Overtime: The Beauty of Relegation


The threat of relegation serves as a motivator for several Premier League teams. (Courtesy of Twitter)

Towards the end of any NBA, NHL or NFL regular season, things get quite boring for any team that isn’t in a playoff race. There isn’t anything to play for, and losing is almost incentivized. The phenomenon of “tanking” enters into full display, where teams will seemingly lose games on purpose in order to earn a better draft pick and set up their franchise for future success.
This strategy is commonplace in the United States, but it’s one that diminishes the overall product of American professional sports. Wouldn’t it be better if every team was fighting tooth and nail to finish in the highest position possible in the standings?
That’s the beauty of the European soccer system, where the bottom three teams in each league are relegated to a lower division at the end of the season. Looking at the English Premier League for example, the highest division of soccer in England. If the season were to end today, Southampton, Bournemouth and Everton would be relegated to the second division, the EFL Championship. Beyond the prestige of the Premier League, the revenue the top flight generates greatly outweighs the money brought in by the Championship.

When a club is relegated, they lose their share of Premier League revenue. That’s everything from TV deals to sponsorships. In addition, a Championship club is nowhere near as attractive of a destination for potential transfers as a Premier League club. Because of the lost revenue, a relegated club will both struggle to hang on to their most talented players who want to seek greener pastures and will also have difficulty attracting high quality targets. Relegation can spell both financial and sporting doom for any club that finds themselves at the bottom of the league at season’s end.

For a club like Everton, relegation would be catastrophic. They’ve competed in the top division of English soccer for a record 119 seasons and were last in the second division in 1953-54. The Toffees are one of England’s most historic and successful clubs, ranking third in the top flight’s all-time points rankings. A club of Everton’s size isn’t supposed to be relegated.

But years of poor transfer dealings and financial mismanagement have Everton on the brink of disaster. The club currently sit in 18th place, just one point from safety behind Leeds United. They’ve sacked their manager Frank Lampard and replaced him with Sean Dyche, a no-nonsense manager known for his old-school tactics and straightforward style of play. The Toffees could very well stay up with 16 games to go, but it’s a failure that they are even in this situation.

To me, it’s a beautiful thing that a club like Everton could be relegated. So often, sports teams in America aren’t punished for unwise spending or not spending at all. You simply sit at the bottom of the league, still taking in money from the NBA or NFL’s lucrative sponsorships. The Houston Texans can be awful year-after-year with seemingly no penalty. In the MLB, the Cincinnati Reds can avoid investing in their team with talent and still make a profit.

If Everton don’t turn their season around, there will be huge ramifications. The club will lose money, players will leave and fans will protest. Their new, shiny stadium set to open in 2024 will look cavernous and out-of-place in the Championship. There will be actual, tangible consequences for putting a poor product on the field.

Some clubs do recover from relegation, but others don’t. Take Sunderland, for example. After getting relegated from the Premier League in 2017 after a 10-year stay, the Black Cats didn’t fix their problems and suffered another relegation the following season to EFL League One, the third division of English Soccer. They spent four years in the third division, finally winning promotion back to the Championship this year. If you don’t fix your ways, getting relegated and becoming stuck in the lower divisions like Sunderland is a real possibility.

Everton may not get relegated, but they’ll be fighting hard until the very end of the season to avoid that fate.
Instead of tanking for a potentialdraft pick, the Toffees have to bear down and prepare for the fight of their lives down the stretch of the season.