We Need a Total Rethink about Relegation

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We Need a Total Rethink about Relegation

Imagine a league of 20 clubs with the same distribution of wealth as the Premier League, but with one key difference: in this league, every team—rich and poor—are all competently owned and operated.

They each work diligently to hire a manager who fits well with the team culture; they make smart, careful decisions in player recruitment; and they devote the appropriate time and resources to youth development. Every club does the best they can with the resources available to them. No club has a ‘smart edge’ over their rivals—they are all optimally run.

Results in this league would therefore mostly come down to two things: luck—which includes everything on and off the pitch, from bad bounces to freak injuries to losing out on first choice transfer targets—and budgets—the quality of players/managers they can afford.

The question is: would this league table look markedly different than the Premier League? Once you isolate for luck and finances, how much of a role does ‘bad management’ play in determining where clubs will finish?

My guess is that, with one or two notable exceptions, the answer would be “not much.” Or at least not as much as we think. If that’s the case, it’s probably time we had a rethink about the meaning of relegation.

Though much in the game has changed, it’s still very much part of football culture (and sporting culture in general) that losing a lot of games and finishing near the bottom of the table is a sure sign that something has gone terribly wrong. Clubs that face the drop are ‘inept’, ‘mismanaged’, a ‘shambles.’ Even ‘flirting’ with relegation is a sackable offence, a crisis in need of urgent attention. Louise Taylor for example details some of the lengths the bottom 6 clubs are going to in order to stay up, including bonding trips to New York City and potentially sacking a manager who only last season won the Premier League title.

This relegation panic has seemed to increase over time. As more and more money pours into Premier League coffers by way of their increasingly massive domestic television rights deals—the latest is valued at £5.136 billion—clubs, football media and supporters have come to regard relegation as catastrophic, a fate so terrible it must be avoided at all costs.

Yet there is something backwards about the way we think about the drop. Consider our optimally run football league. Though every club did their level best to compete within their financial limits, three clubs will still have to go down at the end of the season. Here, relegation is punishment for bad luck and relatively small revenues, not exactly ‘richly deserved.’

It’s not clear the Premier League is radically different. For example, if relegation were a sign that a club was badly run, we would expect a fairly wide gap in points between, say, 13th and 18th place. Yet a quick glance at the final tables over the past few seasons tells a different story.

Last season, 13th and 18th place were separated by 8 points. The season before it was 9 points, then 7, and then 6. In other words, the difference between a ‘comfortable’ mid-table finish and a terrifying trip to the Championship is matter of at most three or four results, few enough games to entirely discount the influence of luck.

Yet these results can make the difference between a manager who earns a contract extension, and another who is sacked while the entire first team is sold for spare parts.

None of this is to say that relegation isn’t awful for clubs involved; no organization wants to see a drastic overnight reduction in their operating budget, though one softened by very generous ‘parachute payments’.

At the same time, it probably doesn’t help to view every relegation or ‘flirtation’ with relegation as a crisis that calls for drastic measures where the cure may be worse than the disease, like firing a manager doing the best they can under trying circumstances or radically altering team operations.

A much more prudent approach may be for clubs on the verge of a new season to calmly, rationally assess the probability of going down—even if through no fault of their own—and to have a contingency plan in place ahead of time. After all, no team is entitled to stay up, and relegation doesn’t take into account luck, money, or other extenuating circumstances. Shit happens.

We tend to see relegation as ‘inevitable,’ the result of a series of poor choices, whether by the manager, the players, the owner, the director of football, etc. etc. The reality however is often far messier. By not seeing the drop as an irreversible tragedy, clubs may increase their chances of a speedy recovery.