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Leagues: Championship

AFC Wimbledon and the Superiority of the Pyramid System of Promotion and Relegation

The Boston Braves, St. Louis Browns, Philadelphia Athletics, Brooklyn Dodgers, New York Giants, Washington Senators, Milwaukee Braves, Montreal Expos, Baltimore Colts, St. Louis Football Cardinals, Los Angeles Rams, Houston Oilers, Minnesota North Stars, Quebec Nordiques, Winnipeg Jets, Hartford Whalers, Vancouver Grizzlies and Seattle SuperSonics.

Just some of the American and Canadian franchises that have abandoned their fans and hometowns. A fairly common event in Northern North America thanks to the franchise system; almost unheard of elsewhere thanks to the democratic idea of clubs making their way through a pyramid structure of promotion and relegation.

Wimbledon FC is the most prominent case of relocation in England. Founded in 1889, mostly famous for an F.A. Cup victory over Liverpool in 1988and for producing all-around crazyman Vinnie Jones (seen here displaying his inspirational gaffer skills on my local pitch, language NSFW). Enter the new town of Milton Keynes and its desire for big time football played in a ground next to some big-time shopping. Wimbledon’s puppet board, after a brief flirtation with moving west across the Irish Sea to Dublin, were lured north with promises of a gleaming new stadium tied to major retail development. The F.A. took a blind-eye to history and approved the extraordinary move. In 2004, the newly christened MK Dons began play with their cold corporate crest and now compete in the third tier.

Undeterred, a core group of supporters formed a new club, AFC Wimbledon, which began play in 2002 in the Combined Counties League, eight levels below the Premier League and four levels below the Football League proper. Steady success saw the club rise from the Combined Countiesinto the Isthmian League, the Conference South, the Conference National and to this past Saturday; where the still supporter-owned club won promotion to the Football League via victory over Luton Town in the Blue Square Premier League play off final. The win is an inspiration for other community-owned clubs such as AFC Liverpool, FC United of Manchester, Brentford and Chester. American and Canadian fans, such as those Seattle Sonics supporters bitterly watching their former team battle on as the Oklahoma City Thunder, can only nod their heads wistfully at Wimbledon’s achievement.

Without the pyramid system there would be little point in Wimbledon’s supporters forming a new club nine years ago. It is the meritocracy of the pyramid system that keeps hope alive for supporters of Leeds United, Southampton, Nottingham Forest, Middlesbrough, Crystal Palace, Chartlon Athletic and every other club that’s had, or wants, a taste of the big time. It is that system that makes this coming Monday’s clash between Welsh side Swansea City and Reading an absolute must-watch.

Of course, a true pyramid system in the U.S. or Canada is a non-starter, but the desire for community ownership beyond just the Green Bay Packers remains. And is radical thinking out of place for bloated leagues carrying dead weight teams playing in meaningless regular seasons such as the NBA and NHL? Many would argue that several of the teams listed in the opening paragraph were simply not viable as ongoing top flight ventures. But for the rest of the world, that’s for the open market of on-field results to decide.

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  1. alterity

    June 9, 2011 at 10:39 pm

    if sport is not about meritocracy, then it’s about business. And business is not sport!

  2. BTown

    May 27, 2011 at 6:12 pm

    One of the most frustrating aspects of implementing this system in North America is that the infrastructure, for the most part, is already there. Take MLB with the Triple A, Double A, and Single A farm system. Give the farm teams a chance to play for a spot in the MLB system. Even better, with the affiliations that the farm teams already have, reward the pro teams with great farms system and give them a shot at having two teams in the big leagues. It would be interesting to see how long filler teams like the Pirates, Padres and Nats could survive. Something similar for the NBA D-League couldn’t be that difficult either.

  3. cory

    May 27, 2011 at 12:25 pm

    Meritocracy is definitely the big desire for a lot of hardcore North Americans but I’d still be hesitant to say it would work here in the US, where league success/franchise location is found through monetocracy (if I can make up that word). Without relegation I also think an aura of complacency also remains within American sports. You don’t see sweeping changes at teams who finish bottom of the league/division/etc. Maybe that’s overstating the situation, but I do love the idea of having a hometown club that will remain no matter how successful or unsuccessful it may be (especially one that won’t be packed up and moved to a different market).

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