What Is Relegation In Soccer?

Though the concept of relegation in soccer is second nature to most who follow the game around the world, for our American readers, relegation in soccer is somewhat of an unknown or indeed a misnomer. The reason: Almost all American sports including Major League Soccer (MLS), do not utilize a system which employs a promotion and relegation system. Once it is explained however (which I will do in the following article) our American readers will see that relegation in soccer is used in almost all leagues outside of the US and is actually very practical and easy to understand. 

What then defines relegation in soccer?

Relegation in soccer basically means a team drops from their current league to a lower league or division. How relegation in soccer works is different in countries around the world. In Europe for example, where the top tier in England is ‘The English Premier League’, in France ‘Ligue 1’, in Italy ‘Serie A’ and Spain ‘La Liga’ three teams can be promoted and relegated between the professional leagues. Whilst in Germany’s ‘Bundesliga’ only two teams are relegated or promoted between the professional divisions.

How then does relegation in soccer work?

Well if we look at how the following professional leagues are structured in their respective countries it will give you a better idea: 

  • England, has 4 professional leagues: 
  • The English Premier League, 
  • The Championship, 
  • Division 1  
  • Division 2. 

These are governed by the ‘The Football Association’ or FA.

  • France, has 2 exclusively professional leagues:
  • Ligue 1 
  • Ligue 2 

These are governed by the Ligue de Football Professionnel

  • Italy, has 3 exclusively professional leagues: 
  • Serie A
  • Serie B 
  • Serie C

These are governed by the Federazione Italiana Giuoco Calcio; (FIGC), known colloquially as Federcalcio,

  • Spain, has 2 exclusively professional leagues:
  • La Liga  
  • Segunda Division

These are governed by the LIGA NACIONAL DE FÚTBOL PROFESIONAL

  • Germany has 3 exclusively professional leagues: 
  • Bundelsliga Level 1  
  • Bundelsliga Level 2 Liga 
  • Liga

These are governed by The German Football Association

In each respective league a team that finishes in the bottom three places by number of points scored (and if need be ‘goal difference’) at the end of the seasons drops to the next division. Conversely teams that finish in the top 3 of the corresponding lower divisions are promoted to replace the teams that have been relegated. *Nb in Germany’s case two teams are promoted or relegated respectively.  

How does relegation in soccer differ in America?

The significant difference between European and North American relegation in soccer is that North American Soccer simply does not have it. South American soccer however does have relegation in soccer along the same generic lines as Europe. 

Essentially the lack of relegation in soccer in America is largely part of a whole. Most sporting leagues in general across North America are closed franchise affairs whereby the same teams play each other every season. The only changes to leagues occur when a different team is invited or when a team leaves.

Major League Soccer (MLS) does not incorporate relegation in soccer into its structure, but then again is also not a feature of the National Football League (NFL), the National Basketball Association (NBA) or Major League Baseball (MLB). So if you come bottom or top in any of these sports there is no change to the status or the level of play you play at for the following season.

Relegation in soccer around the world. 

The majority of countries around the world however do employ relegation in soccer, though as you have seen it varies per country. Nevertheless regardless of the country which employs it, relegation in soccer is one of the most important things to avoid in the game for it can affect a whole host of things.

For example if a team suffers relegation in soccer in England, it is an extremely costly affair. Relegation or demotion to the Championship was claimed by the Washington Post in 2020 to be worth $250 million dollars when Aston Villa, Bournemouth and Watford were contesting the two final relegation places that year. Moreover, the knock on consequences of relegation for a club can be disastrous:

  • Star players will often leave the club as they all wish to perform at the highest level.
  • Established and talented players will rarely sign for a team that has just been relegated as there are simply better options for their career.
  • Income revenues are affected across the board, with amongst other; loss of income from severely reduced television rights, marketing, ticket sales, shirt sales and sponsorship in general.

Furthermore, with no guarantee a relegated and likely depleted side will return to the top tier in their respective league the next season, relegation in soccer is a serious affair for fans and the owners of all clubs alike. Indeed relegation in soccer (outside of North America) is to be avoided at all costs for on occasion it has literally bankrupted a club. Or equally as bad for the fans of the club; turned them from a great side challenging for top honors into a very average lower league side.

Nottingham Forest a classic example of a side that went from ‘rags to riches to rags again’. Indeed, Forest actually went from  second tier status in the English league, to English First Division Champions and Champions of Europe, and then back to ‘also rans’ in the second tier of English soccer again in ‘the Championship’ where there ascent initially began albeit the league then under a differing name.

Take a look at the following clip (though maybe do so after reading the whole article) for it encompasses all the aspects mentioned in the article which would not be possible were it not for the relegation aspect of soccer: The seismic repercussions it can have, the sheer emotions associated and the pervading aspects it can have on the lives of those that truly follow a soccer club of ‘the beautiful game’.

No relegation in soccer – how do American teams benefit from it?

The absence of promotion and relegation in soccer particularly in Major League Soccer (Nb there are other top tier leagues which also do not have it, see here) provides a great deal of security in particular for the owners of the club. Major League Soccer teams can have a very bad season one year but come back strongly the next season. Here the owners of the teams are at an advantage as there is a drastically reduced chance of risk to their investment compared with a league where relegation is a factor.

Indeed investing heavily in a Major League Soccer side is likely to provide for a greater chance of success from a business perspective than in most other countries. The reasons for which are simple: players and fans alike will not switch allegiance to other clubs because of one bad season (or even two). Similarly shirt sales will continue a pace as the game grows, as will marketing and merchandising opportunities – provided it is not a prolonged blip and even then the financial repercussions will not be as severe due to the static, known entity, which does not change. 

No relegation in soccer – how American teams are disadvantaged by it?

Though there are the aforementioned advantages to not having relegation as part and parcel of Major League Soccer it does have downsides:

  • There is no nail biting relegation battles for clubs to experience. Whether it ends with last day elation for the fans at surviving a relegation battle or in heartbreak that their team will be playing in a different division next season – any true fan of the sport will tell you this is an integral aspect of the game which when present enhances the experience immeasurably.
  • Fans and players alike can get bored with playing the same sides each year with certain sides always winning and certain sides always losing.
  • There is a danger soccer just becomes a business first and foremost. Limited risk for owners, players and fans, often equals a reduced amount of drama and thereby entertainment.
  • Stagnation can also occur, with many sides unless in contention to win the league becoming complacent, not giving it their all and resultantly a fan reduced experience and level of quality is provided.
  • Finally players will often not push themselves as hard because of the ‘comfort zone’ the lack of relegation in soccer provides. This can be bad not only for their own game at club level and for career enhancing transfers but also from a performance level at country level as well when the major championships such as the World Cup come along. The reason; they as simply not as sharp as players in different leagues who are playing under a constant pressure to perform.

Further miscellaneous factors: 

The soccer system in America allows (providing the owners are rich enough) a side to just ‘start up’ a side in the top tier of a league. Outside of America the multi-league structure makes this literally impossible unless a club in the top tier is bought out for several hundreds of millions of dollars. Lower league or new teams are forced to work hard each year to progress up the leagues by finishing in the top 3. Standards simply cannot slip.

Newcastle United and Blackburn Rovers (albeit) with strong financial backing were examples of teams that did this from lower league positions. Both sides though big names of yesteryear had to come from positions of relative obscurity in the lower leagues to build sides that finally challenged and in Blackburn’s case won the English Premier League title. Such is the beauty of promotion and relegation in soccer however – things can and have turned full circle. Blackburn are no longer in the Premier league and this year Newcastle are fighting to avoid the dreaded drop!  

Ultimately thereby it can be seen that under a promotion and relegation system in soccer no team, no matter how much money has been pumped into it is ever safe or can get complacent. For if they do relegation can become a real possibility and that can be disaster!

Conclusions.

Ok so now you know how relegation in soccer works – what do you think? Would it work in America? I offer the following viewpoint:

The game of soccer in America is very knew in comparison to other world leagues and has also been built from a different dynamic. In America the game is very much associated with big business and making a profit. Whereas soccer around the world was initially the game of the working class people. In America it is very unlikely the business owners of Major League Soccer clubs would welcome or allow a promotion and relegation structure even if the growth of the sport warrants it, for there is simply too much monetary risk involved.

Conversely the recent ill feted attempt by arguably the biggest clubs in Europe to create the European Super League, shows an intended closed system where only the best teams played each other and could not be relegated would not work outside of America. Indeed it was an utter disaster; not 48 hours after its announced intention, players, managers, pundits and fans alike had demonstrated so much animosity to such a league that it was clear it was a non-starter from the off.

The United Kingdom government even announced plans to declare it illegal such was the outrage in generated. The utter shock and animosity to the idea similarly palpable across Europe. Resultantly despite the giant American bank JP Morgan stating it had committed over $4Billion dollars to the project, fan pressure prevailed, clubs pulled out of it and the status quo was maintained.

So where does that leave the two systems and the future of the game?

Well we will just have to see – but personally I think America’s Major League Soccer will continue in the same fashion, mainly because all the other major traditional sports in the country work from that closed natured business model.

Outside of America I don’t think a closed system without relegation in soccer will ever come into effect at the highest levels or across many countries as its fundamental foundations and fan base are simply too deeply entrenched. However, this won’t stop the ‘money men’ from trying to effect one!