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Should US sports have promotion/relegation? And which teams would go down?

Minnesota United’s entrance into Major League Soccer next year is a great boost for the sport in the state that is already blessed with five major league teams in the Vikings, Twins, Wild, Timberwolves and Lynx.

But the way in which the team was “allowed” into the MLS by league executives, leaving its current home in the North American Soccer League, was something of a bemusement for me – a transplant from the U.K. who has been a football (soccer) fan all his life.

It got me thinking about what American sports – not just soccer, but football, baseball, hockey, basketball – could take from European ones, and probably the biggest change would be promotion and relegation.

How does it work across the Atlantic? Take the English Premier League: the three teams with the worst three records in the league over the course of the season are relegated – demoted – to the league below, and the three best teams from the league below are promoted (two automatically, one after playoffs).

Here’s why this system is so great:

  • It creates hope: Often this hope is forlorn, but with the promotion relegation system, it means that even the lowliest, semi-professional team playing in front of a few hundred people can potentially one day become national or even European champions. Take a look at Leicester City, last year they won the EPL at odds of 5,000-1, but just six years ago they were playing in the third-tier of English football.
  • Every game matters: You know when you get to the end of the NFL season and Cleveland is facing off against Tennessee and you’re like, who cares? Well that wouldn’t happen if relegation was a possibility. Quite often the relegation battle at the end of the season is more exciting than the championship race that may already have been determined. It would also stop teams in the NBA from “accidentally” bombing in order to get a higher draft pick.
  • Merit is recognized: Ok, the best-of-the-best teams across the Atlantic are often those with the most money, but when it comes to promotion and relegation, teams that have struck on a good formula do get rewarded. There are some really excellent non-major league teams in the U.S. but the major league system means they all have a ceiling (how cool would it be to see the St. Paul Saints in MLB?). Similarly, teams that suck get punished for it, unlike in the major leagues where they’re rewarded with the No. 1 draft pick.

In the U.S., the major leagues are closed off to new entries except in rare circumstances when they decide to expand, and the only chance some cities have of getting a major league team is if another decides to relocate.

Even then, the teams that are chosen to enter a major league are rarely the best of the rest from the lower leagues. Instead, they are expansion teams that need to prove they have financial clout, a top stadium and the ability to boost the league’s brand to bigger audiences (the St. Louis Rams’ recent move back to L.A. being a prime example of this).

It should be pointed out that promotion and relegation has its downside too, as relegated teams take a significant financial hit, and also lose their best players who want to stay in the top league.

And don’t get me wrong, there are aspects of American sports I would definitely like to see in Europe – I’m a particular fan of salary caps as a way of keeping teams competitive.

Which teams would have got relegated from NFL, MLB?

Our resident sports guy Joe Nelson took a look at which three football and baseball teams would have been relegated from the NFL and MLB over the past 10 years – the Vikings and Twins would only have been relegated once (though let’s face it, the Twins are probably going to make it No. 2 this season).

NFL

2015: Titans (3-13), Browns (3-13), and the Cowboys (4-12) or Chargers (4-12)
2014: Bucs (2-14), Titans (2-14), and the Raiders (3-13) or Jaguars (3-13)
2013: Texans (2-14), Redskins (3-13), and one of the Bucs, Falcons, Jags, Browns, or the Raiders (4-12)
2012: Jags (2-14), Chiefs (2-14), Raiders (4-12) or Lions (4-12) or Eagles (4-12)
2011: Colts (2-14), Rams (2-14), Vikings (3-13)
2010: Panthers (2-14), and two of the Bengals (4-12), Bills (4-12) or Broncos (4-12)
2009: Rams (1-15), Lions (2-14), Bucs (3-13)
2008: Lions (0-16), Rams (2-14), Chiefs (2-14)
2007: Dolphins (1-15), Rams (3-13), and one of the Falcons, Chiefs, Raiders, Jets (4-12)
2006: Raiders (2-14), Lions (3-13), Bucs, Browns (4-12)

MLB

2015: Phillies (63-99), Reds (64-98), Braves (67-95)
2014: Diamondbacks (64-98), Rockies (66-96), Rangers (67-95)
2013: Astros (51-111), Marlins (62-100), White Sox (63-99)
2012: Astros (55-107), Cubs (61-101), Rockies (64-98)
2011: Astros (56-106), Twins (63-99), Mariners (67-95)
2010: Pirates (57-105), Mariners (61-101), Diamondbacks (65-97)
2009: Nationals (59-103), Pirates (62-99), Orioles (64-98)
2008: Nationals (59-102), Mariners (61-101), Padres (63-99)
2007: Rays (66-96), Pirates (68-94), Royals (69-93), Orioles (69-93)
2006: Rays (61-101), Royals (62-100), Cubs (66-96)

It’s intriguing to see which teams would have left the major leagues over the past decade – particularly considering it contains teams that won the Super Bowl (Colts, Broncos) and World Series (Royals, Phillies) during that same period.

You wouldn’t need to copy it completely, you could just have one team get relegated each year instead of three – the effect would be much the same. That said, sports like football would also require a huge effort to create viable lower leagues, baseball might be better given it already has a minor league system as well as the AAIPB.

Ultimately, the likelihood of major leagues introducing promotion and relegation are about as likely as America joining most of the rest of the world in embracing soccer as its national sport.

Still, it’s fun to imagine how angry America would be if the Cowboys weren’t in the NFL for a season.

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