There are many ways in which European soccer differs structurally from the most popular American sports, such as baseball, basketball, and American football. Sports are influenced greatly by the cultures in which they are developed, and as a result it can be sometimes be difficult to wrap your head around how sports are played in different countries around the world.
One example of this is the concept of relegation, a big part of European and South American soccer that isn't present within the American game.
Big fans of Major League Soccer (MLS) will know that instead of consisting of a number of independent clubs, the highest level of US club soccer operates as a single entity with each team being owned by the league and its investors. But across the pond, this system can seem extremely unusual for British and European fans with no first-hand experience of a fixed league membership model. For these fans, the promotion and relegation system is the norm.
But what is relegation in soccer? In order to answer that question, we'll be spending this article further fleshing out the differences between soccer league systems across the world with a focus on what relegation and promotion is and how exactly it works.
We'll discuss the consequences of relegation and promotion, and give you a few examples of teams that have achieved extraordinary feats related to this aspect of the world of soccer.
Before we get stuck into the ins and outs of relegation, it's probably worth briefly discussing its opposite: fixed league membership. For US soccer fans, this is the norm; however, most leagues in the world are not run in the same way as the MLS. Let's take a look at how a fixed membership system works in practice.
Major League Soccer operates using a single-entity structure in which teams and player contracts are owned centrally by the league. So, when someone buys a franchise, they're technically buying a stake in the league and are then given rights to individually operate a particular club. Team owners aren't necessarily competing with each other - they're ultimately partners in the league.
In this fixed membership system, revenues are shared and players' contracts are held by the league rather than those players being contracted with individual teams. Every team competing within the MLS has an investor-operator who is a shareholder in the league, and it's possible for a single investor to be in control of multiple clubs. These measures are essentially there to control costs, keep a relatively level playing field, and ultimately secure the investments of franchise owners.
Instead of entering a league via promotion or relegation (which we'll explain in detail shortly), fixed membership systems see clubs join a league after being granted entry following an application. A recent example of this is Los Angeles FC (LAFC), last season's MLS Cup winners, who were founded in 2014 as a new MLS expansion team, entering the league formally in 2018.
But what's the alternative? In the next section of this article, we'll take our focus away from the MLS to discuss the more common form of league structure: the promotion and relegation system.
Ever been tuned into the Premier League and heard pundits discussing the risk of big English clubs like Everton or West Ham going down to the Championship (England's second division)? Has it got you wondering "How does promotion and relegation work?". If so, read on for a relegation definition that'll clear a few things up.
In soccer, relegation is when you are demoted to the division below the one you are currently competing in. This happens when you finish the season in the relegation zone, which is a specific zone of usually 2-4 teams at the bottom of the table. The number of teams that make up the relegation zone can vary but will always be predetermined by the league; for example, the English Premier League relegation zone is made up of three teams, as is that of the Championship, the league below. Meanwhile, the relegation zone in the German Bundesliga consists of two teams, plus a third team that plays a play-off match against the third-placed team in the Bundesliga 2 at the end of the season.
When a team is relegated, they begin the following season playing in the league below, ultimately aiming to regain promotion to the higher division. To avoid relegation, a team must pick up more points than other competitors who are fighting for survival. Staying in elite, super-rich leagues such as the Premier League is extremely difficult, which means that teams will invest huge amounts of time, money, and effort into staying up, because the consequences of relegation can be dire. More on that shortly – but first, let's briefly explore the concept of promotion.
Promotion is essentially the opposite of relegation, and it's an essential part of how any relegation system works. When teams are relegated at the end of the season because they've failed to acquire the sufficient amount of points through wins and draws, those relegated teams switch places with the teams in the league below them that finish in the promotion places.
At the end of each season, the teams that finish in the promotion places are rewarded with a place in the league above. Usually, there are between 1-3 automatic promotion places in a division. If you finish in an automatic promotion place, you are guaranteed to go up to the division above, where you'll compete in the next season. However, most leagues also have an alternative route to the higher league for those who don't manage to secure an automatic promotion place - this system is called the play-offs.
The play-offs add to the excitement of the promotion race; in the English Championship (the highest level of the English Football League), for example, below the two automatic promotion spots there are four additional play-off places. The teams that finish within these places (from 3rd to 6th) will compete against each other in a short end-of-season competition, with the winner of the play-off final achieving promotion to the Premier League.
Other play-off structures are also used across the world. In countries such as Germany and Scotland, the teams that finish in the second division play-off spot get to face up against the teams who finish in the relegation play-off spots of the league above, in a huge knockout clash to decide who gets to compete at the highest level. Essentially, you don't always have to win a league championship in order to get promoted!
Promotion is a big achievement and a source of great pride for any club that manages to get over the line. But on the other hand, relegation can be extremely damaging for a club. In the next section of this article, we'll explore some of the main consequences of relegation in soccer.
The scariest thing about the concept of promotion and relegation is the prospect of what happens when you go down. The idea of being part of the bottom three teams is a source of great anxiety for many clubs, for several reasons:
Given these wide-ranging consequences of relegation, it's understandable that some countries would be keen to work with a fixed league structure as a form of protection. But ultimately, there are both positives and negatives to using relegation and promotion. Let's take a look at both sides of the picture.
Soccer fans with little experience of how relegation actually works might be wondering what the benefits of this system are. By the same token, the idea of having a league without relegation can be unusual to some people. To clear things up, let's look at both the pros and cons of relegation.
When it comes to sporting integrity and serious competition, a system that uses relegation can have great benefits, the primary one being that relegation and promotion gives teams a reason to fight until the end, meaning that it's rare for any league season to slowly dwindle out - the action and drama will go on until the final day.
In North American sports, for example in the NBA, it's really common to see a team resort to "tanking" when they realise their chances of a high finish are over. But in leagues with relegation, that doesn't happen. The threat of being demoted to a lower league means there's something to play for all the way until the end, and that can create some pretty amazing sporting spectacles.
Promotion and relegation also give new teams the opportunity to compete in the biggest and best leagues. By performing well in a lower division, a team without huge amounts of financial backing or pedigree can reach elite leagues and compete against the world's best. That's got to be something to celebrate.
Another key point to make is that the threat of relegation (or the promise of promotion) is a huge incentive for investment and improvement. There's a real reason for clubs to work hard to improve and move up the divisions, because they know they will be rewarded for the effort they put in.
The most important factor behind the implementation of closed league systems in North American sports is money. Relegation can have hugely damaging financial implications, as TV revenue and various other streams of income plummet when a team gets relegated, and therefore they have to come up with various ways of coping with the losses (including selling top players).
On the other hand, having a closed league system provides a stronger sense of financial security to all the member clubs of that league, because their revenue is protected from the threat of relegation-induced losses.
In high-pressure divisions such as the English Premier League, the threat of relegation can also stop teams from building for the future. The turnover of coaches and managers in European soccer is far higher than it is within most North American sports, and relegation is a key factor behind this. With the danger of the drop looming over directors at top clubs across Europe, the pressure to get results is huge, creating a short-term hire-and-fire way of thinking that can be extremely damaging.
Whatever your view is on relegation and promotion, ultimately this is a cultural and geographical difference that's unlikely to change soon. After all, when the top brass at clubs such as Barcelona, Juventus, and Manchester United attempted to create their own fixed league system within Europe - the hugely controversial 2021 European Super League project - we all saw how European football fans responded: they didn't like the idea one bit.
We hope that the relegation definition offered in this article has provided a clearer guide to how relegation in soccer works, and how different soccer leagues in the world are structured in different ways. The system of promotion and promotion makes a huge difference to how we view any league table, so having a decent understanding of the concept of relegation in soccer is crucial for any fan of the sport.
Our website is packed with lots more soccer explainer pieces, from the offside rule to the dimensions of a soccer field.