Promotion/Relegation - Soccer 101

In American sports, the worst teams in the league are rewarded with the highest draft picks a few months after the season has ended. Rather than punishing the teams for being terrible, we have established a system designed to keep as much parity in the league as possible.

Most global soccer leagues are very different - very early into the sport’s history multiple divisions were established in each country. The worst teams in the top division move down to the second division while the top teams in the second division move up. This is what we know as the modern-day promotion & relegation system in soccer.

Here are some reasons why promotion/relegation works in soccer but wouldn’t work in America:


Leagues were formed in America as competitors rather than a hierarchy system. Instead of the AFL and NFL working together to grow the game, the two were rival leagues for decades until they merged into what is now the modern-day NFL (Similar to the American and National Leagues in baseball). Soccer was the complete opposite - a second division in England was created as a complement within England’s Football Association.

Could you imagine your favorite basketball team playing in the G-League? How about your favorite NFL team moving down to the XFL? It’s difficult for us as Americans to imagine as we’ve spent our entire lives knowing that’d our teams' failure would result in a top draft pick instead of being demoted from the main league. Soccer fans are different - there are clubs of all sorts and sizes around the world. Based on geography and upbringing you may root for a team who never makes it to their country’s top division, but that doesn’t prevent fans from staying loyal and passionate like it would in America.


Promotion/Relegation would be difficult to implement in America simply due to how large in size our country is. The teams in the highest divisions have ample funds to travel, but as the league tiers decrease, so do budgets. It would be much cheaper for a third-division team in Spain to travel cross-country for a game than it would in America. 

No Collegiate Athletics

The third main reason relegation works is a lack of college-level athletic competitions in most countries around the world. Players sign with academies at all young ages rather than playing for their high school or college. As a result, there isn’t an annual pool of players to pick from at the end of the season in a draft-like format. The opportunity to improve the parity of the league is limited without a draft, but having a promotion system in place avoids the opportunity to tank for a higher draft pick.


There are many reasons why promotion/relegation works in soccer but doesn’t for many sports in America. We will likely never see it in America, but two scenarios where it could work: 

1: Example: The champion of the XFL has a one or two-game playoff against the NFL’s worst team for a spot in next season’s NFL. If the NFL’s worst team is far better than the XFL’s best, they’ll be able to prove that here. This is going to help prevent tanking without automatically relegating a team.

2: College football: There are 10 conferences right now - The “Power 5” and the “Group of 5” conferences. There is a big disparity of talent and success between these groups of conferences. I propose that each region in America gets assigned an elite and secondary conference (Examples: Pac 12 & Mountain West, Big Ten & MAC, etc.), and each season the secondary conference’s champion gets promoted to the better conference while the worst member is relegated.

What do you think? Will promotion & relegation ever make it in America?

Author: Living in Southern California, Robert Sweeney has been a fan of soccer since he played as a young child. Since then, he’s become a diehard Tottenham and US National Team fan. Rob enjoys writing about the impact soccer has had on his life in hopes that it betters others as well. Twitter: @robsweeney11