PARIS (AP) – The guessing game begins anew as the Premier League prepares to raise the curtain: Will it be new boys Norwich, or struggling Wigan? Can Swansea stay up or will they be forced right back down the ladder?
Every season, the final three teams at the foot of the Premier League table are sent down to the second division. They in turn are replaced by the top three teams from the Football Championship. It's a system called "promotion and relegation," and there's nothing close to it in American sport. It's as if the winners of the Bowl Championship Series got to replace the Cleveland Browns or your local high school champions got to displace Syracuse.
Fans love it because it gives even lousy teams something to fight for. TV programmers love it, too. It gives dead teams meaningful games. Those second division clubs love it as well because each year, they imagine they can be the ones going up. And, fair enough, in a simpler time before massive wages and transfers, before the need for big, expensive stadiums and infrastructure, and before the games became the world's entertainment, it was fine enough.
Today, it's killing the sport.
Relegation functions like a lottery. It rewards teams in lower divisions who go on spending binges and punishes top-tier teams that act with restraint. Clubs are now being forced to choose between building a stadium or buying players; between gambling on a quick jump to the top - and the massive payout, estimated at $150 million that awaits them - or slowly developing talent and risking falling off the radar.
The system has contributed to an already out of control wage and transfer market that has even the most successful clubs bleeding revenue. Now, with more foreign ownership coming into the sport - and a lot of longing looks at the wildly successful leagues in the United States - there is an urge to do something about it.
In comparison to the free-for-all that is world soccer, American sports owners have it relatively easy. They have a system with salary caps, get generous subsidies from cities to build stadiums, and no matter how few games they win aren't at risk of getting kicked out of the NFL. The best owners use that stability to build solid teams and as a result, in every sport save one, the USA boasts the best professional sports leagues in the world.
In comparison, a club that has to spend money to replace a stadium in England or Italy - and thus cannot afford what has become a hothouse transfer market - might find themselves suddenly unable to compete. Major clubs across the globe have suffered: River Plate, one of the biggest clubs in Argentina just went down for the first time in its history and will take a massive financial hit. In recent years, clubs as storied as Portsmouth, Southampton, Leeds United, Nottingham Forest and Cardiff have all struggled to survive in the depths.
While the Premier League tries to soften the blow for relegated teams by handing out so-called "parachute payments" - the three teams share about $80 million over four years - the upfront costs remain staggering. This season, Blackpool, West Ham and Birmingham can expect to lose around $48 million each - a figure that increases each year as the parachute payments are withdrawn to around $70 million per season. Many teams barely survive the revenue losses and some argue that the parachute payments actually make the pain worse over the long term bay masking the financial problems.
Last year's relegated teams are indeed in trouble. West Ham's owners said last season that their books were among "the worst in English football;" Birmingham are currently holding a fire sale of their players in an effort just to keep the doors open. Blackpool is the best of the three but has still had to sell off some of its key players. These clubs are not outliers - they've become commonplace casualties of an antique system.
It's not just about money. The modern Premier League brings a club worldwide visibility, with some 600 million people in over 200 countries watching the games each weekend. That brings sponsors, investors and better players - all of whom want a share in the spotlight. Without that spotlight, there's no incentive for stakeholders at many levels to get involved. And the dirty secret of minor-league sports is this: They never can make the leap to the big-time.
Think of it this way: Would you rather watch the Peoria Chiefs, or the Chicago Cubs? You know the answer if you live outside of Peoria's city limits. The same holds true for every major sport across the world. Like it or not, some of the small clubs are never going to be big-time no matter what division they are in. It makes a lot more sense to play the sport in places where the fans are - not where one wishes the fans were.
The solution is obvious: Eliminate promotion and relegation and create a fixed league. Argentina was moving to do just that with a radical rethinking of their league structure that would create a single tier divided along geographic lines. If it sounds familiar, well, it should: It's modeled, in part, on how the NFL divides up its conferences and divisions.
Yes, there's no denying the thrills of watching a team claw for survival. It's a grim fun, but a visceral one. That doesn't mean it's the best thing for the sport. Right now, a lot of money and time that could be spent on developing domestic talent is being tossed away on overseas long-shots. Facilities are falling into disrepair and communities - and the businesses that depend on football for survival - are being whipsawed on a yearly basis.
And whether or not the fans like it, the abandonment of promotion and relegation is coming sooner than later. A European Superleague, breaking free of FIFA's incompetence and UEFA's oversight, is already on the horizon. With it will come a salary cap, player unions, "cost certainty" - and some of the greatest soccer in the world.
See, soccer fans overseas may hate to admit it, but Americans know a lot about running successful sports leagues. And they're buying into the leagues. Sooner than you think, that Premier League will look a lot like the NFL. And it will be better for it.