Wednesday, September 26, 2007

What if MLB Had Promotion & Relegation?

I've mentioned before in this blog that the system of promotion & relegation in European league sports is the "awesome Shiva of sports, destroyer and transformer." US sports leagues are worse for not having promotion & relegation; however, even with 24/7 coverage of sports in this country, most sports fans have no idea what promotion & relegation are and how they'd change their favorite sports.

O Dear MLB Fan, if your sport had promotion & relegation like the European soccer leagues, the bottom three teams in the MLB would move down to the AAA league, and the top three teams in AAA would move up to the majors. The end of the season wouldn't merely mark a battle for the wild card spot: It'd be a life-and-death battle to stay in the MLB and we'd all be glued to our televisions.

If the baseball season ended today, and MLB/AAA promotion & relegation operated the same way it does in the English Premier League, the Nashville Sounds (89W/55L, .618) of the Pacific Coast League and the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees (84W/59L, .587) of the International League would be promoted to the MLB. Playing a 4-team mini-tournament for the final slot would be Sacramento River Cats (.583), the Toledo Mud Hens (.573), the Durham Bulls (.599), and the Iowa Cubs (.549).

As it currently stands, 6 MLB teams – the Chicago White Sox (.433), the Kansas City Royals (.433), the Pittsburgh Pirates (.427), the Baltimore Orioles (.427), the Florida Marlins (.427), and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays (.414) – are seriously at risk of finishing in the bottom 3 slots for the year. Relative to other teams in the league, these teams are horrible. And because we have a system where they're locked into the top flight professional baseball league, they can get away with being horrible.

Under a system without promotion & relegation, the players for these teams will simply go through the motions for the rest of the season, playing their remaining games lackadaisically. The best of these teams, the White Sox and the Royals, are 25.5 games out of playoff contention: What do they care who wins or loses the remaining games?

Under a system with promotion & relegation, these players would be playing like madmen. Presently, sportswriters are shocked when teams that have had a rough season play their best at the end of the season. If we had promotion & relegation, this would be commonplace, as each threatened team battled to stay in the top league.

Owners would be forced to invest in their teams or risk falling out of the league — you wouldn't see them employing a penny-pinching strategy of running a wildly profitable but unsuccessful team (See Bud Selig or (outside of baseball) the Golden State Warriors).

What do we get instead of relegation & promotion? We get a Congressionally-sanctioned monopoly for major league baseball. We get meaningful games at the end of the season only for those teams at the top. We get a farm system where the teams are locked into their divisions and financially dependent on their big-league paymasters. We get less.

7 of the Chicago White Sox's final 14 games this season are against the Kansas City Royals. The team that wins the majority of these games will move up the table. The team that loses the majority will probably end the season in the bottom three teams.

Without promotion & relegation, you don't care about these games and nobody else does, either.

With promotion & relegation, you'd care, the players would care, the owners would care, and you can rest assured that the people of Chicago and Kansas City would care.


johnrob said...

A league with relegation is more fun to watch, period. Infact, sometimes the most exciting matchups are between a team playing to stay up and one playing for the title.
For relegation to work, you need teams to be independant enterprises - not franchises. The side effect of this is that, just like most industries, you end up with a wide discrepency between the best and worst (teams in this case). If you think the MLB is lopsided, the euro soccer leagues are much worse. In pre-season Italy, the number of teams with title shots looked to be 3. A month later that number is now probably 2. It would be a shock if this year's winner isn't Roma or Inter. While perfectly normal for Italy, I've never seen this happen in MLB.
However, I just realized I have to account for our playoff system (lacking in euro soccer, where they crown the team with the best regular season record). The playoffs are a big x-factor in determining our champions. I suppose our playoff system makes it harder to argue against relegation.
Only one question remains: will you support your team when they inevitibly wind up in AAA?

Evan said...

As a former member of a French (cough) professional (cough) baseball team that went 1-27 in the regular season and then played its ass off in the playdown tournament to go 5-5 and avoid relegation, I can tell you that relegation is an awesome concept. However, it would not work in MLB, for three major reasons.

1) As previously mentioned, the franchise system forbids it, so points 2 and 3 are moot before we even begin.

2) You greatly underestimate the talent differential between AAA and MLB, which has widened since many teams now use AA as the training ground for their truly top prospects. Consider that at least six teams (Tampa Bay, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Florida, Chicago, and Kansas City) currently have a very good chance of finishing with fewer than 70 wins. Those teams a) suck balls slow and b) would *destroy* AAA pitching. AAA teams taking their place would almost certainly blow away the 1899 Cleveland Spiders' and 1962 Mets' record for futility; they might win 30 games. That may not be a big deal, you say, they just get relegated the next year, but in the mean time, the unbalanced schedule would wreak havoc on competitive balance, which is to say the wild card would go to whatever team finished second in the division with the most recently promoted clubs. If Baltimore and TB got relegated, their replacements would play 57 games against the Yankees, Red Sox, and Blue Jays, and they *might* win ten. All you would do is make the rich richer.

3) It would absolutely *kill* small market teams, and in so doing, kill the MLB product, which is still run by profit maximizers. You would replace small major markets like Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay, etc, and replace them with teams in *tiny* markets with stadiums that hold as little as 4,000 fans. It would kill not only attendance, but also the goose that lays the golden eggs: TV ratings.

Basically, relegation would turn the MLB from an NFL competitor to an NHL competitor. Relegation is great, but it would *ruin* baseball.

johnrob said...

One thing you might be overlooking is the roster changes that could/would occur. Teams that make the jump/drop usually upgrade/downgrade at least half their starters. One reason soccer has so many transfers is that the teams going down put players on the market, and teams going up are active buyers.
In general, when you get rid of franchising, money becomes a bigger factor. There are many decent-to-good players currently in 2nd tier soccer leages because their teams want to move up and are willing to pay. The ultimate example is Juventus, who was able to keep many of their world class players during a brief stay in Serie B last year (which they won in record fashion despite starting the season at -19 pts).
There is another item for the list of necessary changes - a liquid transfer market. Teams will need to buy and sell players individually, instead of trading.

Evan said...

This presumes that Scranton/Wilkes Barre will be able to afford such players, and that teams like KC and Pittsburgh would willingly sell them, accepting their demotion to AAA.

I find the notion whimsical.

Andy said...

Scranton/Wilkes Barre is an easy target, since it evokes images of The Office and sounds like it boasts a population in the low hundreds.

A Kansas City (or similar) team suffering from the lower ticket and TV revenues brought about by relegation might well be forced to sell players to a similarly sized market (or similarly funded) team.

Ignoring Scranton/Wilkes Barre for a moment, there are a number of Kansas City-sized (~500,000 people) cities with AAA teams: Salt Lake City (1,000,000+ metro), Portland (560,000+), Albequerque (500,000), and Nashville (600,000+) to name a few. Why can't they take the Royals slot for a season?

In an MLB world where promotion & relegation were possible, I could see a situation where mid-market teams basically shuffled between the top two leagues — permitting more US cities to have a top-flight baseball team (if only on a rotational basis).

Although such a trend might make the league less competitive from top to bottom, I'm not convinced that it would ruin the league. Long-term, it would raise the MLB's profile in these otherwise-excluded population centers and geographies far from any current team. I'd expect promotion & relegation of this sort to generate more truly national interest in the national pastime.

Give the kids in Salt Lake a chance to root for a big-time team once in a while!

Evan said...

There is no need to continue this silly conversation, but I forgot one other valid point, which is that the bottom five or so markets currently screened and selected by industry experts as "sufficient to support a major league team" have struggled to demonstrate any evidence that they can actually do so. You are proposing that we replace them with, at best the million people in Rhode Island who already root for the Red Sox or a million Mormons who don't exactly buy any of the "high-margin" concessions items, and at worst, Macon, Georgia.

If I owned a major league baseball team and a fellow owner suggested relegation, I would treat him like the guys in Alive treated the guy who broke his leg when they first crashed on the mountain.

Garfield said...

Um....all I can say is go Bulls.
We love those guys, and the crapy thing about the MLB-AAA relationship is that just as the team starts to get good, they get their best players yanked to go sit on the bench in the big dance.

Colin said...

I'm no expert at professional sports and certainly not baseball, but is there a way to phase in relegation between AAA/AA/A divisions? I would be interested in hearing the commenters' thoughts relegation within minor league baseball. Finally, go Cardinals!

Ron said...

Promotion and relegation wouldn't work in American sports because of the monopoly structure. But that doesn't mean it's a bad idea, it's brilliant and baseball -- more than any other American sport -- would facilitate it perfectly.

All you'd need to do is ensure that the 2nd division was considered "major league" too and you'd need something baseball owners would never concede to. And that's relinquishing media money for local and national media. With that huge pool of money and MLB negotiating the rights, teams that get relegated would still get media money, just a smaller share and would fight like hell to stay up and spend to make sure they don't get relegated.

You could also have rules in place that stadiums need to be a certain size, so you could avoid ridiculously small cities in MLB. for that? It'd be brilliant for baseball.

But 100 years too forward thinking.

johnrob said...

One could also argue that the widespread fantasy sports fever is a signal that fans are bored...

Andy said...

On a marginally-related note, the second half of this column discusses how the college football landscape might look if Division I teams were subject to promotion & relegation.

azleah said...

I think it would be great for baseball. Franchises are not owned by the big league team, those contracts could easily be voided. I don't think it would be as terrible for the big league clubs as they think. They would save tons of money supporting their franchises. They could just worry about putting a competitive team on the field. The only teams it would be bad for are the teams that suck. All it would take would be an act of Congress. Literally.

Steve said...

Coming to this real late, but the best system for promotion/relegation within MLB would be to take MLB as it is now, and bifurcate it into two divisions, MLB and MLB2. MLB would consist of the big-market teams like the Yankees, Mets, Red Sox, Dodgers, Cubs, etc, and MLB2 would have your smaller-market Twins, Royals, Marlins, Rays, Pirates et al.

The MLB and MLB2 teams could still play each other in the regular season much as interleague play is conducted now, so the small market teams would still have some of the big boys coming to town to prop up the gate receipts and TV ratings.

Then, you'd have the bottom 3 (or 4) from MLB drop to MLB2, and the top two in MLB2 promoted with a playoff for the third and/or fourth promotion spots. This playoff could replace the division series, with just the top 4 in MLB playing for the World Series.

There would be no relegation out of MLB2 because it would require an even more radical restructuring of the minor leagues vis-a-vis the majors, and you get into serious market/stadia issues with promotion of AAA teams.

The beauty of this is that you get pennant race fever in places you never had it before, the battle to avoid the drop in MLB, and no longer can the Pittsburghs and Minnesotas of the world justify doing nothing to improve their franchises by crying that they can't compete with the Mets, Cubs, Yankees and Red Sox as their competition instead will be other small to mid-market teams.

Daniel said...

I for one don't see any reason to institute promotion/relegation in MLB.

As noted, the difference between AAA and MLB is much larger than that between, say, the Championship and the Premier League. Also, all AAA teams are affiliated with major-league teams. If an AAA team were threatened with relegation, the parent club could stock the AAA team with as many major-leaguers as it would need to stay up. Similarly, if a parent club would be relegated and its AAA club is near promotion, it could dump its whole MLB roster into the lower club to ensure participation in MLB. The German football leagues in particular have had significant issues with things like this, since German reserve clubs play in the regular pyramid.

Also, it's not necessarily the case that promotion-relegation ensures investment--a lot of owners would fear putting money in and getting relegated anyway. Super League Europe (of rugby) is going from promotion-relegation to a franchise basis for this reason.

The only way I can think of this to work is to do what Steve says and splitting MLB in two, but even then, it just sounds like doing something for the sake of doing something.

Anonymous said...

What a ridiculous idea. The AAA teams are the farm system for the major league teams. I.e., the MLB teams pick the best players from AAA as needed. To try and swap even the worst MLB team for the best AAA would be a complete joke - they would be routinely annihilated.

Only someone who had very little knowledge of and appreciation for the game of baseball ("but it's so boorrrring!") would make a suggestion like this.