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Would Relegation Work in Major League Baseball?

Publish Date: 28/05/2024
Fact checked by: Mark Lewis

MLB Ball

For many sports fans in the U.S., baseball is an old sport for old people. It’s slow, boring, and reminiscent of a time when Americans wore straw hats and went to town in a horse-drawn wagon.

The NFL is clearly the most popular sport in the United States. Even it’s schedule reveal is bigger news than what's happening in Major League Baseball that day. The NFL Draft is one of the ten most-watched sporting events each year.

The Super Bowl is the most watched, most bet-on sporting event in North America. Meanwhile, baseball has been struggling to find a new generation of fans.

How can baseball become relevant again?

Is there anything that could inject new life into MLB? How can the sport engender itself to younger fans, with shorter attention spans, and more entertainment options than ever?

Relegation, that’s how. It works in the world’s most popular sport, and it could work in MLB.

How MLB relegation could work

Relegation in soccer is like the ultimate "try again next year" notice, but with much higher stakes. It’s the system that ensures no team can rest on its laurels—unless they enjoy playing against weaker competition.

Here’s how it works:

  • At the end of each season, the teams at the bottom of the league standings are demoted to a lower division. Think of it as being sent to the kids' table at a family dinner because you couldn't keep up with the adults.
  • For instance, in the English Premier League, the three teams that finish at the very bottom are relegated to the EFL Championship, which is the tier just below.
  • Conversely, the top teams from the lower division get promoted, taking the places of those that flopped. This keeps the competition fierce and the stakes sky-high throughout the season. Every game counts—literally.

For fans, this means the thrill of seeing underdogs rise and the drama of watching established teams sweat bullets to avoid the drop.

In essence, relegation injects a thrilling blend of hope and fear into the season, ensuring that complacency is a dangerous luxury no team can afford. It’s survival of the fittest, soccer style.

MLB for the 21st Century: A plan involving relegation and promotion

Currently, MLB has 30 teams, with (reportedly) plans to add two more in coming years. But only one team can be a champion each season, and in many years, only a handful of teams have a realistic chance to contend for a title.

MLB sees way too many franchises “rebuilding” on their way to “hopefully” becoming contenders. Some franchises never seem to get their act together (we’re looking at you Pittsburgh and Detroit), which means fans in those cities are stuck watching baseball that doesn’t mean anything, summer after summer,

With relegation and promotion, the urgency to be competitive is baked into the sport.

Here’s what MLB could do:

Expansion to New Markets:

Add two teams, perhaps in Charlotte and Nashville.

Create Two Competitive Leagues:

Split the teams into two leagues: one with 22 teams; the other with 10. Name the 22-team league “MLB Premium” and the other “MLB Choice” or something like that. The names can be almost anything, that’s not the central point.

Designate Top Franchises:

The 22-team league has the best franchises, those that have had success in recent years, and proven to be competitive consistently. Here’s a list of franchises that would certainly be in MLB Premium: Yankees, Dodgers, Braves, Astros, Rays, Phillies, Red Sox, Cardinals, Rangers, Cubs, Giants, Padres, Guardians, Mets, Orioles, Brewers, Blue Jays, Twins, and so on. Eventually as the league expands again, MLB Premium would have as many as 24 teams.

Assign Underperforming Teams:

In MLB Choice we place the franchises that have failed to show they are willing to compete. Think of the A’s, Tigers, Rockies, Pirates, Reds, Marlins, Royals, White Sox, and the others. Choosing which teams to place here would be controversial at first, but if a team ends up in MLB Choice, they have a strong incentive to get better and move up. We’ll see why below.

Compete for the World Series:

MLB Premium teams will compete to win the traditional World Series we all know. That would be the postseason tournament that takes place after the regular season. The regular season is for finding out who qualifies for the playoffs AND which teams remain in MLB Premium. The bottom four teams are relegated to MLB Choice. Any team that wins a playoff series earns a two-year exemption from relegation.

Incentivize Improvement in MLB Choice:

MLB Choice teams play a regular season made up of games against each other and the MLB Premium MLB teams (so every team still gets to play rivals and so on). At the end of the Choice season, the top four teams earn the right to play for a Choice Series title. They also earn promotion to MLB Premium. The winner of the Choice Series is exempt from being relegated for three years.

Structured Revenue Sharing:

National TV contracts are built around the two leagues: MLB Premium franchises share in a larger pie of money; while MLB Choice teams have less money from revenue sharing and media deals.

A system like this places strong pressure on MLB owners to make their teams competitive.

The issue with the current status quo

Currently, many owners realize that they can put a mediocre product on the field and still make oodles of money from rev sharing and local broadcast contracts.

Fans would quickly be attracted to the urgent nature of the relegation/promotion system in MLB. Every season, four teams would lose their place in MLB Premium, and four teams would have an opportunity to jump up.

Many teams might be in danger during the finals weeks of the regular season, and it would make the season more important.

Speaking of the season: MLB needs to make a hard decision to stay relevant. The league cannot keep playing a 162-game season that stretches from late March to early November.

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Many fans don’t pay attention to the start of baseball season because NCAA March Madness is happening.

By October, November, the behemoth that is the NFL has taken up the headlines. MLB should shorten the regular season so it ends in September, and play the World Series (and new Choice Series) in that month, when the NFL is only just getting started.

Two championship events, and the added drama of promotion or relegation would inject life into Major League Baseball.

It would be fun for the fans, and eventually MLB could add a third or even fourth league, where teams from smaller markets could, if they choose, compete to be promoted until one day we may see the Louisville Sluggers or Toledo Mud Hens in the World Series!

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