No Cubs game today, which gives me a little more space to just kinda mull things. And since I am not super keen to mull the Cubs’ fourth straight series loss or how bad they’ve looked in the process, I got thinking about something fun, as inspired by the biggest story in the sporting world.
I don’t really care much about soccer/football, but this European Super League drama is some pretty wild outside observation. And I don’t really know how best to give you the gist without a ton of background on the structure of European soccer leagues, and then how the teams (and countries) also play outside of their main league in this other huge league (Champions League), and fans care at least as much about that other league. The super short version is that a number of the biggest teams throughout Europe are just up and starting their own new Super League (because money), which could cripple the existing Champions League, so they might ban a bunch of teams in retaliation, and also FIFA might ban players who participate in the Super League from the World Cup(?!).
It’s really crazy stuff, and I’ve been trying to think of a parallel descriptor here in the baseball context. It’s hard, because we have the MLB season, and although there is the World Baseball Classic, it is NOT the same thing as having this parallel other league that people really care about in the same way they care about the MLB season. So I guess we’d kinda just have to imagine the Yankees, Red Sox, Dodgers, Cubs, and Giants (or whoever) deciding to leave MLB in favor of forming their own new league with a couple top teams from Japan, a top team from South Korea, etc. That’s how wild and jarring and nuts this all apparently is for soccer fans.
Inevitably, when European football comes up among non-soccer fans – especially baseball fans, in my experience – the discussion immediately goes to one of the most compelling elements of these top football leagues: promotion and relegation.
The concept, which will be a part of this new Super League, too, ROUGHLY goes like this: the teams that finish at the bottom of the league, if they do it too many years in a row, they get relegated down a level to play in the league below the top tier. And, vice versa: the teams that kick ass in the lower league get a chance to win promotion to the top league. (Of course, part of what a lot of people hate about this new Super League is that the founding clubs are making themselves un-relegate-able. Because, again, money.)
As a concept, it’s truly awesome. No matter how your team is performing – or if it’s not even in the top league! – you fans have something SERIOUS to root for throughout the season. Making the playoffs or winning a championship? Sweet! Avoiding getting kicked down a league? Oh my! The stakes are always high. You want to talk about an anti-tanking mechanism? It does not get any stronger than this.
So, in stateside baseball, with a minor league system in place – levels! – a promotion/relegation system could be done, at least in terms of the mechanics. Maybe you do something like the bottom three teams in MLB (averaging their record over the preceding three seasons so as not to punish a fluke) get dropped down to Triple-A, and the top three teams in Triple-A get bumped up to the big show. Imagine the possibilities for how you chose those three promoted teams, too. You could base it on the regular season. You could base it on a post-season tournament. You could do some of each. That would be some seriously thrilling stuff. (Also, promotion/relegation throughout the other minor league levels. So much baseball-related excitement!)
And imagine if you knew your big league team was averaging out to one of the worst three records in baseball with a week to go in the season … if you can just win three out of four to close the year, you get to stay in MLB! Or what if it came down to the final game of the season? An otherwise utterly forgettable matchup between the Pirates and Orioles suddenly means EVERYTHING to one or both franchises.
I admit it. As crazy as the system is, I get really excited thinking about the drama it would create all year long in baseball.
… but then I get realistic. This is never actually going to happen with baseball in the United States, at least not with any kind of system remotely resembling what is in place.
For the first and most obvious thing, currently minor league teams are part of a big league team’s system, and have players supplied to them by their parent organization. You can’t have a setup where the Triple-A Iowa Cubs get promoted to the big leagues and suddenly the Big League Cubs lose some of the best players in their organization! I mean, you start thinking about all manner of roster-related considerations and this entire concept falls apart if you try to graft it on top of the existing MLB/MiLB dynamic. The draft, farm systems, player contract, service time, free agency … it is all constructed to match how baseball exists now. None of it works if you turn what we have now into a promotion/relegation system. *EVERYTHING* about player development and movement and contracts would have to be changed. Ripped down to the studs, no pun intended.
OK, so let’s say for the sake of argument that you could somehow get past that foundational issue. Another huge hurdle to actually engaging in a relegation system in MLB/MiLB is that, with 30 big league teams, the vast majority of markets that could actually sustain a big league team (in attendance and TV coverage) are already accounted for. So how many Triple-A markets, for example, would even be big enough, realistically, to have a Major League team if they got promoted?
The top 17 TV markets cover 21 MLB teams. It isn’t until Orlando at 18 that you get a market without an MLB team, and they do not have a Triple-A team. Sacramento, at 20, is the largest TV market with a Triple-A team. It’s not looking good, right? The best markets are already covered, by and large.
THEN AGAIN, consider this – in the top 50 markets in the United States, almost every single one has at least one pro sports team. And there are actually a ton of Triple-A teams that play in a top 50 market, and all play at least within a top 80 market. Moreover, if the sport actually were going to a setup where minor league teams could be promoted up the chain, you’d probably see lower-level teams in bigger markets investing accordingly, so your pool of possible future MLB teams wouldn’t be limited to the current Triple-A group.
So, the market thing, well, it’s definitely a hurdle. But maybe not absolutely insurmountable when you consider how many U.S. markets out there can already sustain at least one pro sports team. I came into this thinking the markets would be the biggest roadblock, but now I don’t think so. I think it’s the player stuff, and then the considerations that follow.
A market-related hurdle, of course, is what happens when an iconic, marquee franchise in a major market gets relegated. It might make for some interesting TV viewing for a year – watching the Yankees have to play at Triple-A would be great viewing – but not for much longer than that. And would the revenues get crushed, relatively speaking? (Maybe less so for the Yankees, but what if a team like the Rays got relegated? They might implode financially.)
Related-relatedly, you can’t move to this kind of system without getting a vast majority of MLB’s current owners on board. Yeah, I’m thinking the minor league owners would be good with it(!), but the 30 current MLB franchise owners?
Consider the efforts necessary in convincing 20+ owners of massively valuable, and massively safe MLB franchises that they should yield to a system that puts them at risk of becoming a team on the outside looking in. Maybe you’d get some of them to agree that the upside is a much more interesting and valuable overall product, but I doubt enough of them would be willing to risk the downside to find out. At a rational level, I guess I can’t blame them.
For all these reasons, as compelling as a promotion/relegation system could be for fans, you could never simply import the idea into MLB. The reality is that getting that kind of system in place would require MLB to, well, not be MLB anymore. And unless a bunch of teams are going to up and leave to create the Super Baseball League (featuring promotion and relegation because reasons!), it’s not coming to the States.