While some of my American friends and co-workers may scoff at soccer as being a “boring” or “not for them”, they almost all change their tune when it comes to league design. These friends and co-workers may be criminally insane as well, but that is actually not the point here. (And, for the record, I said “may”.)
Who cares about league design? Well, I do. So there! But honestly, in most European soccer leagues, there are no conferences or divisions or playoffs (well standard playoffs as we know them.) There is none of that crap. There is one league. There is one giant table of teams and every team plays with the goal of being number one. Get a win? There are points for that. Get a tie? You grab a point for that. The team with the most points at the end of the season wins the title. The simplicity is elegant and refreshing. And don’t forget relegation. Oh my, never underestimate the pain and agony of relegation.
What is relegation?
Well, it is a “motivator” to make sure all teams are performing to the best of their ability. Basically, if your team finishes in one of the bottom spots in the table, they are relegated to a lower league the next season. Then, the top teams from the lower division replace them at the top flight.
To put it in American terms: based on 2011 Major League Baseball standings: Houston, Seattle, and Minnesota would be playing in AAA this upcoming season, and they would be replaced in MLB by the Pawtucket Red Sox, Durham Bulls, and Columbus Clippers. Insane, right? Not so much!
It is a crazy and downright frightening feeling to have your favorite team in the relegation “zone” fighting for survival. And let me tell you, it adds a great deal of tension (and a bit of fun) to the proceedings throughout the end of the season. You will see teams literally weep with joy for finishing out the season above the relegation zone. And, on the flip side, you will see the despair of those who are being “sent down”.
To further add to the excitement, teams finishing near the top of the table get to play in special European cups the following season. These are prestigious tournaments held across Europe with the top teams from leagues from England, Italy, Spain, Germany, and many more. The revenue streams as well as the credibility that comes from playing in Europe can propel a team for years to come. They suddenly become a viable destination for the top talent across the globe.
Other amazing aspects of overseas soccer are tournaments like England’s FA Cup. This prestigious event traverses all of England’s leagues. So the English Premier League and all of its “minor leagues” get to play. You win and you keep going. Normally, an established Premier League team wins this event, which goes on concurrent with the existing season. But sometimes these lower division teams come out of nowhere and shock the world. In 1980 West Ham was out of the top flight and came through to win it all. And as recently as 2008, we saw Cardiff City make it to the final only to succumb to Portsmouth (who, incidentally, was the only Premier League team to make the semi-finals!)
None-the-less, it is always a treat to see major teams like a Manchester United take the pitch at an away leg game against a smaller team, like Huddersfield Town in their old Leeds Road stadium. It can be culture shock for both fans and players. To use the baseball analogy again, it would be like the New York Yankees showing up in Niles, Ohio to play the single A Mahoning Valley Scrappers. Their stadium seats a whopping 6,000 or so people. And, more importantly, the game would matter! It would be worth something, not just an exhibition. It would be televised internationally! How cool is that? I am sure it would be quite a treat for the fans and players of the minor league team.
Ultimately, the design of these leagues is far superior to those we see in the major U.S. sports. There is always something to play for. Be it the top of the table, a particular tournament, or even just avoid regulation. Every match counts for something. And we all know that is not something we can say for most of the sports in our country.