By now, you’ve probably heard (or at least heard about) the talk of floating realignment, of competitive dynamics and of Major League Baseball effectively admitting the Yankees and Red Sox have Won Baseball Forever. And hey, kudos to Bud Selig for at least giving credence to a wild idea; good to see we trolls of the internet aren’t the only ones who realize the AL East is the opposite kind of joke as the AL Central and that some teams’ seasons are going to end with the month of April.
At its core, the idea goes that competitive also-rans in tougher divisions move to less-competitive divisions the next season, and teams which raise the white flag in the offseason—be it through natural rebuilding or true surrender—move to weaker divisions. For example, the Tampa Bay Rays, third in the East, would be granted the right to move to a lesser division (i.e. the Central) while a team in the Central with no real chance—Cleveland or Kansas City, take your pick—moves to the East to reap the economic benefit of more home games against those Yankees and Red Sox.
Now, I’m going to just stop the dissection right there because any such plan would need literally thousands of considerations, and the point is not whether such a plan is good or bad (although a lot of us agree the current divisional system needs work).
Rather, the point is in the comparison people make to a league using a somewhat similar structure: the English Premier League, which runs two divisions each year. At the top is the Premier League, made of the current top 20 clubs in the nation vying for the highest English championship and invitations to the larger Europe-wide tournaments; below that the Football League Championship, comprised of the next 24 clubs. At the end of each season, the bottom three of the EPL are demoted (relegated) to the FLC, while the top three of the FLC are promoted to the EPL.
Pretty neat, right? Imagine the Cubs being demoted to some sort of AAAA while the Kansas City Royals scrap their way to the New Big Leagues—teams fighting to stay alive, literally, in the higher prestige, higher revenue circuit.
Except one thing: the relegation system, hardcore as it sounds, doesn’t actually promote parity or winning—just winning enough to stay in the big time. You know those four English soccer teams every American has ever heard of? Guess what they have in common:
1992-1993: Manchester United
1993-1994: Manchester United
1994-1995: Blackburn Rovers
1995-1996: Manchester United
1996-1997: Manchester United
1998-1999: Manchester United
1999-2000: Manchester United
2000-2001: Manchester United
2002-2003: Manchester United
2006-2007: Manchester United
2007-2008: Manchester United
2008-2009: Manchester United
That list above is every Premier League champion, ever, since the system was first implemented in 1992. Seventeen championships won by four teams, and some clubs with fine histories of their own left in those titans’ wake.
So to those thinking MLB can find guidance in the EPL model, I say keep looking. Make no mistake, they’ve crafted a great athletic spectacle, and in its upper echelon you can witness some of the finest displays of sport a person could ever hope to. At the same time, what they’ve created isn’t a system that breeds competition per se, merely one that breeds a steady set of champions able to exploit their fame, tradition and wildly higher revenue to distance themselves from the clubs they just knocked off. Sound familiar?