Last month, on a perfect summer night at Albuquerque's Isotopes Park, the Columbus Clippers beat the Omaha Storm Chasers to win their second straight Triple A baseball championship. There was little, if any, mention of it in newspapers outside of Columbus and Omaha. But what if we raised the stakes? What if the Triple A champion won a golden ticket to major league baseball the following season? And what if one big league straggler (Houston, you'd have a problem) dropped down to Triple A?
That's the way it works in soccer overseas, as you may know. Promotion and relegation are the terms, and they're on the minds of mainstream U.S. sports fans more than ever these days, not least because mighty Arsenal—a favorite of hipster Stateside fans—is sitting in 15th place in the English Premier League, just three spots above the dreaded relegation zone. While the chances of the Gunners' dropping to the second tier are slim, their struggles are a reminder that English soccer is a ruthless meritocracy, even for recent champions. Finish in the bottom three, and you get relegated. Imagine the Red Sox being demoted to Triple A, and you'll grasp an Arsenal fan's worst nightmare.
The benefits of promotion and relegation are manifold. Even at the bottom of the standings, excitement is ratcheted up at the end of each season as teams fight tooth and nail to avoid "the drop." The biggest losers get what they deserve: a trapdoor to the league below. In turn teams in the second tier have an enormous incentive to win their league and join the Show. One of the best stories in sports this year is that of the Italian soccer club Novara, which has risen from the third tier to the top flight, Serie A, in just three years and recently upset Inter Milan, the reigning world club champions. Now the plucky Biancoazzurri are hoping to avoid the drop in their first Serie A season since 1956.
Could promotion and relegation work in the U.S.? The knee-jerk answer is no. Google minor league football and basketball and it's obvious that the drop-off from the NFL and the NBA to the minors is too great to institute credible promotion and relegation by, say, next year. But consider how many entrepreneurs have tried to start up competitors to the NFL over the years. This is a football-mad country. What if the NFL started a second division—an NFL2, if you will—that rewarded its champ with an NFL berth in exchange for a bottom-feeder from the top flight? (Say hello to Division 2, Dolphins!) The same idea would work for an NBA2 that combined NBA D-League and old CBA franchises with a few current NBA teams, downsizing the main NBA. (Hey, they're considering contraction anyway.)
With its established tiered format, baseball would be the U.S. sport most adaptable to promotion and relegation. Yes, there would be conflicts when good farm teams lose their top players to their parent clubs in-season, but those issues could be negotiated. And yes, some small Triple A stadiums would have to be expanded for the move to MLB, but those overachievers might well become everybody's second-favorite team, and revenue-sharing would help them acquire the players needed to compete on a higher level. What's more, can you imagine the excitement of the relegation and promotion playoffs, to say nothing of the regular-season stretch run?
Here's one proposal for how to do it. Triple A baseball would continue staging its playoffs, with four teams vying for the crown, only now there would be national interest in finding out which team would advance to MLB. (Think: increased TV money.) Meanwhile, the big league teams with the four worst records would meet in their own relegation playoffs, in which the team that lost both of its series would be relegated to Triple A. The scramble to avoid being one of the bottom four—and then, of course, the biggest loser of all—would be first-rate theater, just as it is in European soccer.
Strangely enough, the U.S. league least likely to embrace promotion and relegation, for now, would be MLS. It's hard enough to make soccer viable on a top-flight level in the U.S.—most teams still lose money—and persuading potential owners to invest would be difficult if they feared dropping to the less profitable second tier. But MLS is expanding (Montreal will become the outfit's 19th team next year), and one could easily conceive of a 16-team MLS and 16-team MLS2 with upward and downward mobility in the coming decades.
The ecstasy and agony of promotion and relegation would spice up any U.S. sport, while providing a fight-or-flight test of fandom. How many pink Red Sox hats would we see if Boston dropped down to Triple A? Keeping the faith has its benefits, though. Consider Newcastle United, one of England's most storied and popular soccer clubs, which was relegated to the second tier in 2009. The Magpies rebounded a year later, winning the second-division crown to move back up, and at week's end they stood in fourth place in the EPL, a position that would clinch a berth in the UEFA Champions League at season's end.
Nearly three years after Newcastle supporters' epic embarrassment, Arsenal fans would trade places with them in a heartbeat. That's the beauty of promotion and relegation.