• Sat. Jun 10th, 2023

Adding one twist to our sports leagues would bring manic tension for fans of struggling teams


May 27, 2023

Springtime as a Kansas City sports fan has been more rain than sunshine this year.

Kansas City Royals fans have known heartbreak. The team’s record has earned them a place at the bottom of their division. As the Boys in Blue seek a new stadium deal, they have failed to compete, losing three games in a row eight times, while not yet winning three games in a row. This adds up to essentially no chance of making the playoffs. And it’s still May.

Meanwhile, Sporting Kansas City — despite an alarming inability to score goals and win games — remains in contention for a playoff spot. The soccer club sits near the bottom of its division, mirroring the Royals on the other side of the metro.

The basement is a quiet place for American sports fans. Games seem low stakes or even no stakes. As a fan, my excitement for opening day dissolves to wondering whether we might compete next season, all while this season is not yet half over.

The mood is especially grim in Major League baseball, which provides 162 games. Will the Royals team lose 100 games? 105? 110? Those morbid landmarks are the only dramatic tension in a foregone season.

However, fans of foreign sports leagues will tell you this: The bottom spots in the standings can be the most riveting teams to support.

Half a world away this weekend, some of the worst-performing sports teams will compete for a distinction that is, in some ways, more valuable than a championship. They will be fighting to avoid relegation.

Consider Everton, a soccer club in Liverpool, England. The historic team has competed for decades at the highest tier of one of the most prestigious — if not the most prestigious — soccer league in the world. And yet, this weekend, they must win to escape the prospect of being sent down to the next tier of competition.

If they are sent down, they move to the Championship league, a fall that would cut their revenue, repel top players and bring jeering chants from rival fans for years.

After 37 games, one final Premier League game will decide their fate.

Accordingly, Everton fans will be manic, watching every bounce of the ball, screaming for a goal and ultimately waiting for the sound of the official’s whistle, which will end the game in either agony or ecstasy. These are the stakes of a failing team that is close to relegation.

In contrast, it’s almost statistically impossible that the Royals’ final game will mean anything this year — unless they are playing a team that is competing to make the playoffs.

The decades-old tradition of relegation offers an enticing possibility for our national sports leagues. Could the prospect of relegation motivate teams like our currently floundering ones in Kansas City? Right now, many failing teams actually tank their seasons, hoping to earn the top draft pick with a last-place finish.

The decades-old tradition of relegation offers an enticing possibility for our national sports leagues. Could the prospect of relegation motivate teams like our currently floundering ones in Kansas City? Right now, many failing teams actually tank their seasons, hoping to earn the top draft pick with a last-place finish.

A few years ago, I was talking to a staff member from one of the local sports teams. I asked him, “Do you think that American sports teams would be more competitive if we had . . .”

That is as far as I got into the sentence before he said, “No way that we will ever have relegation.”

The reason he gave? The owners of American sports teams are guaranteed that they will always have a team in the particular tier in which they bought the team. American sports teams are stable assets: Buy an NFL team, and you have an NFL team forever. No risk of catastrophic asset failure in our leagues.

Of course, I don’t own a team, so I can be a huge fan of relegation. I don’t need to worry about the financial collapse that relegation can create for a club.

Nevertheless, I wonder whether the high-stakes competition created by leagues with the threat of relegation would be more profitable than leagues of complacent bottom-dwelling teams strolling toward their final games. Surely, there’s money created by the fan enthusiasm surrounding a team’s scramble to remain in the top league. So many more tickets. So many more concession stand beers. So many more eyeballs watching the final televised games, commercials included.

The relegation model is familiar to our American kids playing soccer, basketball and other sports in America. The top teams get moved up to the next league — sometimes even jumping up to the next age group to find challenging competition. The struggling teams scoot down. It’s an act of mercy in some ways, preventing teams that are being routinely blown out from dreading their next season. If our children can handle the demotion, our pros should be able to handle it.

Why not add relegation and promotion to high school sports? Perhaps the best teams in a KSHSAA enrollment classification could move up to compete with larger schools. In many cases, the competition would be fairer and more exciting (I’m looking at you Bishop Miege).  

The NBA has been the most adventurous league in reforming its playoff structure. Middling teams in the NBA play single games before they even have the right to play in a playoff series. Why should a team with a losing record be provided essentially the same prospect in the playoffs as a team that won 80 percent of its games?

That reform is certainly less drastic than the prospect of adding relegation. However, one of those teams that barely made the playoffs this year, the Miami Heat, will compete in the NBA Finals with just one more win in their series with the Celtics.

To preview how relegation brings ferocity to the end of a team’s dismal season, tune in to any of these games. All will be at 11:30 a.m. Central: 

  • Everton v. Bournemouth
  • Leeds v. Tottenham
  • Leicester City v. West Ham United

As you watch, consider if you want an end-of-year fan experience like that — raucous crowds cheering until the final whistle of a dreadful season. Or, would you rather have an empty Kauffman Stadium? A complacent Children’s Mercy Park?

Would you be willing to trade a placid last-place season for the bonkers excitement of a season lived on the brink of relegation? I am.

Eric Thomas directs the Kansas Scholastic Press Association and teaches visual journalism and photojournalism at the University of Kansas. Through its opinion section, Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.

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