Thursday, July 31, 2008

Things American Sports Could Learn From Soccer: Part II - Relegation

If you have six minutes to spare take in the video.

It's a West Ham fan watching the team's last game of the '06-'07 EPL (Suck it, Barclays) campaign (bonus points if you can ID the guy's shirt).

Entering that game West Ham sat in 17th place (out of 20) on 38 points, three points clear of 18th place Wigan. To add a level of difficulty, the Hammers were playing Manchester United and they were playing them at Old Tratford (Oh, and there was also the specter of the FA deducting West Ham points but that's another story). But United had already sewn up the league title, so save for the known celebration to take place at the end of 90 minutes and that day's ticket revenues, United had little to gain from the match.

So why does one of the worst teams playing one of the best in a game that is meaningless in terms of determining the winner of the league cause one fan to behave as if he auditioning to be the poster adult for either autism or Tourette's? Because in England, in fact across Europe and the rest of the non-football (our kind) watching world, football (the other kind) has something called relegation. And West Ham had to win that match in order to stave off relegation.

For the uninitiated—and yes, I realize this is a soccer blog but sometimes people without the same depth of knowledge on the subject stumble across our posts—relegation is the arrangement by which football leagues punish teams for being particularly bad and reward others for being less bad.

In England, for example, there is a hierarchy of leagues with the Premiership on top. Below that, in subsequent order, are the Championship, League 1 and League 2.

At the end of the season the worst three teams in the Premiership—places 18, 19, and 20—get dropped or "relegated" to the Championship, the next league down. The best three teams in the Championship? They get promoted to a season of trips to (and likely beatings at) The Emirates, Stamford Bridge, Anfield, and Old Tratford. Thanks to an unlikely late season surge they also get to see Craven Cottage—at least for one more year (Woot Fulhamerica!)—although the newly promoted have a decent shot of picking up points there. And they are points they will likely need lest they turn and face relegation right back, as relegation is, in the words of Chuck Culpepper, "a phenomenal beast capable of wreaking fear, envy, shame, insecurity, desperation, horror, humiliation, and class resentment..."

Put a bit more succinctly: Relegation is fucking awesome.

It's also, ironically, the most American of propositions: Work harder and be better and maybe a little smarter than the guy next to you, then reap the rewards. Be complacent and make little attempt to compete, then you simply get less. Hell, "Be complacent and make little attempt to compete" might be Donald Sterling's sports epitaph. Yet the Clippers remain an NBA franchise.

Too bad relegation will never ever happen in major American sports. Not in one million years. That's probably because America won't exist in a million years. There are a few reasons why relegation is almost a non starter today or tomorrow in American sports, though. And that is a damn shame.

Some of the league-specific reasons are practical, unavoidably so. For instance, pro football doesn't have the depth of talent. There aren't even 32 people on the planet who can play the quarterback position well enough to run a football team at the top level. How else to explain Joey Harrington still having a job? Since the NFL-AFL merger every second league—the USFL, the XFL, even the NFL-backed WLAF—has folded. The product just wasn't good enough to sustain interest. So a second tier league doesn't seem financially sustainable.

There is the Arena League, but given the differences in the playing field and the rules, it's almost a different game; and guys like Kurt Warner, who move from one to the other successfully, are the exception.

On the face of it, baseball seems a good candidate. There is already a hierarchical structure to the leagues, however that structure serves a purpose that relegation would undermine. If the Round Rock Express, the AAA affiliate of the Houston Astros, earned promotion to the major leagues what would happen to the organization?

Do the Astros just lose its AAA farm club? I don't think that owner Drayton McLane would be in favor of just forfeiting away his second best group of players to MLB, although, given the nature of the moves made by the last two GMs (especially Tim Purpura), I could very well be wrong here.

Baseball franchises aren't just MLB teams, they are organizations. And the lower parts of the organization exist to help the parent ball club primarily by developing talent. So relegation might be possible, but it's not very practical.

Hockey? Maybe. To be honest I don't know enough about the structure and quality of play in the minor leagues of hockey. But having seen a couple of WHPL games, I can say with about 99% certainty that those teams would get skated off the ice by the third lines of the shittiest NHL teams.

But even if suddenly there were enough people to populate 50 rosters-worth of teams capable of playing largely competitive professional football or baseball did away with its minor league affiliations, relegation would still never happen in America because owners would never allow it.

Imagine the idea of relegation even making the agenda at the next NFL owners meetings. Someone tells Jerry Jones that they want to implement a plan that one day might make his $1 billion asset worth substantially less than $1 billion. Overnight.

The odds of Jones or Robert Kraft, or Wayne Huizenga, or any owner voting for it are zero. Sorry, after the hour of laughter dies down, the odds are zero. Okay, Al Davis might vote for it but only because he's so out of it he's probably thinking he's voting for a proposal to have all of the water fountains at the Oakland Colesium dispense chocolate milk.

Hell, even the MLS doesn't even entertain thoughts of relegation (pussies). It's kind of hard to turn to investors and say, "Hi, you need to pony up a $10M franchise fee." Then put in the fine print. "Oh, and by the way, your franchise might get dropped to a league of lesser quality thereby devaluing it well below the franchise fee you are posting. Good luck!"

There is one place where relegation might be feasible, though.

It's a place of peculiar financial rules, massive exploitation of athletes, hypocrisy, and fans wearing crazy-colored pants. In other words, it's a lot like top flight soccer.

College football already has a de facto tiered system. The six major conferences—the Big 12, Big 10, ACC, Big East, SEC, and Pac 10—essentially put together a cartel to control access to the large payouts of the Bowl Championship Series games. Simply by that act, they have not only defined the other conferences as lesser but also devised a means to keep them that way by making sure they don't get much if any of the money that comes with the BCS TV contract.

There are provisions for teams from non-BCS conference to qualify for these lucrative games, and they have done it (see: Utah (2005), Boise State (2007) and Hawaii (2008)). But it's more of a bone they've been thrown to pacify them and distract them from going to Congress and saying the BCS is anti-competitive.

But what if, instead of pretending like there isn't this formalized inequality, college football embraced the elephant and just divided Division I college football into two tiers. Now, suppose they pair up each of the six major BCS conferences with one from this new second tier. So the Pac 10 gets partnered with, say, the WAC; the Big 12 with Mountain West, the Big 10 with the Mid-American, the SEC with the Sun Belt, the ACC with Conference USA, and the Big East with, well, we're working on it.

You play out the season just like normal, only now, at its conclusion, you have an additional game between the last place team of the BCS conference and the first place team of the D-I Tier-2 school. The winner gets promoted to (or stays in) the BCS conference and the loser gets relegated to (or stays in) the second tier partner conference.

For example, after going winless in conference—and the scenario I'm envisioning here has only conference games count in determining relegation and promotion positions—for the ninth time in the last last 11 season Baylor would have played BYU to see who gets the spot in the Big 12 and who toils in the Mountain West the following season.

The reality is that the novelty of watching lions slaughter Christians wears off pretty quickly. Sure the Floridas, Oklahomas, and Michigans are happy to pick up respective wins (and the cash from full stadia) against the Middle Tennessee States, the North Texas States, and the Appalachian States (oh... oops), but from a fan's perspective, it's really not good sport.

No, what's far more compelling is watching lions fight lions. And if there were a weekend of nothing but Christians fighting Christians, with their BCS conference lives and paychecks at stake no less, that might be an ever better spectacle.

Relegation Saturday. Six games. Twelve teams. Infinite schadenfreude. The televised desperation could translate into ratings topping those of GloboChem™ Championship Saturday.

And it's not just that one weekend. Think of how much more interest a mid-season conference tilt between Northwestern and Minnesota draws when both teams know the winner will have a leg up in avoiding the season ending clash that determines demotion.

The fact is that, over the past half decade, Boise State (WAC) has built a better program than University of Washington (Pac 10). Since 2002, the Broncos are 68-10 and the Huskies a fairly dismal 26-47 with only 1 winning season in that span. The Broncos on the other hand have 4 seasons with 1 loss or fewer. And to show for it, they have exactly 1 BCS bowl appearance, a game which they won over perennial power Oklahoma by the way in one of the most unreal football games ever played by human beings.

Sure you can make the case that Washington played tougher competition week in and week out, but that's precisely the complaint of the non-BCS teams: specifically that they don't get the opportunity week-in and week-out to prove themselves*.

Why shouldn't the Broncos be given that chance? If you pair up the WAC and the Pac 10, relegation and promotion solves this problem. You beat up on the teams in Tier 2, then there is a mechanism that gives that program a shot against the BCS schools. And it does it in the best way possible: by making them a BCS school.

And for teams that suck—hell, Baylor has had more coaches (5) than conference wins (3) since the inception of the Big 12 in 1996—there is a way to take away the BCS conference status they so thoroughly deserve to have taken from them for that sustained sucking.

Relegation Saturday. Having conceived of the idea, I am already pissed that it doesn't exist. Oh, and for any college president reading, this would also mean more money. See, now you're in total favor of it, too, aren't you?

[*Yes, I'm aware Washington and Boise State played last year and Washington won, but I'm dealing in hypotheticals here so I'm going to conveniently hypotheticate that game didn't happen. Even if it did, it doesn't invalidate the idea of relegation.]


Sarah said...

That's actually not an awful idea. And I can't see it having a negative effect on revenue or ratings. College football fans are far too dedicated to let a little thing like relegation get in the way of their enjoyment of the game. And by the game of course I mean tailgating, getting drunk, and yelling for a few hours straight.

The Likely Lad said...

great video. love the wife in the background... not shocked, but definitely horrified.

Signal to Noise said...

Love the idea. The only thing I see getting in the way are the other conference sports -- be kind of weird to apply this to Div I-A football while the schools themselves are part of Div I in basketball, too.

Kopper said...

I'm still baffled as to why a quality heirarchy within basketball hasn't yet been established. Teams only need 12-15 players each, and while the NBA competes with College Basketball for fans, there's no reason why a AAA Baketball league (CBA?) could not be established and a relegation system emerge. This would also solve many of the expansion issues the league is facing. The cream would rise to the top over several years, and a wider swath of the country could have someone to root for.

This would destroy the economic harmony/profitibility that Stern has created over the years, but who cares?

Precious Roy said...

Kopper: Part of the reason the CBA doesn't get involved as a second division awaiting relegated teams is that it doesn't exist anymore.

The CBA went bankrupt. Yet another item in the list of things destroyed by Isiah Thomas.

There is the NBA D-League, but I just don't ever see owners in the this country voting for a system that would significantly devalue a franchise financially.

Nick said...

Signal: There is already D1-A and D1-AA (or Bowl division and Championship division, whatever they're officially called now). Georgetown is an example of a school with a D1-AA football team and a quality basketball team; sports are generally pretty independent in terms of league and division in that way.

Chip Wesley said...

I think College Football would be awesome with promotion/relegation. The NCAA has already skewed it unfairly to support mainly the BCS conference teams, why not make them earn it?

You could do away with I-A and I-AA and put them all together in several tiers.

Sarah said...

Speaking of college football, my season ticket pass came in the mail yesterday. Woop!