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How A Relegation System Could Save Arena Football

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If there was one person on the Internet that I disagree with about 99 percent of the time, it'd be BC's comments editor, Christopher Rose. Sports, politics, religion — probably music, although we haven't gone down that path, which probably benefits both our healths — it's right down the line between us. But one of his thoughts on American sports always stuck out to me, and that was the lack of a relegation/promotion system.

I love the idea. If a team is so bad, they get kicked down a rung and play against lesser competition the following year, having to earn their way back up the ladder. But in our most profitable and watched sports, it's probably not going to happen in the next century. Instead, the Detroit Lions will continue to finish 0-16 in the NFL and be perennially rewarded with the top college athlete* in the NFL Draft.

* – Well, not exactly the "best" athlete, because they take who they think is the best college player, a thought process which is usually more comical than Dan Orlovsky's end zone presence.

Relegation might ruin some leagues' main selling point, which is parity. In MLB, 19 different franchises have won the last 25 championships. In the NFL, no team has ever won three straight Super Bowls, (plus, holy crap, the Arizona Cardinals reached the Super Bowl). And in the NBA … well, never mind. So maybe relegation isn't for baseball or football. Correction: this isn't for the NFL. There is a perfect football league to try out relegation, though.

The AFL. (No, not the one in Australia.)

If you recall, the Arena Football League suspended its 2009 season because they couldn't make enough money. It's kind of a shame. While I've never been to an AFL game, I have heard whispers from fans that no other league in America puts more effort into entertaining you the minute you walk in the door. Fans are close to the action, points are plentiful, and balls are often errantly thrown into the stands and are allowed to be kept. If they need more of a distinguishing feature for their product, perhaps relegation is it.

I've nominated the AFL because it already has a lesser league, dubbed arenafootball2. It's not so much a "minor league" since the 25 af2 teams are not directly or even loosely affiliated with any AFL franchises and therefore should have no qualms being their direct rivals (except for the fact that their players are probably much worse).

But just think of the outcome. With AFL and af2 (and maybe a third tier?) working in a relegation system, suddenly there's a reason for casual fans to follow the AFL year after year. "Wait 'til next year" becomes "Wait 'til the next election year." Perhaps a midseason interleague week allows lesser teams to see how they stack up against the top-tier teams. And when it comes to fringe sports like arena football, fans don't necessarily care how prestigious the championship is, so long as they win it. After all, some college basketball teams take a sort of bittersweet pride in winning the NIT after not getting selected to play in the NCAA tournament.

Were this to be implemented, I'm sure Mr. Rose and I would, at some point, break bread and discuss how well it's worked out. But I can guarantee we'll have conflicting answers.

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  • Tony

    This is a great piece although did we really have relive the Orvlosky safety another time?

    I think the AFL is great off-season entertainment. Some of my most entertaining childhood sports memories are going to Detroit Drive games. I believe they three-peated the arena bowl championship and then eventually moved to Grand Rapids. Either way, there should be a place in sports for the AFL and I like your ideas. Good job.

  • I, of course, am in complete agreement with Matt. Relegation and promotion really help to maintain both interest from the fans and motivation for the team, so it is more exciting, which is good.

  • And what music do you like anyway? I’m sure we’d have something in common! I’ve recently migrated to Spotify.com, which is like having the most perfect radio ever in that you can select exactly what you want to listen to.

  • Of course Chris wouldn’t know much about either relegation or promotion, since his team, Manchester United, hasn’t experienced either phenomenon for 34 years and (unless the sky falls on Old Trafford or UEFA introduces a full-on pan-European league) isn’t likely to ever again!

  • “did we really have relive the Orvlosky safety another time?”

    Those who forget history, something something.

  • The Obnoxious American

    I agree with this article. As you said, it’ll never happen in pro sports due to the financials.

    Am I the only one who misses the XFL?

  • Doc, true, I’ve not had a lot of experience, but I clearly remember the terrible shock when Law sent us down, to say nothing of those dark decades when we won nothing at all before the blessed light of Ferguson fell upon the club and saved us!

  • I didn’t see that game (we didn’t have a TV when I was a kid), but I do remember the famous photo of Law taken just after he’d scored, with that terrible conflicted expression on his face.

    ‘Nothing at all’, Chris? Three FA Cups and a couple of Charity Shields not glamorous enough for you?

    Or perhaps it’s the despair and desolation of never having won the UEFA Cup (and you probably never will)? How that must gnaw at your soul!

  • There is something to be said for the US draft system in that it is a great leveller and gives the fans of every team reasonable hope that they might actually win some silverware in their lifetimes.

    The franchise system also seems to prevent a handful of rich teams from forming a hegemony and perpetuating their domination through the sheer force of their financial clout. (Manchester United is an extreme example, but I remember back in the day when Liverpool were at the height of their domination of English football, when they would, on principle, instantly sign any player who had the temerity to score against them*, just so he wouldn’t do it again.)

    Proof that the draft system works would seem to be the unprecedented turnaround of the Miami Dolphins last season. The Detroit Lions, unfortunately, seem to have mastered a way to beat the system. There’s obviously something deeply rotten at the club which isn’t going to be solved by having first dibs at the best college talent.

    But promotion and relegation does, as Chris says, add an extra dimension of interest and excitement which I don’t think the prospect of finishing top or bottom of your division in American pro sports quite matches.

    It would be interesting to see how some sort of hybrid of the two systems would work, or if such a notion would even be practicable.

    * It didn’t happen all that often.

  • D. Readful, PhD: “Proof that the draft system works would seem to be the unprecedented turnaround of the Miami Dolphins last season. The Detroit Lions, unfortunately, seem to have mastered a way to beat the system.”

    The Dolphins made a great pick with Jake Long, and as a result they helped go from 1-15 to 10-6 in one season. The Lions are proof that the draft system works in that it merely gives teams the opportunity to turn it around, not an automatic equalizer. You have to sorta know who to draft. Calvin Johnson was a good pick. Andre Ware was not. Columnist Norman Chad said it best during the 2005 draft when he wrote: “The Lions make their pick in less than 3 minutes; I assume Matt Millen was double-parked.”

    OA: “Am I the only one who misses the XFL?”

    Holy crap, yes.