EPL should keep relegation, promotion

Updated: October 18, 2011, 2:48 PM ET
By Michael Cox | Special to

"I can honestly say that relegation is the single most traumatic experience you can have in a football career," former England goalkeeper David James once said.

One piece of scientific research into the effects of relegation on supporters compared the experience to witnessing a traumatic event, or being in a natural disaster. It seems right, then, to abolish the concept on the grounds of mental health.

Craig Gardner
Julian Finney/Getty ImagesTrauma Central: Craig Gardner of Birmingham City is consoled by a member of the crowd after his team was relegated in 2011.

Of course, the happiness of supporters could not be further from the reasons some Premier League chairmen are apparently in favor of scrapping relegation from and promotion to the division. The financial benefits of competing in England's top division, rather than its second tier, are outrageous to the point of lunacy.

The Championship playoff final, where one match decides which team will enter the Premier League, is often described as the richest game in world football; recent estimates put the figure for the winning side at 90 million pounds. Paul Rawnsley, director of the Sports Business Group at Deloitte, says victory in that game is "the most substantial prize in world football." Owners have their eyes on the prize, then they get their hands on it. Next, they want to hold it over their heads to prevent anyone else from getting close.

The concept of promotion and relegation is one of the key features of English football culture. The football league "pyramid" is a marvelous creation that dictates promotion and relegation routes from more than 480 mostly amateur football leagues, across 24 levels. Even a club at the very bottom level is theoretically only 23 promotions from competing in the Premier League, and, although bottom-to-top miracles rarely happen in practice, smaller rises are common. Truro City has gone from the 12th tier to the seventh within six years, AFC Wimbledon from the ninth to the fourth within nine. It embodies everything sport in its rawest form is intended to be -- fair and meritocratic.

The news this week that unnamed "foreign owners" want to scrap relegation has caused an obvious, audible initial backlash across the country. In truth, being foreign has little to do with it. There is certainly an argument that foreign owners are less likely to be long-standing fans of a club with the best interests of fellow supporters at heart, but then Peter Ridsdale and Ken Bates were both English and have a track record of running football clubs horrendously. Besides, scrapping relegation has been proposed before: then-Manchester City chief executive Garry Cook wanted a closed 10-team league, and Bolton's Phil Gartside wanted a bizarre two-tier, 36-team Premier League. Picking on the foreigners is a way to make the story more high-profile, presumably to further anger the type of supporter who believes only foreign footballers dive.

There are plenty of existing leagues that function perfectly well without promotion and relegation, most notably in the U.S. Without wishing to go down the route of comparing two vastly different league structures, there are plenty of built-in features within the American "franchise system," as it is referred to in the U.K., that guarantee some level of equality.

The Premier League cannot boast that. We already have a closed shop in terms of winning the title -- only four clubs have won the title in the 19 seasons of the Premier League, two (Blackburn and Chelsea) primarily because of a huge injection of cash from their owner. No movement in and out of the division combined with clubs receiving vastly different sums of money from television -- as Liverpool Managing Director Ian Ayre proposed last week -- would mean a ridiculously predictable league. More than half the clubs would have very little to play for from season to season -- no chance of winning the title, no chance of being relegated.

Although it is in the financial interests of owners to scrap relegation, even supporters of those clubs threatened by demotion wouldn't wish to see the concept thrown out. The chance of guaranteed survival for next season would appeal, but a couple of years of pointless games would quickly become tiresome. Attendances would fall; no one would care.

The idea of dumping relegation and promotion received a frosty response from those within the game, including Sir Alex Ferguson. "I think that would be absolute suicide for the rest of the league," he said. "Particularly the teams in the Championship. You might as well lock the doors."

Wigan owner Dave Whelan says he would withdraw from the Premier League if it happened, this despite his club being one of the few that clearly would benefit without the prospect of dropping down to the Championship.

The move is highly unlikely to happen in the short term because the Premier League would require approval from the Football Association, which would strongly oppose the idea. But then, the more the Premier League's global appeal widens, the less influence the FA has. It had the chance to veto the idea of the Premier League back in 1992 and chose not to. It now has less influence upon decision-making within England's top flight than it ever expected, and ideas it rightly considers crazy are no longer completely unrealistic.

Michael Cox is a freelance writer for He also runs