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Archive for November 21, 2006

Nov. 21, 2006 — The concept of “relegation.”

In many countries around the world, a sport played at its higher levels is organized from several dozen independent clubs in a multi-flight league. Within each flight, teams compete against each other, and the winner (plus a few high-placed teams) moves up a level, whilst the lowest team or teams get “relegated,” or placed in a league the following year with a lower level of competition — a real-world example of the Peter Principle.

The Wikipedia article linked to the previous paragraph says that this system, which we’ll call “Pro-Rel” in sports fan shorthand, is not part of the North American sporting culture.

But it has crept into some places in the United States, and it played a big part in a field hockey state championship this year — the championships of the Rhode Island Interscholastic League.

You see, Providence Moses Brown School (R.I.) was a bit of a sad-sack team the last few years playing in Division I. But the team moved down this past year and won the Division II championship with a 3-0 win over Providence Wheeler School (R.I.). In Division I, Barrington (R.I.) swamped former Division II mainstay Tiverton (R.I.) 5-0.

Public school field hockey in Rhode Island is organized like many of the multi-flight private-school leagues such as the New England Prep School Athletic Conference and the Interscholastic Athletic Association of Maryland. It does not assign its teams to upper and lower flights solely on competitiveness, geography, or school size.

Indeed, in the RIIL constitution, Article 1, Section 4-4-D says the following: “The Committee … shall be empowered to assign schools to those divisions/classes on whatever basis it sees fit.” That is, although large schools and small schools can be kept together, teams can opt to move up or down in divisional play.

Why am I harping on the subject of pro-rel this morning? Read Tom Boswell’s baseball column on the globalization of Major League Baseball. The last time there was a major influx of foreign talent into a North American sports league, the National Hockey League grew from 21 to 30 teams in 10 years thanks to waves of Eastern Europeans looking to seek their fortune here. The number of farm and independent teams increased tremendously in that period of time.

If there is a similar influx of talent from overseas as foreseen by Boswell, baseball’s major and minor leagues could find themselves bursting at the seams. Could the major leagues be forced into a bicameral system where the small-market teams like Pittsburgh, Kansas City, Tampa Bay, and Minnesota are relegated to a second division?

Don’t laugh. It’s already happened under our nose already in NASCAR. The Chase for the Nextel Cup is a variation on the pro-rel system where, after the first 26 races of the season, the top 10 race teams and their drivers are promoted to a select club who can race for a sizable purse at the end of the year. Everyone else is relegated in the points. Drivers not in the Chase can still win races, but cannot win the Nextel Cup or its multimillion-dollar payout at the end of the season.

The globalization of American sport has been occurring for a while, but 2007 is going to be a watershed year. NASCAR’s top division will have a foreign car make for the first time, Toyota. Advertisements will appear for the first time on the uniform fronts of major North American sports teams, as Major League Soccer has agreed to move logos from the back and sleeves to the front. Could promotion and relegation be next?