The incredible drama of ‘Survival Sunday’ presented by multiple American networks to showcase the final day of English Premier League play won’t be seen on these shores any time soon, if ever.
We like our championship showdowns guaranteed, no matter how riveting and dramatic were the scenes at the Etihad Stadium when Manchester City scored twice in stoppage time to beat Queen’s Park Rangers, 3-2, and nick the title away from Manchester United on goal difference. (Set aside the very notion that a championship could be determined by doing the math, rather than an actual playoff.)
There is a slim segment of American soccer fans who honestly believe that a single-table soccer league without playoffs would prosper, and no doubt they will cite Man City’s remarkable comeback and delirious celebrations as evidence. The rest of us say, with great admiration of what City accomplished, “How exciting. How quaint. How un-American.”
I like the concept of a regular-season title decided via a fair and balanced schedule, and I know well the incredible tension and drama of relegation. Those scenarios won’t happen in this country, where multi-million dollar investments cannot be torpedoed by a poor season, and anticipation builds for months leading up to the Super Bowl or the World Series.
As that noted sports philosopher Kasey Keller said a few years ago, ‘There’s no way you can tell Jerry Jones [owner of the NFL Cowboys] that if he has a bad season he’ll be playing Fort Worth and San Antonio in a Texas league.” And even if there were a Texas League, it would not include the Cowboys no matter how many games they lose.
In American professional sports, participation in a professional sports league is a function of purchasing power. The NFL, for example, is in effect a high-stakes gambling table. As long as you can keep betting, you can keep playing. Once funds run too low, however, or you just get tired of the game and the other players at the table, you vacate your spot. If you’re on the outside looking in but expansion isn’t on the horizon and no teams are up for sale fall within your price range, tough luck.
There’s no way to buy a team cheap -– say in the Arena Football League, or maybe Triple-A baseball -– and play your way into the top flight, which has been done for decades in foreign soccer leagues. The most spectacular example occurred in the 1970s, when music icon Elton Johnbought his boyhood club, Watford, which under his largesse rocketed from the Fourth Division – the lowest tier of professional competition – to the First in just five years. (This was before the Premier League was formed in 1991.)
Watford hasn’t been able to regain a regular place in the top flight. Some teams bounce back and forth, some teams never go back up after being relegated, and a few – like Leeds United, which has nearly gone bankrupt more than once – need a long time to re-stabilize after dropping.
Maybe that is why for the past decade, Premier League teams have been snapped up by wealthy men outside of England. Rather than start off modestly with a lower-division club and build their way to success, these entrepreneurs have bought right into the big time. Lower-division teams still change hands, too, of course, but given the staggering sums required to play at the Premier League table, and the devastating financial and emotional costs of relegation, ascendancy to the top tier is not necessarily ingrained into the business plan.
But the risk of relegation, except for the very richest clubs, cannot be bought out. While the well-heeled Man City owners celebrate the huge bet they’ve cashed, those in charge of Blackburn – the poultry processing firm Venky’s -- ponder a restructuring along with life in the League Championship. They are already fending off rumors of an impending sale and major clear-out of players, and last week dismissed CEO Paul Hunt when an e-mail he’d sent recommending the firing of manager Steve Kean was leaked to the press.
As for promotion, well, a form of it already exists in MLS. Seattle, Portland, Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal have moved up from the lower divisions, aided of course by wealthy investors. There’s competition amongst several cities to be ready just in case that second team in New York starts looking like a work-in-progress that always will be. Maybe Orlando assembles the financial and structural elements to buy a seat at the table, but that’s the only way it will get there no many how many titles it wins.
The only trap door in lieu of relegation, since the 2001 contraction of Miami and Tampa Bay isn’t likely to recur, is a team moving, as per San Jose-to-Houston at the end of 2005. Chivas USA seems to be a candidate and perhaps the only one, since the Revs aren’t going anywhere, and despite struggles at the gate Dallas, Columbus and Colorado have soccer-specific stadiums.
MLS has flourished with playoffs and without relegation. What works elsewhere won’t work here, no matter how riveting the scenes and how excruciating the pressures.