Why American Sports Don’t Have Promotion and Relegation

Richard Hershberger

Richard Hershberger is a paralegal working in Maryland. When he isn't doing whatever it is that paralegals do, or taking his daughters to Girl Scouts, he is dedicated to the collection and analysis of useless and unremunerative information.

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13 Responses

  1. LeeEsq says:

    One seemingly interesting feature of the English and European systems is that it leads to a closer association between political activism and sports fans. Usually in a bad way. The English Defense League and a lot of the nationalist political groups in Europe had at some some origin to football fan clubs. Its like if the Tea Party started as a Dallas Cowboy fan club. American sports might be very corporate but it doesn’t lend itself to political groups we would rather avoid.Report

    • Richard Hershberger in reply to LeeEsq says:

      The difference likely is a side effect of territorial rights (or their absence). In the American system, who you root for is strongly correlated with where you live, regardless of your politics. In the English system there is no particular reason your rooting interest should correlate with your politics, but neither is there any particular reason it should not, thereby letting non-sports tribal affiliations come into play.

      I consider the American system to have a lot going for it in this regard. If I find myself in a social setting with people I don’t know, there is always sports. It doesn’t matter whether I somehow found myself at a country club eating mediocre food with a bunch of rich people, or if I am at a bus stop in the middle of the night in a not-so-good part of town: How ’bout those Panthers! Nine and oh. You think they are for real, or just lucky? Of course for the people who think that speech exists only for the exchange of information, this seems mystifyingly pointless. But for those of us who recognize the additional functions of speech, sports talk is a valuable tool. But if it were tied to politics, then it would be a potential minefield best avoided.Report

  2. j r says:

    Nice post. Thanks for the background.

    I don’t follow hockey, but I’ve long thought that MLB and the NBA would both benefit from adopting relegation, at least from the fans point of view. So many teams can have underwhelming season after underwhelming season and still do well financially, because people will still buy tickets, especially when the good teams come to town. It would be nice to light a fire under the Knicks and Redskins of the world. Of course, the owners and the leagues have no practical incentive to move that way.Report

    • Mike Schilling in reply to j r says:

      o many teams can have underwhelming season after underwhelming season and still do well financially, because people will still buy tickets, especially when the good teams come to town.

      And because of revenue sharing (from high to low revenue teams in baseball, and via shared TV money in basketball.)Report

  3. El Muneco says:

    This is starting to get closer to my area, such as it is, since I’ve only studied as a layman.

    The impression that I get is that the EPL was a power grab that was just a bit premature. FIFA was still in the hands of Havelange rather than Blatter, and while the TV money was the primary attraction, the networks themselves didn’t have the power behind the scenes that they would a decade later.

    The incomplete “break away” of the old First Division was thus a compromise. The new EPL would get the massive TV money, which was the driver for the Man U’s and the Liverpools. The bottom half of the division – the Crystal Palaces, Birminghams, and Bradfords – signed on because of promotion/relegation – the teams that bounce back and forth get balloon payments and one-year shares of the TV money. And the League took a big hit, but the structure itself remains intact, and with promotion/relegation, they can continue to sell the dream that any team can become Watford under Graham Taylor, or more recently Brighton&Hove Albion (or for a more sobering example Rushden&Diamonds a couple of tiers down).

    As for promotion/relegation in US soccer, it is to laugh. Lower division teams, where they aren’t just jumped-up youth teams of MLS clubs, are utter crap in world terms. My Leyton Orient, in the last playoff spot in the fourth tier of the League (known as League Two, thanks to branding) – from what I’ve seen on youtube – would be immediately promoted from the USL (third tier) as champions and then be competitive in the NASL.Report

  4. Autolukos says:

    On MLS:

    Remember that it was organized by US Soccer as a condition for hosting the 1994 World Cup, and that it remains much more centralized than even the major American leagues in other sports, much less the European leagues: players sign contracts with the league, not their team, and “owning” a team means that the league, which actually owns the team, grants the right to operate a team to a part-owner of the league.

    The centralization isn’t just a byproduct of the league’s origins, either; from day 1, MLS has seen central control of spending and player allocation as the primary tool to avoid repeating the history of the NASL. A closed league is essential to this kind of central control, and the number of teams started very small (10 in the first season) and has only slowly grown into the 20s (with a few contractions along the way), which is not enough to have two divisions even if they wanted to. If they get into the 30s, there might be some talk of splitting into first and second divisions, though my guess is that they’ll keep the single-division structure.

    Add to the business realities the MLS’s emphasis (particularly in its early days) on presenting a “normal American sports league” image (see: overtime instead of ties, playoffs instead of the best record winning the league) and a European division structure was never an option.Report

  5. Lutz says:

    You are somehow missing the difference between a sports club being a private business/enterprise (that can even move from town o town) and sports clubs as community institutions offering activities for members from kids to adults. The continental European clubs were (at least originally but still in many cases) run by a governing board elected annually by the members. Big city European sports clubs have tenthousands of members and have much stronger ties to the local communities. Obviously they don,t move to cities that build them better stadiums. Follow he money.Report

    • Richard Hershberger in reply to Lutz says:

      Not so much missing it as that it is a different topic. The American proclivity for relocating teams is indeed part of the business structure and the sports culture, but only tangentially related to promotion and relegation.Report

  6. Lutz says:

    Hi Richard,
    During and after the industrial revolution European sports clubs did start out as organizations to encourage active participation in sports and with a mission to improve the health of the population. Consequently there were hundreds of such clubs, even in small cities and villages (professionalism came much later as mentioned in your article). With this type of background the idea of a privileged set of teams, territorial rights etc. like in US sports is completely unthinkable for Europe with hundreds of teams competing for the honors. In my eyes the primary reason for the differences in professional sports between the US and Europe is that the in the US competitive sport outside of colleges did already start out as businesses (whose owners want to protect their investments).Report

    • Richard Hershberger in reply to Lutz says:

      in the US competitive sport outside of colleges did already start out as businesses

      This isn’t quite right. Baseball clubs arose in a big way in the late 1850s. The classic model was a group of from twenty to forty members, typically urban white collar and professional young men in sedentary occupations, gathering twice a week or so to take their exercise together and occasionally meet with other clubs in quasi-social competition. A major city such as New York or Philadelphia could support dozens or even hundreds of such clubs. The earliest professional clubs grew out of this, with a few wealthier clubs surreptitiously hiring ringers to strengthen their teams. This occurred in the late 1860s. You start to see new organizations founded purely as businesses in 1870, and territorial rights first appear in 1876.Report

  7. Burt Likko says:

    It’s utterly charming to realize that English football incorporates pub teams in its hierarchies. The lads can gather ’round their pints at the Grapnel And Rose, and the bull session can get to “when we get promoted up to Premier, how shall we handle going up against Chelsea? Tommy, you’re going to have to play left wing for that one!” It won’t be serious, of course, but in theory, it could happen! Could make for a good sitcom on the Beeb.

    Here, the equivalent is Crash Davis’ back-of-the-bus tall tales to the single-A guys about practicing with white balls.Report

    • Richard Hershberger in reply to Burt Likko says:

      Sadly, the Crash Davises are mostly a thing of the past. You virtually never see career minor leaguers nowadays. Once the organization determines that a guy isn’t going to make it to The Show, they want to free up his roster slot for someone who might. This isn’t an absolute, and Crash Davis is realistic in that when you do see an older guy in the lineup he tends to be a mentor/quasi-coach, but they are rare. Mostly, the rosters on any given lineup are of an age cohort.Report