Time for NFL to Embrace European System?

Promotion and relegation? Do most American sports fans even know what that means? Unless you are a fan of soccer, football, futbol, or whatever you choose to call it, which many Americans are not, you do not know these terms. I recently spent a few weeks over in Western Europe, mainly in the UK and got into some interesting debates about the American sport system versus the European sport system. My good friend Peter, or “Petah” as Peter as I say it sounds way to American, is a former grad student at UMass who was known for discussing/arguing things as trivial as which oil was best for frying fish. But of course, as Sport Masters students, are debates centered around that subject.

While staying in the UK with “Petah”, I had the opportunity to see a Manchester United game at Birmingham City, which was a miracle considering all but two games of the premier league were cancelled that weekend due to inclement weather. I’ll tell you one thing, England absolutely shuts down for a few inches of snow. Leading up to the game, I had a lively debate with “Petah” about why American sports, particularly American football, should embrace the idea of promotion and relegation. For those who don’t know, the European system is built around clubs. Anyone with the resources can start a soccer team, which starts out in low level leagues, but then has the ability to move up into better leagues based on success. So for example, in the Premier League (highest league in England), the bottom 3 teams every season move down to the Championship (2nd highest league) and the top 3 teams from the Championship move up to the Premier league. This is done to keep competition up and not allow teams and owners to sit back on their laurels and collect huge paydays. I always argued with “Petah” that this system would never work in the United States, for a few reasons.

Looking at the top 3 sports in America (Football, Baseball, Basketball), we have the highest standards in the world for each of those sports (granted they are mainly American sports, with the exception of basketball). Teams cannot survive without fan attendance, and people will not pay to¬† see lower quality sports, just because they have a team. Take for example the new USFL that started this past year. This league had a large number of talented players in its ranks but attendance was almost laughable. People want to see the NFL, NBA, and MLB, period. Secondly, we already have a second tier development system for our most popular sports, it’s called the NCAA. Now I realize that this is “amateur” at least depending on who you ask, but college football and basketball are arguably more popular than their counterparts. To create the idea of promotion and relegation at least within American football, you would have to allow players to play after graduating high school, which will not happen for several reasons. At the end of the day, these leagues have create a natural monopoly. The best athletes want to play there, and other leagues simply cannot match what the NFL, NBA, and MLB have done.

While I disagree that the promotion and relegation system could work in the US, it is interesting to look at some of the things it brings to the table. Take the NFL for example, which has huge revenue sharing deals as a league. While the NFL is the king of parity, due to its strict salary cap restrictions, NFL owners do not have much incentive to spend. Teams can basically sit back and regardless of success, collect huge profits, due to revenue sharing. While most owners want to win, we have seen teams less preoccupied with winning and more preoccupied with the bottom line. Maybe a little competition is what the NFL needs. If teams were threatened with being demoted to a second tier league, with less financial resources and less prestige, maybe that would be a good thing.

Having said that, it won’t happen anytime soon.