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Hamblin: Will we ever see promotion and relegation in the U.S.?

Many fans of the English Premier League, La Liga, Serie A, and Ligue 1 are all for the promotion and relegation system in sports as it has many great benefits. Take Leicester City FC for example: nobodies at the start of the 2015/16 season. Now they are the defending champions of the Premier League. How cool is that!? Of course this year they have fallen back down to the relegation zone, but still made it to the last 16 of the UEFA Champions League!

We here in America are romantics for sports. We crave these “Rudy” and “Hoosiers” teams, the little guy going against long odds to succeed. We crave this; it’s what makes sports so beautiful and fun. The nobody from nowhere coming to challenge the Barcelonas, the Bayern Munichs, and the Manchester Uniteds of the world. So with all this love for the underdog, why wouldn’t it work in the United States? Let me try to explain using other sports like football and baseball to explain why it can and cannot work in the US Sports world.

Why it can work:


  • It keeps teams from giving up on the Season. Let’s think about this from football perspective for a moment. It has to keep teams from going to get draft picks instead of focusing on the season. Imagine the Cleveland Browns actually trying to play football.
  • Everyone likes when the small Fry gets a chance. The Team no one thought of Sutton United in the FA Cup this year, Leicester City again. Everyone likes the team that doesn’t even know they are playing out of their league. Interesting fact all Premier Leagues side except Manchester United have been relegated at one point since its inception. So Imagine that teams like Ipwich Town, or even the 1954 Milan High School Basketball team (AKA “Hoosiers”) moved up leagues to play bigger schools or clubs.
  • It forces team ownership to constantly improve. Take the Indiana Pacers for example, People will still go to their games for one player and a losing record. Imagine if the teams had to fight for places and the bottom teams dropped to the D League against the Ft. Wayne Mad Ants. Loss of revenue and the like would force teams to fight to get back up to the top league as well.
  • Competition is improved. Teams usually receive more money for being promoted, so imagine LCFC having more money to land some Designated Player contracts or even a well-known name. It would allow all teams coming into the league to improve their game and skill level and fight to stay at the top. Let’s be honest besides our City, most people want a big time pro team. Luckily we brought LCFC and I’ll include the Bats, to the City so were not relying on Louisville Cardinals for all our sports locally (I’m not paying ticket prices for college when Pro level are so much cheaper!).


Why they say it will Backfire:


  • Can be lethal to teams plagued by injury. Take the year Peyton Manning went down for the Indianapolis Colts, or imagine if Steph Curry and Klay Thompson went down for long durations for the Golden State Warriors. It would cause those teams to potentially go down in the leagues. The argument here is that sports teams usually have a deep enough roster and talent to keep them from being relegated. No team should rely on 1 or 2 stars to win games.
  • American Sports are driven by Star Power. Can you imagine the stars playing in a lower league cause the rest of the team sucks, like Anthony Davis for New Orleans Pelicans, or Russell Westbrook for OKC Thunder? I didn’t think so, it would be a loss in revenue for all parties. However, if relegation was real most stars like Russell Westbrook would have a clause in their contract banning them from going down a league with that team. Argument against this is Leicester City have a few well known players if you follow the Premier League Like Danny Drinkwater and Jamie Vardy. Even Monaco have some well known players like Falcao and Fabinho. So to say its star driven is correct but the smaller clubs have stars as well. It’s not your Coopers News team vs Portland Timbers!
  • No one wants to see top Prospects in Lower Leagues. Many people would not want to see new top NBA or NFL talent in the Minor Leagues. Can you just picture Lebron James playing for the D League a year? I sure as hell couldn’t. The only way this could be avoided is open the draft to all league levels or get rid of the draft all together. But there again, can you imagine the Yankees without the MLB Draft, they would be stacked. My argument here is most top talent starts in the lower leagues. Remember the great David Beckham went out on loan to a lower league team.
  • The tier Format creates problems. Let’s say for a moment we were affiliated with Columbus Crew SC. Now let’s say we win the USL Final and move up to MLS and we have a lot of Columbus Crew SC players on the roster. You still with me? Now picture the Columbus Crew SC team is plagued by injuries. Why would LCFC give up those Columbus Crew SC players if they needed them to get a full team every week? See the problem. Baseball would be even worse because the MLB teams pay the salaries for the Triple A and lower A affiliates. They would have to essentially buy out players contracts to then pick them up on their roster. Also, if we had relegation most feeder teams or farm teams wouldn’t exist.
  • Stadiums would be too small. Stadiums would not be able to accommodate bigger games. And teams would build a big stadium with no guarantee that they would stay in the league. 
  • TV networks would lose their minds! What Tv networks are going to want to show lower league Sports and teams like the Yankees vs. The Louisville Bats or the Louisville City FC vs Toronto FC? Not many I would guess. No TV means no money for big teams like for example the Texas Rangers have a 1.5 Billion tv agreement, can be google searched.  Imagine top games broadcasting from Ft Wayne, Indiana, or Durham, NY. No one would tune in to watch a “Real” team play an “amateur” team. 
  • Players Unions would resist. This should be no surprise since they all do this almost yearly anyway. But, the players unions would resist heavily to it as they need to starlight to thrive. Relegation means no security for players, and no union would even be worse. 


My points against relegation in soccer, is no matter what happens, we are still going to see a division between top half teams, middle teams, and nobodies. Teams fighting for title will be the top teams, teams too good for relegation would be the middle teams, and the teams too poor and are hanging on.

Sports in Europe are still money driven. Think about it, the only way Chelsea and Manchester City got so good was foreign investors and money, not actually producing talent or getting talent to come in on their own merits and money.  So to get to the top you’d have to have money. Let’s that a moment to look at the MLS versus the Premier League. The Premier League is obviously older but let us just look from the name change in 1992 to now. For MLS we will look at all 21 seasons so far. Take a guess how many teams have won the premier league since 1992? 10, 12, 8??? Try 6 including Leeds United in 1992 and Leicester City FC in 2016. Only 6 teams have won since 1992. MLS has had…wait for it….11, 11 total teams win the league in that time. The money system we see in England clearly shows that big money clubs win. Here in America, we are left wondering who can make the playoffs and who can win the title. It is less predictable in MLS than Premier League. It will be JAWS (Top Teams) against minnows (Little teams) fighting for survival.

So Relegation is not for everyone. Even though many pine for it in MLS, the way Don Garber is going and the prices for MLS bids being high, I do not think the league will ever allow it. Personally, I think some USL teams could hold their own against MLS sides any day. Garber would not let those MLS teams like Chicago go to the USL and play as he would lose his market share on it and would lose interest in the markets. I can see it a team once in MLS gets relegated I bet Gaber would make it a pain to get back into the MLS and shun that market in some way because it’s all money driven. So like I said its all financial rather than consumer based.

I would welcome the change in sports as I would like to cheer for that George Mason 2006 team in any sport. I think if we did have relegation it would make sports a lot more enjoyable and people would begin to follow their team rather than say of I like them, they would engage in it. For example, you would look at trades game scores you missed, rumors, news about the team, more than say oh I like this team or that club. Anyway, relegation can work for MLS if they allow it. But that means no MLS Draft or opening up to all parties including the USL and NASL.

Editor’s Note: the most popular soccer league in the United States, Liga Bancomer MX, reportedly recently held talks with MLS executives in New York to discuss closing their open promotion and relegation system. The Liga MX system is not a pure season-to-season pro/rel setup, and instead uses aggregate points over a three year period to determine whether a team is relegated. Complicating things is the fact that sometimes, owners of the relegated team will buy the promoted team, or trade their team with the owners of the promoted team so their income stream remains neutral. For more, check out these recent articles from Four Four Two and FMF State of Mind, as well as the original report from Récord (which may or may not be particularly reputable) in Spanish.