Relegation is the mandated transfer of the least successful teams of a higher division into a lower division at the end of the season. The opposite of relegation is promotion where the most successful teams of a lower division are promoted to a higher division at the end of the season.

The relegation system is used in professional sports leagues around the world, and this system is one of the defining characteristics of European sports, especially football (a.k.a. soccer). In the 20-team English Premier League, the bottom three teams are relegated to the Football League Championship, England’s second tier division, at the end of every season. Conversely, the top three teams of the Football League Championship are promoted to the EPL. Additionally, the top four teams in the EPL are invited to play in the annual Champions League tournament — a top flight tournament that involves the top European club teams from England, Germany, Spain, Italy, Portugal, Scotland, etc. The fifth, sixth, and seventh teams of the EPL can play in the UEFA Cup.

I like the relegation system because it makes every game important. During the regular season teams are either fighting to maintain their position in their current league or receive a promotion to a higher league or tournament. The relegation battle is usually heated, and often times it goes down to the last game of the season. In fact, a tie-breaker, such as goal-differential, is often used to decide which team is relegated/promoted. Teams want to be promoted to higher leagues because they receive more exposure, guaranteed contracts through the league, television packages, and endorsement deals. Teams that are promoted to the EPL automatically receive somewhere around £45 million. On the other hand, teams don’t want to be demoted because they lose money and respect from their fan base. Unfortunately, relegation has caused some teams to declare bankruptcy, and it has also incited riots from “soccer hooligans.”

North American professional leagues do not use “true” relegation systems. I would say that many leagues use a “modified” relegation system because the top teams enter a playoff bracket and the remaining teams sit out until next year. As a result many regular season games are meaningless. For example, in the NBA the bottom level teams have nothing to play for at the end of the season — except a spot in the next year’s draft. Consequently, you’ll see many teams “taking a dive” so that they can land the top pick in the draft. This past year the Boston Celtics were accused of benching their best players because they wanted to get the worst record in the league and increase their chances of landing Greg Oden or Kevin Durant in the upcoming draft.

I think that the NBA and MLS could successfully implement the relegation system. The NBA could probably implement it right away, but the MLS would need more time to development. I would love to see the relegation system implemented in the United States, but I don’t think it will ever happen because of the potential loss of revenue and the disparity between the “major leagues” and “minor leagues.”


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