A surprising way that pro sports can get even better

Posted: June 3, 2021

Could promotion and relegation enliven U.S. sports?

For the citizens of Berlin, Germany, it was a time ripe for celebration. Berliners stormed the streets of the city as they chanted and waved flags.

They sang their anthem with lyrics such as, “We from the East always go forward shoulder to shoulder for Iron Union,” and “Victory in front of our eyes… let’s pull together through the nation of East and West.”

The party that had erupted in the streets continued non-stop for two full days. For some citizens, the cause for celebration had been a long time coming. For others, they thought they may never see the day.

This scene, filled with hope and optimism, seems like it could be straight out of 1989 and the fall of the Berlin Wall. However, celebrations were for something else.

Their local soccer team, Union Berlin FC, had just finished their season at the top of German soccer’s second division, and as a reward they had been promoted to the Bundesliga, Germany’s top division.

Why did that matter? The team would then be getting more prestige and recognition and a cut from the more than $4 billion in revenue that comes with joining Germany’s top flight. With the extra money, they can buy better players and continue to improve. At the same time, the bottom finishing Bundesliga teams would be demoted, or relegated, to the second division and would lose that money.

For most sports fans in the U.S, a system where teams can move divisions based on performance is almost unknown.

In America, our major professional sports teams work in a closed system. This means that in a league, there are a set number of teams that play each season and those teams stay the same over time. Using the NFL as an example, a team will play in the league with the rest of the 31 other teams year after year, no matter how well they do. In other parts of the world like in Europe, sports systems with “promotion” and “relegation” are much more popular.

A promotion and relegation system moves teams up and down between divisions of a sport based on their performance.

For example, the Minnesota Twins play in Major League Baseball, and they have minor-league teams at the AAA, AA, A and rookie-league levels. Their AAA team is now the St. Paul Saints. Imagine that U.S. baseball had a promotion-relegation system. Imagine that the Twins finished in or near last place in MLB, and the Saints finished in or near first in AAA. The Saints would play in MLB and the Twins would play in AAA the next season.

The most prominent example of Pro-Rel is European soccer where a team like Union Berlin FC can be promoted to a higher division based on its place in the league or through a series of playoff matches. But what does promotion and relegation mean for teams and fans?

“It helps organize the teams more,” said freshman Christopher Sanchez. “It helps the viewers understand where the teams are, and what they’re going to be.”

Because teams move between divisions based on performance, competitiveness in a division is higher most of the time. The ability for a team to move can also be more engaging for fans.

“It brings the stakes up, and that’s what’s exciting about soccer,” Sanchez said. “Risk it all or nothing.”

However, this can make it equally as hard to be a fan.

“If you’re coming from a not as well performing league and then moving up to the next one, I think the fans would be happy,” said sophomore Ethan Hatzung. “But say you’re in the major leagues, and you go down to the minors, I feel like those fans would be really mad, as well as the players and the coaching staff and just the whole organization.”

The relegation of a team can lead to the loss of players, sponsors and coaches, making it possible for teams to enter a death spiral of relegations.

“That’s kind of what we sign up for as fans,” said social-studies teacher Eamonn Manion. “You are committed to that team regardless… You kind of recognize that you’re going to have some good times, are you’re going have some bad times.”

There is a chance that we might see the system in some U.S. leagues, however it would take a lot of moving and shaking. Major League Soccer (MLS) is a frequently talked about league that could adopt Pro-Rel. This would align MLS with the greater soccer mainstream, and USL Pro is an already established 2nd division.

The MLB and NHL could also be great candidates for switching to Pro-Rel. They both already have multiple established leagues, and it could help them differentiate themselves from the NBA or NFL, which have no minor leagues. However, while Pro-Rel could be great for fans and might help a sport as a whole, U.S. sports are unlikely to switch. For legacy sports like the NHL or MLB, they couldn’t just switch overnight.

“You would really need to connect all the leagues, and I feel like that would cost a lot of money,” said Hatzung. The overall relationship between teams and fans in the U.S. might also be a barrier in itself. “The U.S. views their fans as customers, so the reason to franchise is money,” said Manion “[franchising] costs the most money, but you make the most money.”

For the foreseeable future, sports fans will need to look outside the U.S. to see promotion and relegation in action.

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