clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

College Conference Realignment: What We Can Learn From Soccer Relegation

Conference realignment has gone completely off the rails. Installing a soccer-style relegation system makes both success and failure mean more, but it would also fix much of what's wrong with the current arrangement. From Monday: Why college football needs relegation.

Getty Images

Not only is there a very good argument to be made for a relegation system in all sports, but especially ones with sprawling leagues at various tiers, there's also a very strong case against college football's current league management setup.

(Basically, there isn't a setup. We can't even figure out who's in charge of Florida State realignment, let alone college football realignment.)

Monday, Spencer Hall made the case for college football adopting a relegation system instead of letting conferences arrange themselves as important suits see fit, which would make major events out of games that currently mean nothing. We'd also see an alternative to a system that breaks up rivalries in unsatisfying fashion*, awards lesser programs that happen to play in big cities and requires constant attention at all times, lest some school switch future leagues in the middle of the gotdang season.

* Just imagine how great it would feel to kick a rival down a level instead of seeing them leave for more money elsewhere. Since college football's rivalry games already come at the end of the season, this would happen somewhere pretty much every year.

Now let's dig into the intricacies of how relegation and promotion works in soccer, which will help flesh out our college football plan that's totally going to happen. Here we have a Q&A with Kevin McCauley,'s world soccer editor, who knows a lot more about this stuff than any of us do. Many thanks to Kevin for his time and sharing his expertise.

So, first things first! For the college football fan and layperson, can you explain what relegation is?

Relegation is when teams fall down from one league to the league below on the pyramid. This usually happens when a team is in one of the bottom places at the end of the season.

Some leagues that have relegation only send one team down, while some send down as many as four. In the English Premier League, the three teams with the worst record go down to the second division, and the top two teams in the second division plus a playoff winner come up. In Argentina and Mexico, teams are relegated via a coefficient system that takes your results from the last three years into account; in those leagues, it is technically possible to win the title and get relegated in the same season. Tigre could potentially do this in Argentina this year.

Last season, one of the biggest teams in Argentina, River Plate, was relegated. Imagine if Alabama got sent to the Sun Belt because they were bad for three straight years. That's essentially what happened.

Fair ain't fair, PAWWWWWWWWWWWWL. Do clubs ever fall, like, really, really far? Like the equivalent of a Big Ten school ending up in the Missouri Valley?

The truly huge teams rarely fall farther than the second division, though some have gone out of business for financial reasons, then started over as a new club at the bottom.

Wimbledon were a top-flight English club that won the FA Cup, got relegated twice, and eventually relocated and renamed themselves. This is basically sacrilegious in England, and everyone still hates MK Dons because of it. Wimbledon re-started as an amateur club in the 10th division and has climbed back into the fourth division.

And is there a team that appeared out of nowhere and shot through the ranks, kind of like South Florida?

Manchester City, who just won the Premier League title, were in the third division of English football as recently as 1998.

My all-time favorite rags to riches story is Castel di Sangro Calcio, a team immortalized in Joe McGinniss' book The Miracle of Castel di Sangro. The team came from a town of 6,000 people in the Abruzzo region of Italy and rose from the lowest league in the country to Serie B. Once in Serie B, they were surprisingly able to avoid relegation once, then went back down to Serie C a year later.

Recently, in England, Hull City rose from the fourth division to the Premier League in a span of five years.

This is definitely more than just a pride thing. In college football, there would still be Big 12 and SEC media money on the line. What's at stake for a Premier League club or La Liga club as far as money and exposure and so forth, and how does that compare to smaller leagues?

When a team in the Premier League gets relegated, they lose tens of millions of pounds in television and sponsor revenue. The league offsets this a bit with parachute payments, but they don't come close to making up for the losses. Because of this, the Championship Playoff final is often billed as the richest game in world football. The difference in revenue between the winner and the loser of that game over the following season is estimated to be as much as £50 million.

The drop-off in La Liga is not as steep because the teams negotiate their television contracts separately. Even though they are both in La Liga, Barcelona's TV contract is worth nine figures more than Levante's. The Bundesliga has a collective TV contract like England, and Serie A has been in a weird TV contract situation for years. They used to negotiate their contracts completely independently, but have made changes recently.

What happens when a big rivalry breaks up? As a Wisconsin man, you'd probably feel strange about losing an annual rivalry with Minnesota when they headed for the MAC. Since that would've happened in 2007, and all.

Losing big rivalries feels very, very odd. This season in Argentina hasn't felt like a real season without the Super Clasico between River Plate and Boca Juniors. I think it probably hits fans sometime near the end of the season, when they realize, "Wow, we didn't play [rival] this year." This is probably how it's going to go for Missouri and Kansas, as well as Texas and Texas A&M. They won't realize how much they miss it until it's December and the game never happened.

This doesn't cause the teams' fans to lose hate for each other, though. Manchester United hasn't played Leeds United in a league match in nearly a decade now, but any Man United fan over the age of 12 still despises Leeds.

Has a club ever tried to decline promotion, like FCS champ North Dakota State might prefer to do if somebody told them they had to compete in the Mountain West all of a sudden?

I have never heard of a team declining promotion to a higher division. However, there was an interesting situation last year where Barcelona B won the Spanish Segunda. They were denied promotion because they can't play in the same division as Barcelona.

Some leagues stipulate that clubs moving up still have to meet facilities standards. Is that fairly common? I'm thinking of something like Boise State to the Pac-12, which would've happened a long time ago if college football had relegation, but the Pac-12 outwardly cares about the academics of its candidates, so maybe there could be requirements for each level. So are there often benchmarks like that?

Every single major league requires that teams meet facilities standards for promotion. There are a lot of smaller English teams that have standing room in their stadiums, but in the Premier League, every stadium must be an all-seater. Most leagues have minimum capacity requirements as well. In the example of Castel di Sangro, they had to play in another team's stadium until their stadium was renovated to meet Serie B standards.

Does anything crooked ever happen, or is it really a perfect, on-the-pitch meritocracy across the board? The Scots seem to vote on a whole lot of stuff, which seems ripe for crookedness. It doesn't really make any sense to me unless crooked stuff happens sometimes.

Crooked stuff does not happen very often in the big European leagues. South and Central America are a different story. They kind of just make stuff up as they go along. The coefficient system in Argentina was invented for the sole purpose of preventing Boca Juniors and River Plate from getting relegated. River got relegated anyway. Shenanigans in promotion-relegation battles and standards for promoted clubs are extremely rare.

So the only way to move up is to earn it, but there's more than one way to earn things. Is Sheikh Mansour the T. Boone Pickens of soccer?

Sheikh Mansour as T. Boone Pickens is a good comparison, and there seem to be quite a few of these in both sports. Chelsea, Malaga, and Paris Saint-Germain are some other teams that went from being underachievers and/or lovable losers to being rich as hell overnight, just because some billionaire decided to make the team his plaything.

The obvious difference is that T. Boone Pickens is not allowed to go write Gunner Kiel a check for $50 million.

The greatest thing about relegation is it makes the games that would be least important in most American sports really, really matter, almost as much as the championship game itself. Why in the world do we prefer to see our pro teams change cities?

I'm not really sure why people prefer relocation to relegation. I actually think that people would love relegation in American sports if it happened, they're just aware that it can never happen because the current owners would never go for it.

Imagine if Major League Baseball abandoned a farm system, went to promotion-relegation, and turned all of their current minor league teams into independent teams. Do you think that the cheapskates and/or swindlers who own the Pittsburgh Pirates or Miami Marlins would go for this? Not in a million years.