What is Promotion and Relegation in Soccer? (Explained)

What is Promotion and Relegation in Soccer? (Explained)

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Promotion and relegation is a system that is used in various sports, but most notably in soccer leagues around the world. It is near ubiquitous around the world except in U.S. sports. What exactly is promotion and relegation in soccer?

Promotion and relegation is a system where teams in a soccer league are transferred up or down a division based on the number of points gained during a season. In this system, teams that have gained a certain number of points are promoted and the lowest-ranked teams are relegated.

What is the history behind promotion and relegation? And, why doesn’t the U.S. use this system? Find out the answers to these questions and more below. 

History of Promotion and Relegation in Soccer

The promotion and relegation system was first seen and introduced in English soccer. The English Football League (EFL) was founded in 1888, eventually becoming the top soccer competition in the country. It is the oldest professional soccer competition in the world.

At first, teams that were placed at the bottom of each league faced reelection rather than relegation. Reelection is the system where worst-placed teams had to reapply for a place in the league, competing with teams below the division. The league members would then vote whether a team would retain its place in the league or a new team from below would take its place.

Eventually, the more meritocratic system of promotion and relegation would become the norm in England. Today, football leagues in Europe and all around the world use the system of promotion and relegation, except for the United States.

In most countries, the system of promotion and relegation spans across the entire soccer pyramid from non-professional leagues to the country’s top division. Theoretically, this means that a team in the lowest division of soccer can make its way up the leagues and eventually become champions of the first division. Though this feat has never been done, it is not impossible for a team from the lower divisions to achieve glory as was seen with Leicester City, who climbed from the third division, to win the Premier League in the 2015-2016 season. 

Finally, what are some teams that have never been relegated? 

Unsurprisingly, there are only a small number of teams that have never been relegated and they are more often than not, top clubs in the first division. These teams include but are not limited to Real Madrid and Barcelona in Spain, Internazionale in Italy and Arsenal, Liverpool, Aston Villa, Manchester United, Everton, Tottenham Hotspur, and Chelsea in the Premier League. Nonetheless, it has to be said that no team in England has not been relegated from the top division. 

Famous relegation battles and promotion playoffs

What is Promotion and Relegation in Soccer? (Explained)

Throughout the history of soccer, there have been a multitude of famous relegation battles and promotion playoffs which have been etched into the collective memory due to their nail-biting tightness, and last-minute joy and despair. Here are arguably two of the most famous relegation battles and promotion play-offs that have kept fans on the edge of their seats.

First is a relegation scrap in the Premier League. Near the end of the 2004-2005 season, four teams: Norwich City, Crystal Palace, Southampton, and West Bromwich Albion, were competing at the bottom half of the table to avoid three relegation spots. The battle went down to the wire with all four teams, who were within two points of each other, playing on the last day.

West Brom was at the bottom of the table and no side had avoided relegation from that bad of a position before. They went on a last-ditch effort, coming up with three wins and four draws in their last ten games. They needed a win in their last match against Portsmouth and for the rest of the three in the relegation zone to come up short with zero points. 

Geoff Horsfield would take the game by the scruff of the neck when he came off the bench and scored the opener and then gave the assist to the second goal as West Brom beat Portsmouth 2-0. Miraculously, on the final matchday, Bryan Robson’s West Brom was the only team out of the four that won and subsequently escaped the drop.   

The second is a promotion semi-final playoff second leg between Swindon Town and Sheffield United in 2015. Swindon Town led 2-1 from the first leg and smashed in 3 goals to put them 5-1 on aggregate. What was to come was one of the greatest comebacks in playoff history.

After half-time, Sheffield United managed to bring it back to 5-3 before bagging in two goals in the last two minutes. Despite their herculean efforts, it wasn’t enough to overcome Swindon. Nonetheless, it would go down as one of the most electrifying playoff matches in soccer history.

How Do Soccer Teams Get Promoted and Relegated?

In soccer, the best-ranked teams, in terms of points gained, are promoted to the league above. On the other hand, the worst-ranked teams, also in terms of points gained, are relegated to the league below. How many teams can get promoted and relegated? This differs from league to league and country to country. 

Currently, in the top European leagues, such as the English Premier League (EPL), the German Bundesliga, the Spanish La Liga, and the Italian Serie A, three teams are relegated each season. In turn, three teams from the lower second division in each respective country are promoted. 

Not all teams are automatically relegated and promoted. For example, in Germany, the team that finishes 16th in the Bundesliga and the team that finishes third in Bundesliga 2 (the second division) play in a relegation play-off. Two legs are played, one at the home of the Bundesliga team, the other in the home of the Bundesliga 2 team, and the winner of the two legs is given entry into the Bundesliga. 

Meanwhile, in England, while the three worst-placed teams in the Premier League are automatically relegated to the Championship (the second tier), the two top teams from the Championship are promoted to the EPL. The third promotion spot goes to the team that wins multiple rounds of a play-off between the third, fourth, fifth, and sixth placed teams in the Championship. 

What happens when teams are promoted? Other than being able to compete in a more competitive league, when teams are promoted into a league, they are usually able to profit more money through larger TV deals. Allowing them to increase investment into the club, such as better training facilities or buying better players to increase chances of winning.

Another benefit of promotion is that the team that has been promoted will now be able to play against larger and more well-known teams, bringing more revenue in terms of ticket sales as well as television rights. This is why it is such a big occasion for a recently promoted club when it has to play the best teams in a division; for example, the Liverpool’s, the Juventus’s or the Real Madrid’s.

In effect, getting promoted brings with it a load of benefits, therefore incentivizing clubs to invest to win matches and get promoted. 

Now, what happens when teams are relegated? Relegation is usually a sad time for a soccer club as it means they have failed to make the cut in their division, in terms of winning matches. When teams are relegated, star players can be poached by other clubs and there is a significant reduction in revenue. To alleviate the financial burden, the Premier League gives parachute payments to clubs recently relegated to the Championship. 

An example of a team being forced to sell its players off when they have been relegated is Juventus in the aftermath of the Calciopoli match fixing scandal. After being stripped of their 2004-2005 Serie A title and being relegated to Serie B (the second tier), top players such as Lilian Thuram, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and Fabio Cannavaro left the club. 

What Are the Pros and Cons of Promotion and Relegation?

What is Promotion and Relegation in Soccer? (Explained)

As mentioned above, teams that are promoted and relegated are faced with different beneficial and detrimental realities, respectively. But as for the system itself, what exactly are the benefits and the drawbacks of the promotion and relegation system?

Sports leagues in America are closed leagues, meaning that there is no movement between divisions and there is only one professional league. Some say that this means there is less incentive for teams to perform as they will remain in the league at the end of the season no matter their results. What are some other arguments in support of the promotion and relegation system?

According to sports economist Roger Noll in Why Is There Promotion And Relegation In European Soccer? by James Reade, “‘players earn higher wages under promotion and relegation, promotion and relegation has a net positive effect on attendance, and the effect of promotion and relegation on competitive balance is ambiguous’”.

Moreover, Reade says that another benefit of the promotion and relegation system is that it makes teams, smaller clubs, who fear relegation invest more into the playing personnel. Therefore, there is a higher level of player quality than there would be if there was no threat of relegation. 

Another point that Reade makes is that “knife edges are created”. What he means by this is that relegation and promotion can be decided “in the very final seconds of the final matches of seasons”. This means there is more at stake in the final matches of the season for teams and their fans that are either in the relegation zone or those that have the possibility of promotion. Having more at stake means more excitement for fans watching their teams as well as more incentive to watch therefore drawing more audiences to these crucial matches. 

Now, what are the drawbacks of the promotion and relegation system?

In Why clubs may risk millions for riches at the end of the rainbow, Stuart James says that the financial incentives in the form of TV deals make promotion into the Premier League so lucrative that a group of clubs in the Championship will do whatever it takes financially, and “overstretch themselves”, to get a piece of the pie. This could mean that clubs will gamble funds in a bid for the Premier League, but if not successful could lead to them taking a large hit to their club.

Moreover, parachute payments to clubs that have recently been relegated down to a lower tier give them an unfair advantage over clubs in the lower tier. This means that clubs that have been relegated will have a greater chance of being promoted again, rather than a new side, due to the financial support they are given. Thus, this will support the same old clubs to be promoted again, a hit to meritocracy. 

Why Is There No Promotion and Relegation in U.S. Sports?

U.S. sports, including soccer, operate in a closed league system. This means that all teams remain in the professional league at the end of each season. New teams can be added but there is no regular transfer of teams between divisions. 

Other sports, such as basketball and baseball, have different scoring systems and thus cannot be analyzed and evaluated in the same manner as soccer. Because of the complexity of analyzing the entire U.S. sports scene, I will be focusing on U.S. soccer such as Major League Soccer (MLS). 

There are a few key reasons why there isn’t a promotion and relegation system in U.S. soccer.

As stated in Three Simple Reasons Why Promotion and Relegation Will Never Happen in the US, by John Jay Lee, one can surmise the business model of the MLS with the adage: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. In essence, all the other successful major sports leagues, such as the NBA, NFL, or MLB, all have closed league systems. And, the key point here is that they are all highly successful.

As for the MLS, it has been and is a financial success with team valuations increasing rapidly year on year. Despite this growth, there is still a huge upside in terms of potential as it is still a relatively new league and market. And, thus it makes logical sense to follow what has been tried and tested, a closed league system.

Secondly, it would go against the team owner’s wishes. Each team’s millionaire owners have invested heavily in their clubs and with an implementation of a promotion and relegation system, these investments could potentially be at risk, as each club would be at risk of relegation out of the MLS. With this relegation would be reduced revenue from T.V. deals, ticket sales, etc. and so without the backing of the owners, promotion, and relegation is not a reality.  

Thirdly, MLS is a single entity, rather than a conglomeration of independently owned clubs. This means that the majority of the revenue made by the clubs goes to the league and then is partitioned back. Thus, it is in the best interests of the teams to keep the league closed, as they themselves are part of the league.

This doesn’t mean there isn’t a section of U.S. soccer that has not been calling for reform of the MLS closed league system to one that integrates the lower leagues, a promotion and relegation system. There have been lawsuits filed by lower league sides against the MLS, such as by Miami FC and Kingston Stockade to the Court of Arbitration for Spot or CAS. They have called for enforcement of Article Nine of the FIFA Regulations for the Application of Statuses, which calls for a promotion and relegation system (sporting merit). 

These groups and their supporters argue that a promotion and relegation system will allow American soccer to grow further as a promotion and relegation system would promote more investment into the American soccer leagues as it will open more doors to other clubs to be able to play in the MLS. MLS teams that underperform will be penalized for their failures and their possible relegation will allow other clubs to be able to compete. This will thus raise the level of competitiveness in the top flight. 

While the aforementioned lawsuit and as well as others are currently taking place in the American professional soccer scene, the MLS has, for all intents and purposes, vehemently opposed any attempt to implement these calls for a promotion and relegation system. 

It remains to be seen if the system of promotion and relegation will take hold in the United States but for the rest of the world, the system continues to churn out stories of great escapes, despair, and triumph for those that are promoted. For all its drawbacks, the system still allows the possibility of underdog fairytales like those of Leicester City winning the Premier League. Something that a closed system like the MLS simply does not allow.