Around this time last year I wrote a little primer on the fascinating annual phenomenon of play-offs, promotion, and relegation. Guess what?
It’s that time of year again. Feel free to read the earlier piece again, but everything past a certain point is outdated. It’s a new season, a new year, and so on and so forth. This time around we’re going to narrow the focus a bit: let’s take a look at the top two divisions in England, the Barclays Premier League and the Sky Bet Championship.
It’s far and away the most accessible foreign football league for Americans, most of whom probably make up the Game Losers readership. Matches are relatively easy to find on television, coverage is often in the English language, and it’s easy to arbitrarily latch yourself to a club and go along for the ride, which I should mention a lot of actual English people hate. You’re born into the fandom of a club over there. They take it quite seriously. But they will also probably never know of your arbitrary selections, so feel free to choose anyone!
Okay, you might get a few side-eyes even in America if you go with a perennially successful club like Chelsea, Manchester United, Manchester City, or even Arsenal. Get creative with it. If possible, trace your ancestry back to a certain place. Pick the one whose crest you like best. Or, if you’re like me, start up a game of Football Manager and see which one offers you a job first.
You’re getting a little bit off track.
Oh, yeah. Do you need some help remembering what promotion and relegation are?
It’d be nice.
Most foreign football leagues employ a divisional system with promotion and relegation on an annual basis. As an example, let’s use England. The top division is the BPL, made up of 20 clubs. The second division is the Championship, made up of 24 clubs. It keeps going for a long, long, long way down. The numbers vary, but think 24 levels, 140 leagues, 480 divisions, 7,000 clubs. Here’s the premise: theoretically, a club mired in that 24th level can work its way up to the BPL via promotion.
But … that would never actually happen, right?
Oh, heavens, no! But it’s nice to think about. Meteoric rises like that aren’t too common. When they do happen, an owner with deep pockets is often involved. Anyway, back to those top two divisions. The BPL relegates three clubs per year: the clubs that finish 18th, 19th, and 20th. The Championship, likewise, promotes three clubs per year: the champion, runner-up, and the winner of a four-team play-off between the teams 3rd through 6th.
So it’s bad to get relegated, right? And it’s really good to get promoted?
Oh yeah. Oh yeah. The BPL has some pretty wild television deals going on. Exact numbers are hard to come by, but if you slip up and fall down to the Championship you lose out on maybe a hundred million dollars.
Yep. And if you win promotion, that money goes from their pockets to yours. It’s pretty lucrative.
It sounds like it’s impossible to recover from getting relegated.
It’s hard, alright. Wigan Athletic were in the BPL last season. They spent this season in the Championship, imploded, and will be spending next season in League One. It’s like quicksand; if you fall in, it’s rather hard to get out without some help and a little luck. You lose money used to pay the players, your best players leave because you can’t afford them, you do poorly the following season, you lose money … you understand.
That makes the stakes in any season pretty high. And this is true for most foreign leagues?
Yep. The rules for promotion and relegation are never the same from country to country, but just about 99% of all countries employ it for most of their professional sports leagues, including stuff like basketball.
America falls in that 1%, huh.
We’re pretty stubborn. The top American soccer league, MLS, is still relatively young. Though there are tiered divisions of American soccer leagues, there are no promotion and relegation rules between them. The reasons for that get into some touchy stuff with owners, contracts, and whatnot. Basically, if you pay three hundred mil to buy a team and it gets relegated, that lowers the cost of your investment. Which is bad, of course!
Capitalism! It’s the same reason we’ll never ever ever see pro/reg in, say, the NBA. It’s a drastic change that would certainly prevent teams from tanking. If they know that finishing 30th got them sent to the D-League, no team in their right mind would tank. But the precedent of the Draft and the selection of former college athletes … it’s a whole ‘nother thing, believe me.
All right, I feel pretty good about how promotion and relegation works. High stakes! Gotta love it. What’s the current status in the BPL?
Most clubs still have two games to play. The champion has already been clinched: Chelsea. A pair of clubs have also clinched relegation, though clinch is a bit of an unfitting word for something so horrible.
Who got relegated?
Queens Park Rangers, or QPR for short. They actually won the promotion play-off last year.
Dang, and they’re going right back?
They’re what we call a yo-yo club. Sort of the antithesis of a team that plummets after getting relegated. They won the Champions hip in 2010-11, finished one point clear of the drop zone in 2011-12, finished dead last in 2012-13, won the play-off in 2013-14, and are going right back down. But their chairman is worth over five hundred million dollars, so they’ll be in contention to come right back up.
Must be nice. Who’s the other club?
Burnley. They were only up for one season after finishing runners-up in 2013-14. They’ll be fine.
So that leaves one relegation spot open.
And a whopping five teams in danger of falling into it! The current occupant of the dreaded 18th spot is Hull City, with 34 points. This is only their second season in a row up. Above them is Newcastle United, who finished 5th in the BPL in 2011-12, two season after winning the Championship (and promotion) in 2009-10. They’ve got 36 points. They’re level on points with Sunderland, but Sunderland not only have a game in hand, they also enjoy a higher goal difference.
Game in hand? Goal difference?
Right. Sunderland have only played 35 matches to Newcastle’s 36. That constitutes a game in hand. Goal difference is the main tiebreaker used in the BPL, used to sort the rankings of teams otherwise level on points. It’s a simple formula: goals scored minus goals allowed. Sunderland’s is -20, and Newcastle’s is -24. Thus, the tiebreaker.
So what you’re saying is that it’s not a bad thing to run up the score?
Pretty much. Anyway, there are two more teams that haven’t secured safety yet. Leicester City have 37 points and Aston Villa have 38. Leicester City won the Championship last year. Aston Villa haven’t been relegated since the 1986-87 season. Luckily, they’re definitely in the safest spot out of any of the five clubs just described. They should be fine.
Who do you think is going to go down?
The safe money is always on the club that’s already in the drop zone. That’s Hull City.
So do we know what three teams are going to be new to the BPL next year?
We know two of them. AFC Bournemouth are the champions of the, well, Championship. This is one of those meteoric rises that’s so rare but so fun to see happen. They won promotion from the fourth division to the third in the 2009-10 season. They moved up to the Championship for the 2013-14 season and wouldn’t you know it, they’ll be experiencing their first-ever season in the top flight of English football after nearly a century of history.
Wow is right! Sports is pretty cool sometimes. Given that the Championship season has actually concluded already, we also know the runner-up: Watford. They’ll be back in the BPL after an 8-year stay in the swamps and quicksands. Quick facts about them: their crest has a moose (I think) on it, their nickname is the Hornets, and their Honorary Life President is Elton John.
I know, I know. It’s a lot to take in. But here’s the real meat of the stuff. The play-off for the final promotion spot is going on right now!
Right now right now?
Well, no, not right now. But the first legs of the semifinals have already been completed. 3rd place Norwich City and 6th place Ipswich Town drew 1-1 at Ipswich on May 9th. 4th place Middlesbrough defeated 5th place Brentford 2-1 at Brentford on May 8th. The winners of those two ties will play each other at Wembley in a winner-take-all match on May 25th.
So, they already played, but it’s not over yet?
They do this a lot in European football. It’s a two-legged tie. They play one match at each of the two teams’ home stadiums. The victor is whoever has the most aggregate goals. If the aggregate goals are tied, typically whoever scored more goals when they were the away side will advance. If that still doesn’t break the tie … penalty shootout!
By that logic, Brentford are in pretty bad shape, huh.
Especially considering Boro scored one of those goals at the very tail end of the match, during stoppage time. Ouch. So yeah, they could win the second leg 1-0 for an aggregate score of 2-2 but still fail to advance seeing as Boro scored more away goals.
Who’s the favorite to advance?
If we use recent success as the judge, that’s Norwich City. They were in the BPL as recently as two years ago. Middlesbrough’s last season in the top tier was 2008-2009. Ipswich Town’s last season was 2001-02. Brentford’s last season was …
That’s a pretty dusty tome you’re flipping through there.
Yeah, give me a minute. Okay, they were last in the top tier in … 1946-47. They were pretty successful in the late 30s but that whole World War II thing kind of threw a wrench into it all. That sucks.
That does suck.
In fact, they were just promoted from League One last season! That’s another rather meteoric rise, but they’re going to need to score at least two goals in Middlesbrough to have any hope of even getting to the Final.
So the Final is just one match?
Just one match.
And the prize is promotion to the Premier League?
Yep. It’s often called the most lucrative prize in all of sports, what with the hundreds of millions of dollars in television money and such. I can’t even begin to imagine the kind of pressure those players must face.
It’s probably super intense.
Isn’t sports great?
It’s all right. Can we stop referring to sports as if it’s a singular verb?
Fine. Well, in any case, I know a bit more about the drama of foreign soccer. Pretty intense.
Yeah. Glad I could help.
Thank you, Roger. You are a handsome man.
Aw, shucks. You flatter me.
You are handsome, and cool, and nice. You are great.
Heh heh heh.
You—you. God damn it, Burton, stop putting words in my mouth.