O’Neil: What if American sports stopped tanking and adopted Premier League-style relegation?
Relegation is a revelation.
That was my conclusion from a weekend of watching soccer. Don’t laugh because I’m not joking. I watched soccer. Those of you who know me as a soccer-hating American fail to understand that I actually like the sport. I just like making fun of it more, and there’s no goat that’s as easy to get as the goat belonging to the American soccer enthusiast.
Ah yes, the soccer-istas as my friend Alex dubbed them, though now I fear I’ve lost the threat of my entire story which was supposed to be about all this soccer I watched this weekend. Yes, that’s right. And after sitting through the most soccer-y of all soccer results on Friday – a nil-nil tie between Sounders FC and the San Jose Quakes – I was reminded of just how much fun the bottom of the table is over in the Premier League this time of year. And “table,” for all of you unsophisticated louts who don’t follow soccer, is how we soccer-istas refer to the standings.
Take for example, Norwich City’s 4-0 loss to West Ham on Saturday, which cued the English announcer to solemnly announce the pending demotion: “Full-time whistle signals the end of Norwich City’s stay in the Premier League after just 12 months. Last season’s Championship champions are on their way back to the second tier.”
See, that’s what happens in England’s top league when you stink: You get sent down. Banished to a lower league with less money and fewer television appearances. There are 20 teams in England’s top division: the Premier League. The bottom three are relegated to next tier down, which is (confusingly) called the Championship. The top two teams in the Championship are promoted, and the teams that finished third through sixth in the Championship play a tournament with the winner getting promoted.
The upshot is that stinking comes with a cost in English soccer. You get sent out of sight unlike in America where we coddle our losing teams, allowing them to wallow in squalor while cashing in their league handouts for the coverage of the playoffs they did not qualify for. Talk about corporate welfare. If you’re a player and you stink? You can get traded, demoted or even fired, but if you’re a team that’s perennially terrible you’re free to remain terrible without endangering your standing in the league’s overall structure.
This is bad for several reasons, the first being is that it eliminates the incentive for a team to be at least marginally competent. It can’t get any worse in American sports than getting the top overall pick in the next year’s draft? Talk about a safety net. But we’re just getting started because the lack of an overwhelming punishment for being godawful makes it not just possible to finish last for a couple of years in a row, but makes it potentially advantageous to do so.
Yes, we’re talking about tanking. That strategy by which teams choose to endure an extended period of futility with an eye toward accumulating enough young talent – dubbed “assets” in the MBA parlance of the joyless vermin who oversee such operations – to start winning several years from now.
Why be merely mediocre when you can be absolutely godawful? That’s what teams in multiple leagues have essentially declared. Is it really worse to be 30th in a 30-team league compared to finishing 15th? The last-place team might have lower attendance and worse TV ratings, which hurts the business, but it also gets better draft picks.
Now take it one step further.
What if that team that was going to finish 15th finishes 30th after deciding to trade off all the players who would have helped it finish 15th, getting prospects and future picks. Now, not only does that last-place team get all the perks of being bad, but it gets all those draft picks and prospects that it netted in the firesale that enabled it to be that bad, which is how the Houston Astros won a World Series. Well, that and a few timely thumps of a trash can.
Tanking is riskier if relegation is on the table. If finishing last in the American League meant demotion to the Pacific Coast League, it would put a huge incentive on remaining marginally competent. You get sent down, you lose your share of Major League Baseball’s national TV contract, its advanced-media revenue, the luxury tax payouts.
But this isn’t just about discouraging tanking, it’s also about viewing enjoyment because this time of year, the competition at the bottom of the Premier League is more compelling than the question of who will win it. Liverpool already has that wrapped up, its first title in 30 years, but there are teams still playing to stay in the Premier League, which is what made Bournemouth’s comeback from a one-goal deficit to beat Leicester 4-1 so thrilling on Sunday with high-priced acquisition Dominic Solanke scoring twice and our English announcer enjoyably perplexed by all that happened: “What a strange game of football. Dominic Solanke cost $31.5 million and today’s contribution from him might – just might – make that look cheap if these are the points that keep Bournemouth up. They are still in the relegation zone, but now within touching distance, four points from Watford and West Ham.”
This is what relegation offers: The chance to watch teams play for their very survival in the top division. Can you imagine how much fun it would be to root for your biggest rival to not only lose, but to lose and be banished to a lower division, which is exactly what would have happened to San Francisco at some point in those four years in which the 49ers stumbled around after Jim Harbaugh’s departure.
Now, if you’ll pardon me, I have to go read up about Watford and see whether its going to be able to hold onto its place in the Premier League. They’re 16th after all, very much in the danger zone since England doesn’t coddle its losers.
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