The Closet Moderate: Relegation

Saturday, June 27, 2009


Michael Jackson is dead, so by order of our mainstream media headmasters, we've all forgotten about the rebellion in Iran for a few days. While we wait for the return of actual news, I thought I'd write about something else for us to argue about: professional sports.

Specifically, I've been thinking about the system of promotion and relegation used in leagues in other countries. In, for example, English soccer, the three worst teams in the top-level league are sent down to the second-level league, being replaced by the three best teams of the second-level league. It's sort of a free market of sports, and it surprises me that we've never adopted it in the United States.

The system would work best, I believe, in sports where the difference in win percentage between the best and worst teams is largest. In such a league, the last half of the season holds little excitement for the fans of the worst teams, because they've already been effectively eliminated from contention. Look (at right) at the year-end standings for the National Basketball Association's 2008-09 season. If you lived in, say, Washington, would you have any reason to pay for tickets to a Wizards-Clippers game? Hell no. There's nothing on the line. But, if one or both of those teams had to win to stay in the NBA, there might be some incentive to root for them even when they're terrible.

There are all sorts of incentives at work in a promotion/relegation system. Owners would have to spend money on talented players, or risk falling into a lower league with less revenue and television coverage. No more could cheap bastards like Donald Sterling be confident of playing in the premier basketball league. Conversely, there would be great incentives for lower-tier teams to compete, and for fans of those teams to turn out and for local television stations to cover them.

Further, consider the benefits to a lower barrier to entry in owning a sports team. If a new entry in some low-level league had the chance of moving up, owners wouldn't have to put down hundreds of millions for an expansion franchise. And that new franchise would spring up in a city where people wanted it (or else it would quickly go out of business,) not where the NBA owners thought it should go. Fans' attendance would determine the teams' location, not the owners' self-interest.

I imagine a system where the worst team in the Eastern Conference and the worst in the Western would be relegated. Two teams from minor leagues would take their places, one in a western city, one in an eastern city. There would have to be better organization of basketball's other leagues for to work (current minor league basketball has many teams fold, move, or change leagues each year) and a disaffiliation of minor-league teams from NBA teams, to prevent anyone from owning two teams in the same league, but for the sake of argument, let's imagine that the somewhat misnamed Premier Basketball League would be the second-level eastern league, and the NBA Development League would be the western second-level. At the end of the 2008-2009 season, the Washington Wizards and the Sacramento Kings would be relegated, and the Rochester Razorsharks and Colorado 14ers (scheduled to relocate to Texas before next season) would be promoted.

Does that make sense? Are there more basketball fans in Rochester, New York than in Washington, D.C.? If not, the Razorsharks will not be able to keep up, and will be relegated, and the Wizard will dominate the PBA and be promoted. But the system provides the best way of gauging whether a city truly contains the number of fans needed to keep its franchise afloat. And small cities don't necessarily lose out: it's a lot easier to get a San Fransisco 49ers ticket than it it to get a Green Bay Packers ticket. So, let's have markets in everything, and go Razorsharks!

1 comment:

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