Why American Sports Don’t Have Promotion and Relegation
“Promotion-and-relegation” is a topic that a few American sports fans have begun to talk about. The term refers to a system that comes out of English football, in which a club that ends its season at the top of its division is promoted to the next level up for the following season, while a club that ends its season at the bottom of its division is relegated to the next level down. The system more familiar to Americans comes out of baseball,
I first became aware of promotion and relegation perhaps twenty years ago. I thought it fantastic – not in the “I love it!” sense of “fantastic,” but in the “this seems like fantasy” sense. When I described it to other Americans, the reaction was that I must either have misunderstood it, or was bullshitting them. We have gotten past that, and are now at the point where should you describe any ill of American sports – well, other than gross misconduct or debilitating injuries or such – someone in comments may well suggest promotion and relegation as the cure.
Why don’t we have promotion and relegation? Because we never have. This is snarky, but true. Of course it also just pushes the question back. Why did American team sports organize along different lines than did English? This is a historical question, and right in my wheelhouse. So I’m glad you asked. Pull up a chair…
First we need to describe just what the differences are between what I will call the American system and the English system. Promotion-and-relegation is just one difference.
But first, the systems have important similarities. In both systems there are collections of teams that form a circuit, each team playing every other team a set number of games in a season, with the championship determined by the record of these games. This seems trivially obvious, but it had to be worked out. American baseball devised this system in 1871, and English football copied it some years later. They also share a hierarchy. Both systems comprise multiple circuits, arranged in higher and lower tiers. American baseball and hockey have the full system, while American football and basketball have a bastard system incorporating nominally amateur university teams. The English system is gloriously extensive, incorporating organized (Association) football from the Premier League at the top down to local pub teams.
The systems have three major differences:
(1) Promotion and relegation. This is, of course, the most visible difference. In the English system a team plays not only for the championship of its competitive circuit, but also for promotion, or at least to avoid relegation. The American system has nothing like this; instead the composition of each tier stays fixed from one year to the next, regardless of competitive results.
(2) Top down versus broadly representative organizations. “Organized baseball” comprises Major League Baseball and Minor League Baseball, but it is Major League Baseball that calls the shots. The Commissioner of Baseball, for example, is elected by the major clubs. The minors don’t get a say in this. The system is imposed by the majors on the minors. The majors need the minors for player development, so they have to offer a deal that sustains the minors. The minors acquiesced historically because they lacked the economic wherewithal to fight back effectively, and therefore negotiated the best deal they could get. The system is set up by and for the major clubs. A top priority of the major clubs is to remain major clubs. The mere fact that the English system features promotion and relegation implies a very different organization, with the lower tiers having more of a say to advance their interests.
(3) Territorial rights. These are a fundamental feature of the American system. A team has exclusive rights to its territory. Another team can’t move into town and set up shop, and be part of the system. There are, of course, two-team cities in American sports. These are vestiges of old wars between leagues, not of voluntarily opened markets. The English system has nothing like this. The present-day Premier League has six clubs located inside London’s M25 ring road. It has two clubs in Liverpool and two in Manchester, and the Newcastle and Sunderland clubs all of ten miles apart from one another.
The connection between territorial rights and promotion/relegation is critical, if not immediately obvious. Clubs in the same league are competing against each other, but also are business partners. The strength or weakness of any member club contributes to the strength or weakness of the entire league. This is most readily apparent in leagues where the two clubs split the gate receipts (which historically has been most leagues). Even apart from gate splits, it affects susceptibility to challenge from a competitor league, and overall reputation. This last is why the NBA showed Donald Sterling the door a year and a half ago, after he made himself too great an embarrassment.
In a system with territorial rights, promotion/relegation could lead to untenable situations. Suppose the Phillies had a bad year and were relegated to Triple-A. At the same time, the Norfolk (Virginia) Tides had a good year, and were promoted to Major League status. The other major league clubs would find themselves schlepping out to Norfolk to play before small crowds, while the Philadelphia market would have only minor league ball. Should the Phillies continue to stink up the joint (a distinct possibility given that Ryan Howard contract) they could be relegated further down to Double-A, further heightening the contradictions. The absence of territorial rights in the English system avoids this problem. Should one of those six London clubs be relegated from the Premier League, it would suck for them and their fans but wouldn’t much affect the big picture.
Next comes the inevitable history lesson:
Organized Baseball dates to 1858, when a collection of clubs in and around New York City organized, taking the grandiose name of the National Association of Base Ball Players (NABBP). The NABBP was originally amateur, but professionalism soon sneaked in. This was first done covertly, then as an open secret, and finally the NABBP threw in the towel and legalized the practice. This all happened quite rapidly, with professionalism legalized by the 1869 season. The marriage of professionals and amateurs was not a happy one, lasting only two years before they split apart into professional and amateur associations.
The National Association of Professional Base Ball Players (usually abbreviated simply NA), founded in 1871, was the first professional league. It got some important things right, especially the system of determining the championship by a season-long round robin series of games. This invention was so wildly successful that the NA rarely gets credit for it, what with it being obvious in retrospect.
The NA also had some structural flaws. The most important is that it was an open organization. Any club could send in $10 and declare itself professional. This would enter the club into the championship, thereby imposing travel obligations on it, and obliging the other clubs to travel to it. This resulted in clubs with clearly inadequate financing to join, and an awkward geographical footprint with stuff like expecting clubs to make a side trip to Keokuk, Iowa.
This was sustainable for a while, but the national economy tanked following the Panic of 1873. The ensuing depression hit baseball finances hard in 1875. Something had to be done. The stronger clubs reorganized themselves in 1876 into the National League of Professional Base Ball Clubs (invariably abbreviated as NL). Among the reforms were making the NL a closed organization. It also invented territorial rights. During the NA period there had been discussion whether two clubs in one city promoted fan interest through a local rivalry, or merely diluted the attendance of each. In light of the bad economy, this discussion was regarded as an unaffordable luxury, and each city restricted to one club.
The NL never comprised every professional club, but during the depression years through 1880 it had the most financially stable clubs. The era saw a contraction of professional baseball. By mid-1880 there were only two fully professional clubs outside the NL. In these circumstances the NL never had any reason to deal with outside clubs as equals. During the recovery and boom of the 1880s there was rapid expansion of baseball clubs. The NL worked hard to make sure it stayed at the top, or at least shared the top slot with as few others as possible. Plan A was to deal with the new leagues as subordinates. This evolved into the system of Organized Baseball we have today.
British football took a different path. It dates to the creation of the Football Association (FA) in 1863. It too began as purely amateur, with surreptitious professionalism arising soon enough. The process was slower than in baseball, with open professionalism recognized in 1885. The professional clubs soon found themselves with the problem of organizing predictable and profitable matches. Twelve clubs organized a new Football League (FL) in 1889. Unlike baseball’s professionals, the FL was not a split from the amateurs. The FL was and remains within the FA. It was merely an agreement between the member clubs to play a series of matches against one another, two games each, with a championship club awarded at the end of the season.
The FL model proved wildly successful. Other professional clubs copied it, the most important group being the Football Alliance. The League and the Alliance merged in 1892, divided into a first and a second division, with most of the previous League clubs in the first division and old Alliance clubs in the second. Originally the bottom two clubs of the first division and the top two of the second played a series of test matches to determine if they would be promoted or relegated, but this was replaced in 1898 by mandatory promotion and relegation. At this point we have essentially the system in place today, expanded in both directions with the Premier League added to the top end and innumerable lesser professional and semi-professional and amateur pub leagues at the lower end.
So returning to the question of why American sports don’t have promotion and relegation, a perfectly acceptable answer is because they didn’t think of it. The American system developed first. A clear thread running through its history is that it was totally improvised. No one had a model to copy, and they weren’t constructing grand theories of sports organization. They were muddling through, making it up as they went along, trying to keep their heads above water from one season to the next.
If we want to look for specific events where the American and English systems developed differently, good candidates are the split between baseball’s amateurs and professionals, followed a few years later by the split between the stronger and the weaker clubs. Unlike in the English system there was, after 1870, no all-encompassing organization with even a theoretical mandate to consider the interests of all baseball clubs. It was more a matter of individual clubs forming gangs, staking out and defending their turf.
It seems more remarkable to me that the English system ever come up with the promotion/relegation system, implying as it does a sacrifice of the interest of the first division clubs. I am not nearly as strong on English football history as I am on American baseball, so there is more than a dollop of speculation in what follows: The merger of the FL and the Football Alliance happened under the umbrella of the FA. This may have had a calming influence. The promotion/relegation system they arrived at placed most of the FL clubs in the top division, thereby satisfying their short-term interest, while the potential for promotion satisfied the longer term interest of the Alliance clubs. I also suspect that neither organization had the financial strength to find a salary bidding war a temptation, and so had a strong incentive to make an amicable settlement. If you like cultural explanations, chalk it up to the English spirit of all-in-it-together, contrasted with American I-got-mine individualism.
Next comes a counter-factual exercise. Could promotion/relegation have developed in America? It is not difficult to imagine the professionals and amateurs reaching an accord and remaining together in the NA, providing an umbrella organization under which the hierarchy could develop.. Neither is it difficult to imagine the hierarchy developing in a more congenial economic climate, removing the imperative of territorial rights. Would this be enough?
I don’t think so. There is another difference to consider: geography. Consider the hypothetical example I used earlier of Philadelphia being relegated out of the majors and Norfolk promoted in. The two cities differ in more than just population. Philadelphia is a major transportation hub, and centrally located within the traditional geographic footprint of the National League. Geographic footprint was a really big deal back when teams traveled by rail. (It still is, for minor leagues that travel by bus.) (Notice that MLB’s expansion to the west coast coincided with the advent of commercial passenger air travel.) (This also is why the Union Association in 1884 stuck a team in Altoona, Pennsylvania. People today look back and say ‘WTF?’ The UA was a team short with the opening of the season coming up. They needed to put in an eighth team fast. Altoona didn’t have much going for it, but the one thing it did have was its location on the main line of the Pennsylvania Railroad.) In our hypothetical, leagues don’t have territorial rights. There might be several teams in Philadelphia, so losing that market isn’t an issue. But travel most certainly is. Major League Baseball for the first half of the 20th century occupied a rough rectangle with its corners at Boston, Washington, St. Louis, and Chicago. Norfolk is well outside that rectangle. Promote Norfolk to the bigs and you have just added travel time and expenses to everybody’s budget.
In the promotion/relegation system the clubs give up a degree of control. They no longer control absolutely what level they play on. They also give up control over who they compete with. This loss of control was acceptable in the English context because the distances are not great. England and Wales combined are about the size of Missouri. Can we imagine a Missouri League with clubs committing to potentially go anywhere in the state? Sure. That isn’t hard. But the trans-continental distances of the U.S. as a whole? That is a lot harder.
How about adopting the system today? Could American sports see the benefits of promotion and relegation and make the switch? Hah! It is to laugh! The American system is built in. Consider this: what players did the Norfolk Tide have under contract last season? Don’t go pulling up their web page. I didn’t ask about who was on their roster, but who was under contract with the Tide. The answer is “none.” Nadda. Zippo. Zilch. All those players on their roster were under contract with the Baltimore Orioles. The Norfolk Tide isn’t in the business of fielding a baseball team. It is in the business of providing a venue for a team to play at, and to market the game to a paying audience. It has been decades since Minor League Baseball clubs actually fielded teams. Nowadays they wouldn’t know where to start. Then there are the bastard professional/collegiate hybrids used in American football and basketball. I don’t even know what promotion and relegation would mean.
If you wanted to introduce promotion and relegation to American sports, you would have to start from scratch. But look at Major League Soccer. It has its share of organizational peculiarities, but nary a hint of promotion and relegation. One would think this the perfect place to introduce the idea. Why didn’t this happen? I am not conversant with the early organizational history of MLS, but I can just picture a pitch meeting with a potential investor: “Dear Mr. Rich Guy: Please buy a franchise in this untested league playing an unpopular sport. Oh, and while you will be buying a club in the top level league, it might drop to a lower level next year.” I don’t think that meeting would go very long. Promotion and relegation is a favorite off-season topic among American soccer fans. Sure. Buy me a beer and I’ll pull up a stool and join in. But this is not a serious discussion.
Cultural expectations go both ways. The Premier League was formed in 1992 by the top clubs in the Football League. It was a blatant (and wildly successful) money grab, with the new Premier League clubs keeping the sweet, sweet television money that had previously been more widely distributed within the FL. This would seem a perfect opportunity for them to ditch promotion and relegation, ensuring each club its place in the new league. Why didn’t they? I assume it wasn’t altruism. My guess is that the new organization would not have been seen as legitimate by the press and public if its members weren’t willing to risk relegation. Or perhaps the question never arose.
The upshot is that the American and English systems are both locally stable, with no obvious way to move from one to the other. I don’t expect either to change.
Image by brizzle born and bred