Promotion and relegation is one of the key mechanics across much of the global sport called soccer. But what is pro/rel, as it’s commonly abbreviated? If you’re a new fan, especially coming from American sports, you might be completely unfamiliar with the concept.
What is promotion and relegation?
At the most basic level, promotion and relegation is a way of sorting clubs. The best team(s) in lower leagues get promoted to a higher league at the end of a season. In turn they are replaced by the worst team(s) from the league above them. At its core, the principle is of sporting merit. You cannot secure a place at the top of the sport simply by having the most money, or being in a big city. You have to earn it on the field.
To understand why pro/rel was developed and why it is used, you have to consider the overall philosophy of a professional sports system. In the United States and Canada, we have what is commonly called a “franchise” system. We have the “Major Leagues,” the top professional leagues in each sport. They have a limited, exclusive membership of teams, only attainable by purchasing a place in the league. These teams are often given exclusive rights to operate a team in a given region. Nearly every other team that exists in these sports is a part of “Minor League,” explicitly operated to develop players for the Major League’s teams. Teams in the Major League are not determined via results in competition, but rather metrics such as market size, and owner worth.
The opposing system is what the vast majority of the world uses, an “open” system. Any team from any town or city could, theoretically, play in the top division of their sport if they are successful enough on the field and meet certain basic requirements. Rather than one “Major” league and several “Minor” leagues below it of affiliate/reserve teams, every club is considered independent and part of one unified ecosystem. Effectively one big league, but separated into divisions based on results.
Filling out these divisions is where promotion and relegation comes in.
How promotion and relegation works
There are some variations on the details of how promotion and relegation works around the world, but the general idea is the same. If you perform poorly, you get sent to a lower league for the following season. And if you do well, you earn a place in a higher competition.
As a basic visual, here’s the general league system setup in much of the world:
To make it simple, let’s say that in each division the top three teams get promoted and bottom three get relegated. That means, if a 4th division team can finish 3rd or better in the final standings, they would move up to the 3rd division the following season. This continues up and down the pyramid until you reach the top.
But it doesn’t end there. First divisions usually offer a qualification place, or places, to one or more international competitions. In Europe, North America, Africa, Oceania, and Asia, this is known as Champions League. In South America, the equivalent competition is Copa Libertadores. The field in these competitions is made up of the champions (and other high-placing teams) from different countries’ domestic leagues. In some regions, there are secondary (or even tertiary) international competitions for lower-placed teams and/or domestic cup winners.
The winner of a continental region’s Champions League then qualifies for the annual Club World Cup. In this way, even the smallest club in the tiniest town theoretically has a direct (albeit unlikely) path to becoming world champions. Every club all across the world is connected as part of the same system.
Variations on the system
It’s not always as straight forward as illustrated above, though.
In England, a knockout playoff tournament is held to see who gets the final promotion spot. Germany uses a system wherein the 3rd worst team in the Bundesliga plays the 3rd best team in the 2. Bundesliga for the last spot in next season’s top flight. Argentina uses a coefficient system, based on average points per game over the previous three seasons to determine who goes up/down. There are many flavors, but the idea is the same: the best teams rise to the top, the worst drop down.
Why promotion and relegation matters
As noted above, promotion and relegation is an inclusive system. Teams in smaller places such as the Canary Islands or a working-class town such as Burnley can find themselves vaulted onto the world stage by winning their way into a top league. The little guys aren’t locked out simply because they’re a small club/town. By the same token, a team doesn’t get to stay in a top league simply because it happens to be located in London or Buenos Aires or Tokyo. They have to win to keep their spot.
It’s also a system that helps to ensure more games matter throughout the season. A game between 17th and 18th place halfway through the season carries a lot more weight if the result might see one of the teams slip down the standings. Something is usually on the line in almost every match.
And in that regard, it holds clubs (and owners) accountable. You can’t coast along, invest little in your team, and survive. There are billionaire owners in American sports who’ve raked in big bucks simply by virtue of their teams existing. Getting tax dollars to build stadiums and increase franchise values. Cashing TV revenue checks. All while operating last place teams for years.
That can’t really happen in a promotion/relegation league.
There is no scarcity of clubs. If you lose, another club, potentially one of several in the same town as you, will replace you.
Promotion/relegation also makes it harder for communities to lose their clubs. This is due to a few factors. For one, it’s harder for an owner to threaten to relocate a club. If that does happen, a new club can, and often does, immediately pop in in their place. In addition, struggling clubs can settle at an appropriate level on the pyramid that is sustainable, rather than flicker out of existence entirely.
The economics of promotion
Getting promoted is a big deal. Like, a really big deal. It comes not only with pride and prestige of on-field success, but also usually a large financial windfall.
In England, as an example, winning promotion to the Premier League comes with over $120 million in TV rights money. Add in increased value for sponsorships and it’s a massive difference in finances, simply by being in a higher league.
Of course, to compete at a higher level, teams often spend more on players to keep up. This can be risky if you suffer a quick relegation back to a lower level. But if a team can survive multiple seasons after being promoted, it can change the long-term outlook of a club for many years to come.
Unfortunately, while the playing field is theoretically level, money still rules the game. So while getting promoted means a shot at glory, the likelihood of winning a division one trophy in most leagues is slim. A notable exception is Leicester City FC, who were playing third tier soccer in 2009, but went on to win the Premier League in 2016 (and the FA Cup in 2021).
Where promotion and relegation is (and isn’t) used
Most soccer leagues around the world operate with some form of promotion and relegation. All the major European leagues do, including the Premier League, LaLiga, Serie A, Bundesliga and Ligue 1. Every South American domestic league system features it as well.
In international soccer, UEFA and CONCACAF Nations League also operate on a system of promotion and relegation. Many other sports, including ice hockey, tennis, and even eSports use versions of the concept.
The only notable leagues/nations that don’t currently utilize a promotion and relegation system are Australia, Canada, India, Mexico and the United States.
However, Australia is working towards establishing it as soon as a second division is mature. Mexico’s Liga MX is also seriously considering bringing it back. It should also be noted that all of these nations send clubs to continental tournaments, with qualification via sporting merit. However lower division clubs in these countries have no or extremely limited access to these tournaments (i.e. an American USL club would have to win the U.S. Open Cup to qualify for Champions League).
The A-League has never had promotion/relegation, owing to the lack of an organized professional second division. However, creation of such a division and eventual adoption of promotion and relegation between the two levels is eventually planned.
TheIndian Super League was founded in 2013 and, at first, operated without sanctioning from the Asian Football Confederation or FIFA. It eventually gained acceptance but was for a time a co-first division with the existing I-League. For the time being there is no promotion and relegation, but a roadmap is in place to implement it in the near future.
Mexico previously operated a promotion/relegation system, but from 2020 they have suspended it until 2026. This was done in an effort to shore up the finances of many clubs, a situation exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Previously, few clubs that won promotion from Ascenso MX (now Liga Expansion MX) were capable of meeting the requirements to play in Liga MX. In addition, in the past owners have purchased the licenses of Liga MX teams and transferred them to different cities, effectively buying promotion. This may happen again soon to embattled club Querétaro F.C., which must be sold soon and may be replaced by Atlante F.C.
United States and Canada
The United Statesand Canada have never operated on a system of promotion and relegation. And they are the only major league(s) in world soccer that has no official plans to implement (or re-implement) it. Major League Soccer, despite being founded around the same time as Japan’s successful J League which uses pro/rel, has always been a closed franchise league.
Despite the lack of promotion and relegation, lower divisions of soccer have existed domestically for just about the entirety of the past century. While there have been numerous teams that have moved between leagues, this was done voluntarily, not based on competitive results. Teams have either self-relegated to save money, or purchased an expansion spot in a higher league.
Seattle Sounders, Portland Timbers, Vancouver Whitecaps, CF Montréal (Impact), Orlando City, Minnesota United, Nashville SC, FC Cincinnati, and St. Louis City all operated lower division pro sides and replaced them with MLS teams. Likewise, 2nd Division USL Championship clubs Oakland Roots, Detroit City FC, and Miami FC all recently moved up from the 3rd division NISA league.
The Canadian Premier League was launched in 2019 as the nation’s official first division. While it does not have promotion and relegation, former commissioner David Clanachan has spoken in favor of it.
Both American and Canadian clubs outside their country’s top tier do have (slim) access to the global soccer pyramid. Winning the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup or Canadian Championship competitions would earn a spot in the CONCACAF Champions League.
This is a feat nearly achieved by USL’s Sacramento Republic in 2022. Sacramento is an organization that was announced as MLS’s 29th team, another faux-promotion, before ownership backed out.
The global standard
Whether promotion and relegation is ever adopted in the few holdouts, it remains a central tenet of the world’s most popular sport. Many club owners would surely like to rid the world of relegation, but the system is unlikely to disappear anytime soon.
The 2021 launch and failure of the European Super League showed how important sporting merit is to the fabric of the game. Supporters of clubs big and small consistently stand up in favor of open, promotion/relegation systems. And it’s unlikely the fans will ever stop loving it.
The dream of your club making it big. The nail-biting drama of avoiding the drop on the last day. The unrivaled joy of winning the promotion playoff final. There’s nothing quite like it, and hopefully it will always be a beautiful part of the beautiful game.
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