Today, stories surfaced that foreign owners, including many American ones, are keen to abolish relegation and promotion from the English Premier League. This silly idea has to be taken somewhat seriously since half of the EPL owners are foreigners who appear to be more concerned with profits than tradition.
Put differently, they want the right to run their teams like the Los Angeles Clippers, secure in the knowledge that they can rake in TV revenue regardless of how much they tank on the field.
In case you don’t know, in most of the world’s soccer leagues, every season the worst teams in the top division get relegated to the next lowest league and the best teams from the lower division get promoted to the top flight. This means that Clippers’ owner Donald Sterling would have had to open his wallet or face the prospect of struggling in some minor league.
In the late 60s, it would have meant that the New York Yankees would have been relegated. Believe it or not, this actually happened to Manchester United—the Yankees of English soccer—who suffered what is called the Drop after finishing near the bottom of the 1st Division (since renamed the EPL just to upset purists like me) in ’74.
We need to ask a basic question: should the primary purpose of sports be to make money, by treating the sport like a product and the fans like consumers; or should it be run like a non-profit organization that first and foremost respects the integrity of sport, its traditions, and the fans who turn up year after year?
This may be hard for most Americans to get their heads around, but for most of its history soccer has largely been committed to the latter. The goal has been to win trophies, not make money, and the owners were usually local businessman who felt some responsibility to their community. In fact, the English Football Association, put limits on how much owners could profit and relocating a franchise was unthinkable.
In the US, we got it wrong, right from the beginning in 1876, when the National League was formed. Owners declared that they were free to do more or less what they wanted, including move their teams to different cities. And was it good for baseball when the Dodgers abandoned Brooklyn? Did the Mexican-American residents of Chavez Ravine benefit from being displaced to make way for Dodger Stadium?
The answers are obvious, but it sure is a great deal if you are lucky enough to be an owner (The .1%). You get to have a team in a league that enjoys a monopoly, your territorial rights are mostly insured, and you are free to bring in the moving vans if city leaders are foolish enough to divert tax money from stadium construction to education or law enforcement.
Why do city leaders cave? Because there is a big difference between having a major league team and a minor league one. But that difference would be greatly minimized if American leagues would adopt promotion and relegation.
That’s not about to happen, but I sure hope that soccer fans around the world organize to resist what amounts to American Exceptionalism.
~ Ken Pendleton