, we would welcome the Durham Bulls, who finished the season one game ahead of the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees.

Fans of European, South American, and Central American football experience such a system every year.  In English football, three teams in the top-tier Premier League are relegated each year to the Championship Level, and four are promoted.  The British system is so robust that this trickles down seven levels to regional leagues.  Similar systems exist in Italy, Brazil, Germany, Portugal, Argentina, Mexico and others.  This system is clearly designed to give smaller teams greater opportunity, although some leagues do have requirements for promotion in terms of financial stability, stadium capacity, and other factors.

The concept is not entirely foreign to the United States.  We take part in several sports world championships with relegation systems, where by only the top flight teams can really compete for the world championship.  For example, in the most recent ice hockey world championship, the United States team, based on its performance, was forced to win games to prevent relegation for 2011.  Tennis’ Davis Cup has a similar system.  The eight teams that lose in the first round of the 16-country tournament must then play the winners of regional competitions for the right to compete the following year for the Davis Cup.

So, why doesn’t this system work in the USA?  Baseball, hockey, and soccer have thriving leagues at lower levels.  Basketball has the NBDL.  Football has the Arena League, the United Football League, and other regional leagues.  Secondary leagues, therefore, aren’t a problem.

The problem lies in how the leagues are historically structured.  Owners buy teams, sign players, build stadiums, and operate based on expectations of revenue and prominence.  Correspondingly, players choose teams based on the team’s ability to compete for the championship and pay them commensurate salaries.  Baseball, basketball and hockey minor league teams are not independent competitors in a lesser league, but are fed teams by the big league clubs.  In soccer or football, the leagues are completely separate and owners are unwilling to consider demotion and relegation.  Based on the current system I don’t blame them.

Changing the system would be a multi-year process, and, in my opinion, is theoretically possible.  It would involve setting requirements and standards for each league level.  It would involve baseball and hockey teams dissociating themselves from the minor leagues, including player contracts.  Rules around developmental squads, drafts, free agents and signing from one league to another, including transfer fees, would be established.  Players associations/unions would have a say in the matter, for fear that salaries would diminish considerably.

Unfortunately for me and many other fans, there is no way that US sports team owners will ever agree to this system.  We can argue that relegation and promotion is more egalitarian and more capitalist and should be in America, the Land of Opportunity.  Unfortunately, sports leagues aren’t equal opportunity.  They are controlled by a tight group of owners who want to maintain their profit base.

Until that changes, we’ll never see the headline “The Hershey Bears win the Stanley Cup,” and we’ll continue our disinterest in the Orioles, Mariners and Royals the coming week.

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One Response to Sports League Relegation in the U.S. – I Can Dream, Can’t I?

  1. CP2Devil says:

    It also wouldn’t work well in the US is that the sports landscape here is much more varied. You don’t have singular sport obsession like there is in Europe and South America like there is with soccer. American football would be the only sport where you could come close to a valid comparison. The singular obsession allows for there to be multiple clubs in even smaller cities.

    Hershey would most likely never win a title due to where they are located. Not a big enough area to draw enough revenue from, especially since they are sandwiched between several other NHL franchises. The teams that succeed in leagues with relegation are almost always from large population centers. Every once in awhile a small/medium sized town’s club moves up, but they rarely contend and usually drop back down quickly.

    I personally enjoy relegation it gives you another race to watch as the season goes along. In addition, it means poor management is tolerated less and taken care of with more immediacy than in US sports.

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