Rethinking the Relegation & Promotion Structure in European Soccer
Keith R. Thompson,

June 30, 2011

European Soccer has a rather unique Relegation & Promotion Structure that is very different from all North American professional sports leagues. In the European Soccer tradition teams that finish at the bottom of their respective leagues are relegated to the next lower division with their spots assumed by teams from that lower division with the best performance.

The rationale for this is very compelling. First, poor performers are penalized while top performers are rewarded. Second, and just as important, the moral hazard associated with teams intentionally losing games towards the end of the season in order to get a better Draft position (something observed in many North American sports leagues ) is removed. However, despite these benefits are there some drawbacks to this system.

Using the promotion into, and relegation out of the English Premier League throughout its previous 19 year history we observe the following:
Premier League Relegated Teams
Season 18th 19th 20th 21st 22nd
2010/2011 Birmingham City Blackpool West Ham United
2009/2010 Burnley Hull City Portsmouth
2008/2009 Newcastle Middlesbrough West Brom Albion
2007/2008 Reading Birmingham City Derby County
2006/2007 Sheffield United Charlton Athletic Watford
2005/2006 Birmingham City West Brom Albion Sunderland
2004/2005 Crystal Palace Norwich City Southampton
2003/2004 Leicester City Leeds United Wolverhampton
2002/2003 West Ham United West Brom Albion Sunderland
2001/2002 Ipswich Town Derby County Leicester City
2000/2001 Manchester City Coventry City Bradford City
1999/2000 Wimbledon Sheffield Wednesday Watford
1998/1999 Charlton Athletic Blackburn Rovers Nottingham Forest
1997/1998 Bolton Wanderers Barnsley Crystal Palace
1996/1997 Sunderland Middlesbrough Nottingham Forest
1995/1996 Manchester City Queens Park Rangers Bolton Wanderers
1994/1995 Crystal Palace Norwich Leicester City Ipswich Town
1993/1994 Sheffield United Oldham Athletic Swindon
1992/1993 Crystal Palace Middlesbrough Nottingham Forest
This team won the League Championship / Old First Division the previous season
This team placed second in the League Championship / Old First Division the previous season
This team won the playoff spot in the League Championship / Old First Division the previous season
 
Note:
1) For the first three years of the EPL 22 teams competed within it. In 1995, in order to reduce the number of teams to 20 the following season, 4 teams were relegated and only 2 promoted.


The analysis reveals a number of interesting results.

First, teams that won the Championship League (or the old First Division) the previous season were relegated during their first season in the Premier League 7 out of 18 times (39 percent of the time). In addition, those teams finished their first season in the Premiership in an average 14th position.

Second, those teams that were promoted via finishing second in the Championship League (or the old First Division) were subsequently relegated during their first season in the Premier League 6 out of 17 times (35 percent of the time). Those teams also finished their first season in the Premiership in an average 14th position.

In contrast, teams that were promoted by winning the playoff spot were subsequently relegated during their first season in the Premier League 12 out of the 18 times (67 percent of the time). Those playoff teams also finished their first season in the Premier League in an average 17th position.

It therefore seems clear that the teams that are being promoted from the lower divisions are no better than the relegated teams that they are in effect replacing, especially if they earned their spot via the playoff process. In fact, in every season but one did at least one team get relegated after only one season in the Premiership. In that year – 2002 – Fulham, Blackburn and Bolton were promoted from the old First Division and have stayed there since. And in one season (1998) all three teams that were promoted the previous season were relegated after only one year in the Premiership.

Newly promoted teams do not typically fear well in their first year in the Premiership. The highest a promoted team finished in their first year was third, and that was Newcastle in 1994, and Nottingham Forest the following year. However, Nottingham Forest finished last two years later and was relegated. Newcastle is therefore the best case study of a promotion team, a team that won the lower division and thus earned the right to play in the top division.

The relegation carousel within the English Premier League therefore seems like a revolving door where the same teams, by and large, are being promoted and then subsequently relegated the next season. Under that scenario the Premier League may be best served by adjusting the promotion and relegation structure so that the best teams get the opportunity to stay in one of the top leagues in the World.

Here is a proposal that could help.

There should just be one automatic promotion spot (that for the winners of the lower division). Correspondingly, the last place team in the Premiership should be automatically relegated.

After that a playoff should exist between the 18th and 19th placed teams on the one hand, and the next two best teams from the lower division. There are many ways that such a system could be implemented. For starters, the second-placed team in the Championship could be matched up against the 19th placed team in the Premiership, while the third-placed team in the Championship could be matched up against the 18th placed team in the Prem. Alternatively, the second to fifth placed teams in the Championship could square off in a playoff of their own for the right to meet the 18th and 19th placed teams in the Premiership for a spot in that league the next season. This way the teams that ultimately remain in the Premiership the following season are the best available teams, irrespective of whether they played in the Premiership or the Championship the previous season.

The Relegation & Promotion Structure within European Soccer is a very unique system with many benefits. However, it needs to be strengthened to ensure that only the very best teams get to play at the highest level, and not promote substandard teams that cannot effectively compete at that higher level.

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