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Edmonds: American professional leagues could benefit from relegation model

| Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Imagine a world where Santa Cruz, Calif. has an NBA team and New York City doesn’t. This seemingly absurd situation would be a reality for the Knicks — currently the 14th-seed in the Eastern Conference — if they were a part of a system like the one the English Premier League has.

For those of you who don’t follow EPL soccer, allow me to give you a quick crash course. With its 20 teams, known as clubs, the EPL operates on a promotion and relegation system, with the bottom three teams from each season getting relegated to the EFL Championship and the top two teams from the Championship being admitted to the Premier League. An additional playoff game between the remaining top Championship teams rounds out the League for the upcoming season. The season’s 38 games allow each team the opportunity to play each other twice, both home and away, negating any questions of fairness over scheduling discrepancies.

Obviously, there are some flaws in the system. Unlike American sports, which culminate in a final championship game or series, the EPL serves as pool play to determine which four teams earn bids to compete against their European counterparts for either the UEFA Champions League or the Europa League. Personally, I prefer the finality of a regular season that leads to one championship, but the EPL does have elements that could enhance the American sports experience.

In terms of scheduling, the NBA could take a note from the EPL. The current NBA model is a complex algorithm that considers games against division and conference foes as well as non-conference opponents. Shortening the season to 58 games would still allow more than enough games, while reducing the risk of late-in-season injuries and evening out the home court advantage with each team playing each other home and away.

Sports thrive on competition. No one cares to watch the Patriots or Warriors win another championship. On the flip side, a tanking Chicago Bulls team not only hurts the fan base, but also the fan bases of all the teams they play. A system of relegation would ensure that the stakes remain high for all teams, with the possibility of losing their association with the NBA looming at any point. Fans would have a reason to stay invested in their team’s success. Just eight years before winning the Premier League Championship in 2016, Leicester City was relegated past the Championship to the third tier of English soccer. The possibility of returning to the ranks of elite clubs made their eventual comeback one for the ages. If cities like Albuquerque, N.M., Nashville, Tenn., Cincinnati, Ohio and Austin, Texas all have a chance to move up from the NBA G League, the league would be better off for it.

I fully recognize that this parallel has some inconsistencies. The current minor league structure of both the NBA and MLB requires an association to a major league team. This model makes the possibility of minor league counterparts as competition virtually impossible. In many ways, this hypothetical proposition is just that — hypothetical, only even remotely possible through an extensive timeline and after complex contracts that reallocate ownership of teams. But, the idea is there, and it’s part of a larger conversation about finding solutions to an increasing problem of competition.

As EPL clubs and players continue to gain notoriety in the U.S, hopefully some of our sports leagues might take note. Adam Silver, Roger Goodell and Rob Manfred, when ratings start to sink and small markets lose interests, you know my thoughts — relegation.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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