The Casual Sports Fan's Guide to Soccer: Promotion and Relegation

The purpose of this series is to bridge the gap between casual American sports fans and soccer – to provide American sports fans with the basics of soccer (primarily British/European soccer) so that they know what they are watching and why it matters.

In the first post, I (Scott) introduced you to the English Premier League (EPL), the most popular league in the world. I broke down how the 38-match, playoff-less season works. We three podcast guys are really excited for the new season to start on Saturday, August 13!

There is another reason to love the EPL: promotion and relegation. Explaining these two concepts is the purpose of this post. To explain these two concepts, I need to begin with something most American sports fans know at least a little about.

Promotion/Relegation vs. the Minor Leagues

The big leagues. The show. Major League Baseball. We all know what that is. Most of us go to a couple of games each summer and then check out the drama of the playoffs in October. As you know, though, when players are drafted by major league clubs, those players do not go straight to the majors. They go to a minor league team instead.

In baseball, there are multiple levels of minor league baseball: Triple A, Double A, Single A, and so on. Players usually start somewhere near the bottom of the minor league levels. If they are good enough, they get promoted to the next level up. Eventually, a lucky few are promoted to the big leagues.

Now, imagine if – instead of players getting promoted and demoted between levels of baseball – entire clubs could move from level to level. If you live in a medium-sized city that has a minor league team – say, Double A -- playing in it, then imagine if that club won its Double A league and was promoted to Triple A the following season.

If you can grasp that, then you can understand promotion and relegation. Because that’s exactly how it works.

EPL Promotion and Relegation

As I mentioned in our first post, there is no EPL playoff. The first-place club is the champion at the end of the season. As you might expect, most clubs give up trying to win the championship well before the season’s end. You might think that sounds boring. Maybe, for a handful of clubs, it is. For most, though, it might mean that there is danger below.

That’s because the bottom three clubs each season are demoted, or relegated, from the Premier League for the next season. They are essentially sent down to the Triple A of English soccer, which is called the League Championship. Replacing those bottom three clubs are the top three clubs from the League Championship.

The beauty of promotion and relegation is that any club can eventually make its way up to the Premier League. Imagine if, in baseball, a club could do that. You might not care much about your local minor league team now, but you would if they were playing for a chance at Major League Baseball!

Relegation and Promotion Last Year

Relegation means that there is loads of drama not just at the top of the table (standings) but at the bottom as well. Those clubs at the bottom are literally fighting to stay in the Premier League! Last year, the unlucky three to get relegated were Newcastle, Norwich City, and Aston Villa. You will not find them in any Premier League matches you watch this season. They are in the League Championship instead.

The lucky three to get promoted from the League Championship were Burnley, Middlesbrough, and Hull City. Those three clubs will now do everything they can to stay out of the bottom three in the Premier League this year. They do not want to get relegated right back down to the League Championship!

If you hear soccer fans talking about getting at least 17th place, this is why. 17th place is safe. 18th-20th places are not. It’s all part of the fun of relegation in Premier League soccer.

And it doesn’t stop there. According to Wikipedia (I know, not always the most reliable source), there are 23 levels of English soccer. Each one has promotion and relegation. You, me, and 9 of our friends could form a club and start at the bottom. If we get really good, who knows how far we could go!

Cautionary Tale of Relegation

So if you are deciding to get started with watching the Premier League, and you are trying to pick a club you want to root for, be careful. I had a friend a few years ago who decided to root for Fulham (pronounced full-um). They had finished in the top half of the table for a few years, they had just played in the Europa League final (subject for a future post in this series), and starred Clint Dempsey, American hero.

Courtesy of The Daily Mail

Courtesy of The Daily Mail

Fulham were relegated after the 2014/15 season, and they were almost relegated again from the League Championship last season. It does not look good for them to come back into the Premier League any time soon.

Who will get relegated this year? Only time will tell. With the start of the season approaching, the drama is sure to be good. At the top…and at the bottom of the table!