If relegation met baseball
One tidbit jumped out at me from the book Soccernomics. Fans turn out for games that matter. (Big insight, right?) The category of “important games” of course includes contests such as those that help determine who makes the playoffs. But in European soccer, fans also turn out for games that help determine which teams are relegated, and which will take their places.
For the uninitiated, here’s a quick background on relegation. There are four leagues in British soccer. At the end of each season, the worst performing teams in each league are demoted to the league one level lower, while the best performing teams are promoted to the league one level higher. It’s kind of like promoting the Triple-A champions to the major leagues, but without the problem of team affiliations.
So, British soccer has stumbled upon what Major League Baseball might view as the holy grail: a way to get fans to come see the worst teams in the league. Not every MLB team can have Trevor Hoffman chasing his 600th save.
Introducing relegation stateside
How would relegation work if applied to North American baseball? It would require some massive changes to MLB’s structure, probably radical enough that we can be sure they’ll never happen. Let’s consider it anyway.
First off, it’s important to throw away the metaphor of “promoting Triple-A teams to the majors.” Unless we go back to the pre-Branch Rickey days of unaffiliated high-level minor league teams, that just doesn’t work. Clearly, we can’t have the Scranton-Wilkes Barre Yankees competing with the New York Yankees.
That means that if we’re going to have leagues of different levels, we have to carve them out of the current 30 squads. Let’s say we take the 10 worst teams (by won-loss record) at the end of some season, and with them, form the “Challenger League.” Leave the current American League and National League in place, and give each league a two-division structure.
Each team would play an unbalanced schedule, primarily playing teams within their league, but playing a fair amount of interleague games. We may be bored with Blue Jays-Phillies matchups, but I suspect the relegation aspect would spice things up. Sure, AL/NL teams would be favored over Challengers, but they wouldn’t win every time, and Challenger League fans (like fans of British soccer) could even gloat over losses, if they were close enough.
A(nother) new playoff structure
At the end of each year, two (or maybe four) teams are promoted from the Challenger League to take the places of the worst-performing teams in the AL and NL. Thus, not only do the pennant races matter in the Challenger League, but the cellar races matter in the AL and NL.
The current playoff structure could be kept almost intact. Award playoff spots to the winning teams in each division: 2 AL, 2 NL, and 2 CL, then give a wild card to the best remaining team in the AL and NL. Maybe the CL division winners wouldn’t “deserve” a spot, but what the hell. Worst case scenario, it’s a “bye” for the top-seeded team in each league, and it emphasizes the temporary nature of relegation.
The toughest aspect of managing relegation from year to year is keeping the leagues balanced and travel schedules under control. Occasionally, a team would have to switch from the AL to NL, or perhaps one would be demoted from the AL, only to come back in the NL. The geographical balance of each league would be temporary; perhaps it would be best if each league’s East and West divisions were allowed to vary between 4 and 6 members.
Relegating the traditionalists
Introducing relegation would take a huge shift in a sport that isn’t very good at accepting huge shifts. None of the individual steps (except for the promotion/demotion itself) is that huge: We’ve already seen league realignments, division realignments, interleague play, and changes to the playoff system.
But consider the counterpoint. If MLB could sell the fans on this, 20 or more teams would in a race for something all year long. For Yankees fans, it would mean fewer Yankees-Orioles games. (Until the O’s got good again, anyway.) For Orioles fans, it would mean a shorter time horizon before making the playoffs through the Challenger League. Teams like the Brewers and Blue Jays could maintain fan interest with their yearly battle to avoid relegation.
It’s not going to happen. But it sounds like fun.