As an American living in London, it took me a while to understand British sports. Partly because they played cricket instead of baseball, rugby instead of basketball, and football instead of… well… “American football”. But the thing I learned in the UK that really made me think about how socialist most American sports are was promotion and relegation.
First off, you should know that there are many (many) tiers to English football, from the Premier League all the way down to local amateur clubs. But at the end of every football season, the top teams from each league are promoted to the next tier above, and the bottom teams from each league are relegated to the next tier below. Every year the bottom 3 teams from the Premier League are relegated to the EFL Championship League, and top 3 teams from the EFL Championship League are promoted to the Premier League.
In actuality, the top two teams from the EFL Championship League are automatically promoted to the Premier League, and there’s a mini-playoff to win the third spot. That final playoff match – to win the third promotion – is the most lucrative single match in all of football globally. Winning it, and the income that goes to teams that play in the Premier League, is worth >$200million to the winning club. Promotion and relegation is really, really exciting (and heartbreaking).
What I love about this feature of English football is just how truly capitalist it is. Clubs can’t just give up part-way through a year, chalk it up as “a rebuilding year”, and know they can re-start the next season. If they suck, they’re getting relegated and it’ll impact their top- and bottom-line financially, too. For as much as Americans love capitalism, our sports leagues are socialist with an unbreakable social safety net. No matter how bad a US team is they’re still guaranteed a share of TV ratings money, and that there’ll be no competition for their place in the league the next year. (Can anyone say “Suck for Luck”?)
In the US, the only sport that could feasibly do anything like this is baseball. There are tiers in the sport (major leagues, AAA, AA, etc), similar or the same number of teams at each tier, etc. American football and basketball don’t have anywhere near the same depth of lower leagues, and while there are some minor league ice hockey teams they don’t have the same breadth or depth as baseball.
Thursday, March 28th is Opening Day across America for Major League Baseball. In honor of that, I wanted to publish something I’ve been meaning to do for years – a thought experiment around promotion and relegation in baseball. If baseball teams were promoted and relegated based on their 2018 results, what would this upcoming season look like?
Let’s dig in!
MLB – 2018
Congratulations to the Red Sox, Astros, and Yankees! As the top three major league teams in 2018, they’d be eligible for any further competitions. In English football, this means they’d get to play in the Champions League the following year. In baseball, perhaps there could be some championship series involving teams from Japan, Cuba, etc? (Dare I say it: a truly World Series?)
Commiserations to fans of the Chicago White Sox, the Kansas City Royals, and the Baltimore Orioles. By finishing at the bottom in 2018, these three teams would be playing AAA baseball in 2019. In the Orioles’ defense, they play in the same AL East division as the Red Sox and the Yankees, so it’s tough to compete. At the same time… they only won 47 games in 2018 – oof. (Even bad teams should win 54 games according to Tommy Lasorda.)
Side note – both the best and the worst baseball teams in the major league in 2018 were all American League teams. That seems… weird, right?
The White Sox, Royals, and Orioles would be replaced by the top AAA teams: the LeHigh Valley IronPigs, the Memphis Redbirds, and the winner of a playoff between the Fresno Grizzlies and the El Paso Chihuahuas. It’s safe to say that promotion and relegation would mean there would be WAY more interesting team names in major league baseball!
Imagine how awesome it would be to live in/around Allentown, Pennsylvania — home to the LeHigh Valley IronPigs — and have the Yankees or Red Sox come to town to play in the 8300-seat Coca-Cola Park stadium?
AAA – 2018
Triple-A teams in 2019 would be visiting 40k-seat stadiums when they play the White Sox, Royals, and Orioles in 2019. While that could mean a massive impact for those teams, it would also mean that ticket prices could get a lot more affordable in those cities!
The Buffalo Bisons, the Sacramento River Cats, and the Iowa Cubs would all get relegated from AAA to AA for the 2019 season. They’d be replaced by three teams getting promoted from AA: the Corpus Christi Hooks, the Biloxi Shuckers, and the Altoona Curve.
The end of the 2018 AAA season would have included the most lucrative baseball game – a tiebreak playoff to determine whether the Fresno Grizzlies or El Paso Chihuahuas would be the final team promoted to the major leagues in 2019. What a game that could be, with tens of millions of dollars (or more) on the line for the winner!
|Lehigh Valley |
|El Paso |
|Oklahoma City |
|Colorado Springs |
|Salt Lake |
|Las Vegas |
|New Orleans |
|Omaha Storm |
|Round Rock |
AA – 2018
The Buffalo Bisons, Sacramento River Cats, and Iowa Cubs would be relegated to AA baseball in 2019, as the Corpus Christi Hooks, Biloxi Shuckers, and Altoona Curve get promoted to AAA.
On the bottom end of the table, the three teams getting relegated from AA to A (Advanced) baseball for 2019 would be the Springfield Cardinals, the Frisco RoughRiders, and the Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp. These teams would be replaced by the top 2018 A (Advanced) teams: the Rancho Cucamonga Quakes, the Winston-Salem Dash, and the Buies Creek Astros.
|New Hampshire |
|San Antonio |
A (Advanced) – 2018
In 2019 the Springfield Cardinals, the Frisco RoughRiders, and the Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp would all play in A (Advanced) baseball, replacing the Rancho Cucamonga Quakes, the Winston-Salem Dash, and the Buies Creek Astros.
Three A (Advanced) teams would get relegated to A baseball in 2019: the Florida Fire Frogs, the St. Lucie Mets, and either the San Jose Giants or the Down East Wood Ducks. Again, since the San Jose Giants and the Down East Wood Ducks finished the season with the same record, they’d need to play a tiebreak game to determine which team stayed in the A (Advanced) league for the 2019 season.
Getting promoted to A (Advanced) baseball in 2019 would be the Bowling Green Hot Rods, the Lakewood BlueClaws, and the Quad City River Bandits.
|San Jose |
|Down East |
|St. Lucie |
A – 2018
Finally, in A baseball in 2019 the Florida Fire Frogs, the St. Lucie Mets, and either the San Jose Giants or Down East Wood Ducks would be replacing the Bowling Green Hot Rods, the Lakewood BlueClaws, and the Quad City River Bandits.
The bottom three A baseball teams in 2018 would get relegated to the next tier down: the Dayton Dragons, the Hagerstown Suns, and the Burlington Bees. They would be replaced by the top three teams from the next tier down.
Frankly, below A baseball gets to be… less neatly structured than A baseball and above. So I’m going to stop this thought experiment here. But it could easily be continued further down to lower tiers of baseball.
|Quad City |
MLB teams & affiliate performance
Since every major league baseball team is affiliated to one team in every tier of minor league baseball, I thought it would be interesting to analyze both that team’s performance and the performance of its’ affiliates. Check out the table below – the numbers are the placing (1 out of 30) for that major league teams’ affiliate in that league.
The first stand-out team is the Houston Astros. Not only were the Astros themselves in the top 3 of major league baseball, but three out of four of their affiliates would have been promoted to the next league up. The final team would have made it to the AAA playoff and potentially made it to the major leagues, too. I don’t know enough about baseball to understand the full relationships between a team, its affiliates, and affiliate performance, but what the Astros did in 2018 is remarkable.
The Astros could be compared to the Red Sox — while the Red Sox had the #1 record and won the World Series in 2018, all of their affiliates were in the bottom half of their leagues. This could potentially be a concern for the Red Sox. (I’m honestly not sure!)
However, the San Francisco Giants are tied for perhaps the worst record across all major league teams. The Giants themselves were in the bottom third of the major league, and their top-ranked affiliate finished #18 out of 30. One of the Giants’ affiliates would have been relegated, a second would be in a playoff to avoid relegation, and a third would have just missed the cutoff for relegation. Ouch!
The Texas Rangers is about even with the Giants for the worst record, though. Like the Giants, one of their affiliates would have been relegated, and another affiliate would be in a playoff (with the Giants) to avoid relegation. Not only that but their major league team finished one place behind the Giants, and their top-ranked affiliate finished #13 out of 30. Again… ouch!
Yes, this whole post is a thought experiment. It’s not something that could be implemented easily (the owners would just block it), or efficiently. Rebalancing geographically, the idea that a major league team could be competing with an affiliate team that it runs/controls, the vast economic differences between the major leagues and minor leagues and what that means for revenue sharing are all reason why this isn’t feasible. (Not to mention that there are more minor league teams than just those affiliated with major league baseball — I only focused on MLB affiliate minor league teams because it was the easiest data set to analyze.)
But damn, wouldn’t it just be a lot more fun to have promotion and relegation in baseball? I’d love to see the Red Sox play in a 8300-seat stadium. I’d love the idea that if a team kicks ass they get to play better teams the next year. I’d love, love, love the idea that if a team is too bad they get kicked down into a lower division. Like in English football, the best end of season games wouldn’t just come from the top teams fighting for a championship, but also the bottom teams trying to stay in their league.
Who’s with me?