Promotion and relegation is a system used throughout most of the soccer world. Clubs move up and down their country’s standings based on their relative strength via results on the field from season to season. And soccer fans all over the world overwhelmingly prefer it to the alternative.

The alternative is the franchise system. One where the same roster of teams is locked into the top division no matter how poorly they might perform. Likewise, teams in the lower levels are stuck there, no matter how many games they win. That is, unless they fork over tens- or hundreds-of-millions of dollars in expansion fees to move up a level (or two or three).

But why do fans throughout the soccer landscape generally prefer the promotion and relegation model? Both in nations where the practice is entrenched in tradition, and those fighting for it to be implemented in their area, there are steadfast advocates of the concept.

So let’s explore the array of reasons why the mechanism has big appeal.

Fair competition

First and foremost, promotion and relegation delivers a (relatively) fair competition. It operates on the principle of sporting merit. The top teams compete at the top level because they’ve earned their place. You don’t get to be at the top of your country’s pyramid simply by being located in a big city. Or by cutting a big check. You have to win to get there, and win to stay there.

Sadly in many leagues, there is still often a noticeable competitive imbalance. This includes several top leagues like the EPL, LaLiga, Ligue 1 and the Bundesliga. With some owners having access to nearly unlimited spending on player wages and transfers, a culture of haves and have-nots is definitely apparent.

But no matter how much more you can spend than your rivals, you still have to play and win games to avoid relegation. The same goes for clubs hoping to qualify for continental competition, or to get promoted up the ranks. Success on the field is what determines your fate – not metrics such as marketability, owner worth, what TV market you’re in or the demographics of your town. Simply splashing cash around and having a name such as “Paris” or “Madrid” on your shirt does not guarantee a permanent place at the top.

High stakes and more meaningful matches all season

Nothing creates drama quite like a promotion or relegation race. With intrigue at both the top and bottom of the standings, pro/rel usually creates a very compelling story for any given season. And that generally means more games matter for something. Staying out of the drop zone, for some clubs, is as big as winning a trophy. Winning the promotion playoff final and finishing third in the EFL Championship is known as the richest match in soccer. The winner may earn as much as $350 million in TV revenue and payments.

A game between two bottom of the table sides in a European soccer league in late Spring is far more meaningful than a contest between similarly-ranked MLS teams in September, for example. There’s more of a reason for fans, and media, to pay attention to every game all year. You can’t tune out when your side drops out of the title race halfway through. They could try to qualify for European places, or slip down the table and get relegated.

Our soccer is open to all

Arguably the biggest selling point of promotion and relegation systems is that they are inclusive to everyone. No club or community is automatically dismissed because they don’t have a big enough population or a billionaire owner willing to pay $500 million for a new franchise team.

Yes – in most leagues there are basic professional standards you have to meet to be eligible for promotion to a higher level. But assuming you meet those (stadium facilities, staffing, etc.) anyone can theoretically rise to the pinnacle of the sport.

There are successful clubs throughout the world that, in the United States, would not meet current market requirements set by the US Soccer Federation to participate in the USA’s first division (MLS). That’s pretty silly if you think about it. Clubs such as Leicester City, Newcastle United, Brighton, Athletic Bilbao, Fiorentina and others fail to meet the 1,000,000 metro area population threshold for a Division 1 team in the United States. But almost everywhere else, no matter if its entire town can fit in the stadium, if a club wins, it can play at the top level.

An avenue for justice (or redemption)

Having promotion and relegation in place can offer a way for nefarious teams to be punished. On the flip side, down-on-their-luck clubs and communities have a chance to rise back up the ranks.

Perhaps most famously, a scandal in Italy in 2004-05 resulted in points deductions and/or relegations. Punished teams included Juventus, Lazio and Fiorentina.

On a more positive note, the ability to rebuild after facing hardship is a wonderful aspect of promotion and relegation.

Wimbledon FC were a non-league club in England for most of their history, but advanced all the way to the then-First Division in 1986. They even won the FA Cup in 1988. The club remained in the Premier League until 2000. In 2002, “The Dons” were given approval to move nearly 60 miles away to Milton Keynes. A new club, AFC Wimbledon, was formed by supporters, and rapidly rose up the pyramid. They gained six promotions in 13 seasons. In 2016/17, Wimbledon rose to the same level as MK Dons, the relocated and renamed original Wimbledon.

In places such as North America though, if you lose your top tier local team, it’s likely forever. And any replacement outfit could be limited to a permanent place in a lower division. Or worse, exist as a minor league affiliate serving some other team hundreds of miles away.

Variety is the spice of life

An often overlooked aspect of promotion and relegation is the variety it brings to leagues. Rather than the same table of clubs every season (usually including some who live near the bottom for years at a time), new sides and new energy are injected into leagues each year. Be it hungry clubs who’ve just gained promotion, or sides who’ve come down and are seeking redemption.

This should not be confused with instability. In most leagues, the number of teams and number of games on the schedule is the same every year. Just some of the names are different. Instability would be, as we’ve seen far too often over the years in American soccer, teams folding entirely and being replaced, if at all, with brand new expansion teams.

The fresh blood on the schedule list each year is fun for supporters, with new rivalries and new places to visit.

Memorable moments

Last but not least of course are the countless dramatic scenes promotion and relegation has delivered over the years.

Most people choose to try and forget the sorrow of relegation, and with good reason. But the absolute joy of promotion, or survival, is an unrivaled wellspring of emotion.

Recently we were treated with scenes of delight when Everton clinched survival in 2022. Over in Germany, FC Union Berlin won promotion to the Bundesliga for the first time ever in 2019, creating a similar outpouring of excitement:

One of the most remarkable moments came in the Championship promotion semi-final second leg in 2013. Leicester City won a stoppage time penalty away at Watford, with the score 2-2 on aggregate. The penalty (and rebound) was saved. Twenty seconds later, Watford scored to send themselves to the playoff final at Wembley, and send Vicarage Road into absolute pandemonium:

Watford would end up losing the final to Crystal Palace that year for the final spot in the Premier League, but that moment will never be forgotten. And Leicester City, of course, would go on to be promoted the following season, and remarkably win the Premier League title in 2016 in one of the greatest underdog stories of all time.

Those are just a few of the moments that you just don’t see anywhere else in sport. There really is nothing quite like it. It’s a dimension of intrigue that simply would not exist without promotion and relegation. It’s no wonder most soccer fans wouldn’t trade it for the world.