09 July 2008

Promotion and Relegation: A Primer for American Fans

For American sports fans who have had their interest in international football piqued, promotion and relegation is a critical concept to understand. First, let me get it out of the way and I don’t intend any offense by this, but the word is “relegation” not “regulation” (I see that mistake made quite often). Now, let me go to the definitions and then I’ll talk about what those two words, promotion and relegation, mean to football lovers outside the United States.

According to Merriam Webster, promotion – a word with which anyone in the business world is familiar, means the act or fact of being raised in position or rank.

Relegation, on the other hand, is not nearly as common a term, and again according to Merriam Webster, means to assign to a place of insignificance or of oblivion : put out of sight or mind. Ouch right?

So what do these two terms mean in professional football? Ecstasy and Agony.

First - some context. Most professional leagues in the world – in fact all of the major leagues: the English Football Association, the Royal Spanish Football Federation, the Deutscher Fußball-Bund, the Federazione Italiana Giuoco Calcio, and scores of smaller associations, actually organize club competitions around tiers of leagues. Juxtapose that with the typical American sports system, which maintains all teams as even, and organizes competition geographically (i.e, Eastern v. Western, etc.)

In football, each of the competitive tiers or leagues are actually divided in to “levels” of teams. The top tier being the home of the best teams, the second tier the next best, the third tier, the fourth tier, and so on. In the associations I mentioned above, the top tiers are the Premiership, Primera División, Bundesliga, and Serie A respectively. The second tiers are the Championship, Segunda División, 2nd Bundesliga, and Serie B. The third tiers follow suit, and so on.

Promotion and relegation link the tiers. If you finish at the top of the second division tier, more than getting a trophy and pat on the back, you get promoted to the first division – this is the ecstasy of promotion! Conversely, if you finish at the bottom of the first tier, in addition to finishing last, you get relegated to the next league down – this is the agony of relegation.

In practical terms, this means that for most every team in every table, every match matters. Unlike American sports, which has ironically adopted a socialist equality model where teams are actually rewarded for bottom performance with the top choice of players in the next “draft”, promotion and relegation are if not capitalist, then at least Darwinian. And much like survival of the fittest, there is very little upside to losing and a lot of upside to winning!

This last point is one of the biggest criticisms of the promotion and relegation system. Critics complain that top teams will always be at the top because they make the most money and as such are able to recruit the best talent in the world.

To that point I simply say, “to the victors, the spoils”. It is a free market approach to sport, where every team has a chance to be the hero or the goat in any given season. It is a true model of equal opportunity!

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