Relegation In Soccer: Meaning and How It Works

Fans of the MLS,  may not be familiar with the idea of relegation and promotion, as it is a construct that doesn’t exist in American sport in general.

In this article, I will explore the concept in greater detail and explain why it plays such an integral part in soccer all around the globe.

What is relegation in soccer? Relegation in soccer is when teams are transferred between multiple divisions based on their performance after a completed season. While most leagues have a relegation system, there are some leagues outside Europe that don’t.

How Relegation Works

Most hardcore soccer fans outside the US are very familiar with relegation and promotion. The merit-based system by which a team or teams move up and down the leagues according to their performances over the entire season plays a key role in most soccer leagues. 

Outside the US, here’s how the relegation/promotion league system works:

End-of-Season RankConsequence
1Promotion
2Promotion
3Promotion Play-Off
4Promotion Play-Off
5Same league next season
6Same league next season
7Same league next season
8Same league next season
9Same league next season
10Same league next season
11Same league next season
12Relegation Play-Off
13Relegation Play-Off
14Relegation
15Relegation
16Relegation

At the end of each season, the lowest-ranking teams will move down a division, and the highest-ranking teams will move up, except for the lowest and highest leagues. The best clubs in the top leagues are rewarded by invitations to play in more lucrative and prestigious international club competitions, such as the Champions League in European soccer.

No Relegation In The MLS

The MLS is one of the few soccer leagues that doesn’t have a relegation system. Many MLS fans are unfamiliar with this system, which is a significant difference between European and North American sports.

Sports federations in Europe are organized differently. There is no way to earn a place in the top leagues other than merit, but money still plays a prominent. 

The team that finishes the season top of a lower-tiered league in which they participate is promoted to the upper tier.  They will proceed to the top league at the start of the next season. In most soccer leagues, it is common for at least 2 or 3 teams to be relegated from and promoted to each division every season.

Newly minted soccer teams around the world cannot just buy their way to success. Regardless of the money involved, it can take years to reach the top league under this system. 

Teams must consistently finish at the top season after season to be promoted to the upper divisions. However, getting to the top league does not guarantee they get to stay there.

For example, newly promoted teams are usually the favorites to be relegated in the English Premier League. Any relegated teams will play the following season in a lower division than the one they are currently playing in. Every newly promoted team are in a league faces the possibility of relegation.

A team is motivated to avoid relegation by this incentive. It ensures that the lower-ranked teams in each division continue to play competitive games right until the end of the season as they try to avoid relegation.

From the perspective of the teams, their fans, and the league, it guarantees a higher standard of games. Teams will continue to play to the best of their abilities until the season’s final game of the season, but we’ll discuss this in more detail later.

Why Doesn’t Relegation Exist in MLS?

Major League Soccer is a single entity instead of a collection of independent clubs is a crucial factor. The owners own a stake in the league and then operate the clubs as they see fit. As a result, the team owners are partners rather than competitors in the league.

Since MLS owns the clubs, the revenue belongs to the league rather than to the clubs. Each team receives a percentage of their income, but the majority goes to the combined league account.

The money is distributed to the clubs to cover their expenses, including paying most of their players’ salaries, except for any Designated Player Salaries above the salary cap. Owners can reinvest their league profits into their respective clubs after redistribution of profits.

MLS Clubs Do Not Operate Independently

In addition to the legal protection afforded, MLS functions as a single-entity structure in the United States. Owners of teams in the MLS are protected by the league’s closed nature, its fixed membership, and the fact that it uses no promotion and relegation.

Owners of MLS stock are therefore essential partners in a private company. The bottom line is that they win together and lose together. MLS clubs share revenue, which encourages them to control costs and safeguard investments as part of a single-entity ownership system.

Even though promotion and relegation systems are pretty standard in Europe, South America, and other parts of the world, America has no promotion and relegation system in America. It is painfully evident, and this is highly unlikely ever to happen.

Other Factors That Make Relegation Difficult In MLS

Even though I am confident that promotions and relegations will never occur in US Soccer’s upper echelons. A system that promotes and relegates teams across growing and expanding as a top professional league in the North American league.

Considering that it could become a top league in the future, the potential upside is enormous. There is no way they could risk losing their closed shop by allowing relegation. 

The Financial Divide in World Soccer

Soccer is organized like a pyramid across most soccer leagues outside of the United States. In England, the top tier is the Premier League. The League Championship, League One, and League Two are the following three English soccer league system levels. 

The UK has 92 professional teams between these four levels. There is also a National League at two levels below that. There are more than 800 clubs in the regional leagues below!

The whole business revolves around promotions and relegations. Theoretically, you can put together a team with ten friends and make it to the Premier League. You can create a baseball team of friends in Topeka, Kansas, and produce your way to the pro leagues and host the San Francisco Giants for a weekend series!

Promotion and Relegation Is Exciting

It is exciting to see teams promoted and relegated at the end of the season. The bottom teams in Major League Soccer no longer matter except to their fans once the early part of a season passes.

As you reach the middle of the soccer season, the tables are already taking shape. It is obvious who the title challengers will be. Without relegation, the rest of the games have little or no consequence.

Relegation and promotion, however, have given fans reason to care about the whole season.

By allowing teams from lower leagues to qualify, multiple teams can play in the first division.

You need to punish the weaker clubs for protecting the integrity of the league. Give better teams a greater motivation to try and perform better.

A league such as the English Premier League relegates the bottom three teams at the end of the season. Most soccer leagues employ a relegation system, although the number of teams relegated varies from league to league.

The supporters of a team that is in relegation danger throughout a season assume their team is in trouble and as a consequence pay more interest in the games. In a soccer league, the relegation zone consists of the teams that find themselves in the bottom half of the league table as the season continues.

The financial implications of relegation are massive. Take a look at the EPL table for the 2000/2001 season. 7 of the 20 teams are no longer in the Premier League, and one has only recently returned after over a decade in the lower divisions.

The Richest Game In Soccer

An English Premier League promotion is worth hundreds of millions of dollars to the clubs who earn it. While two teams are automatically promoted every year, depending on how well the team performs in the Championship play-off final, one other team will win the most lucrative game in world soccer.

This is widely regarded as the richest game in soccer. Deloitte forecast a revenue increase of $150 million to $300 million for the 2020 play-off final, depending on whether a team avoided immediate relegation.

During the 2018-19 season, the Premier League’s 20 clubs shared $3 billion in broadcast revenue.

Regardless of position, a minimum of $104.4m per team was guaranteed, as an equal share of cash, from international TV payments, and central commercial payments, are just some of the financial perks on offer.

Aside from the merit payments, clubs received ‘facilities fees’ based on the number of televised matches, ranging from $1.9 million for Huddersfield Town to $38.5 million for champions Manchester City.

Those teams that win the championship play-off final are catapulted into the exclusive money pool, although the Covid-19 pandemic has affected revenue.

Final Thoughts

After reading this article, you should have a good understanding of how promotion and relegation work. The bottom line is that teams that perform poorly in a league season can quickly find themselves in a relegation battle.

Despite all the ecstasy and agony involved in the process, soccer is still quite entertaining. This allows smaller clubs from the lower tiers to advance to the higher league to take on teams and players they idolize, making matches more exciting and making teams always give their best.

Connor Smith

I'm Connor, the guy behind SoccerPrime. I'm a former NCAA Div 1 college player that retired at the age of 21 due to injuries - which led me into a new career as a soccer coach.

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