There’s a scene in Ted Lasso when his fictional Premier League team, AFC Richmond, is facing the growing prospect of relegation.
During a team meeting, one of the Richmond players, Colin, says grimly: “We got relegated when I was at Cardiff. It was my family’s team. My Nana never spoke to me after that.”
That vignette, while apocryphal, highlights the extreme emotion that accompanies relegation — and promotion — in English soccer. It’s the system that is ingrained in the very fabric of sports in many parts of the world. Put simply, the bottom three teams in the league at the end of each season are dropped (or “relegated”) to a lower league, while the top three teams in that lower league are promoted to replace them. “Pro-rel,” as it’s called, is the lifeblood of the football culture.
While that leads to inevitable annual heartache and agony for those relegated teams (accompanied by jubilation for those promoted), they would have it no other way. Which goes a long way toward explaining why the recent misguided attempt by a group of European powerhouse soccer teams to go rogue and form a “Super League” went so spectacularly wrong.
Besides being viewed (quite accurately) as a shameless money grab, the more heinous crime, in the overwhelming view of fans, was that it circumvented the “pro-rel” orthodoxy. The 15 core teams — six juggernauts from the Premier League; Real Madrid, Barcelona and Atlético Madrid from Spain; Juventus, Inter Milan and A.C. Milan from Italy; and three more clubs to be named later — were going to be guaranteed a permanent spot in the league no matter their record. It was a notion so galling to European fans that it caused a veritable mutiny.
Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola summed up the prevailing school of thought:
“It is not a sport where the relation between the effort and the success, the effort and the reward, does not exist. It is not a sport where success is already guaranteed or it is not a sport when it doesn’t matter where you lose.”
Man City was one of the teams aligned with the Super League, but that didn’t deter Guardiola from speaking out, just as Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp did so despite the Reds’ involvement in the Super League. Actually, everyone spoke out, in anger and indignation — politicians, journalists, fans, players, ex-players, soccer officials at the highest level.
The uproar was so great that the league crumbled in less than a week, an ignominious rebuke from which the owners who attempted the coup may never fully recover. The fact that some of the leading instigators happened to be Americans was lost on nobody.
The Glazer family, owners of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, also owns Manchester United. John Henry’s Fenway Sports Group, which controls the Boston Red Sox, owns Liverpool. Los Angeles Rams owner Stan Kroenke owns Arsenal. All were part of the Super League, as was AC Milan, owned by Elliott Management, a U.S. hedge fund. The whole project was financially backed by JP Morgan Chase.
Many had predicted long ago that owners not versed in the culture would try to “Americanize” soccer in Europe. It was an attempt that failed spectacularly. It made me wonder if American sports could ever be “Europeanized” with a promotion-relegation system over here?
Over the years, I’ve heard many people suggest that our sports would benefit from the threat of relegation. It’s usually when an NBA or NFL team is wallowing at the bottom of the standings in clear pursuit of a high draft pick the following year, or an MLB team has gutted its roster to instigate a rebuilding campaign that will condemn it to irrelevancy for several years.
One of the clear appeals of the pro-rel system is that every game resonates with meaning, even (or especially) those at the tail end of the season involving also-ran teams. Instead of merely playing out the string, as happens here to second-division ballclubs, they are fighting for their lives. The financial and social ramifications of getting relegated are immense.
In that Ted Lasso episode, a puzzled Richmond player asks what happens to bad American teams at the end of a season without relegation.
Replies Ted, “You know, they play out the rest of the schedule, go through the motions in meaningless games contested in lifeless, half-empty stadiums, and everyone is pretty much fine with that.”
When you put it that way, it sounds pretty dumb. Yet as appealing as it sounds in theory, relegation will never happen here. Just as the pro-rel system is so ingrained in England as to be impenetrable, so is our “closed” system of sports entrenched to the point that changing it would be near impossible.
You’d think that a capitalist society like ours would welcome the “survival of the fittest” mindset of relegation and promotion. Martin Luther King Jr. and others have said the U.S. is socialism for the rich and capitalism for everyone else. It’s certainly true in pro sports.
Teams that have invested hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars in their franchises are simply not going to stand for a drop to the minor leagues. And local governments that have invested similar amounts of money in facilities won’t either.
It would be different if relegation had been the norm for generations, as is the case in Europe. But it hasn’t. And the infrastructure of the sports here are simply not set up to facilitate relegation and promotion.
It’s a nice thought to eliminate the so-called “tanking” method of team-building that’s become so popular in MLB — giving up on a couple of seasons in order to emerge stronger down the road, a strategy the Mariners are in the middle of.
But if you ousted the bottom three teams from the majors, who would replace them? The top Triple-A ballclubs? Besides the obvious problems with facilities, there’s the fact that minor-league clubs are controlled by, and populated with, players from their parent team. You can see the inherent problems that couldn’t be solved without a complete overhaul of the entire structure. Similarly, football and basketball don’t have a lower league even close to being commensurate in talent with the top leagues.
Beyond all that, the pro-rel concept doesn’t really work in salary-cap leagues like the NFL and NBA. What makes it so compelling in England is that teams floundering in the second division are motivated to spend heavily on players to get out of the relegation zone.
Even North American pro soccer, where the call for relegation has been the strongest, doesn’t seem to be heading in that direction. The MLS is a single-entity league — essentially one company with many subsidiaries — and they have a vested interest in making those entities happy.
As former U.S. soccer president Sunil Gulati told Sports Illustrated’s Grant Wahl when asked about using promotion-relegation in MLS:
“There are a number of issues that come up with that particular format of competition, but the biggest one is it’s not the rules of the game that people bought into when they made investments, whether it’s in the USL, the NASL or MLS,” Gulati said. “It’s not the rules that we set out when teams came in.”
Over time, those rules can become sacred, and immutable. We’ve just seen that in all its glory, and all its gory backlash, with the ill-fated Super League.