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Tuesday, June 28, 2005

A proposed solution to the problems of the NHL and all US/Canadian Major Leagues

Professional sports elsewhere around the world are organized so that, just because you are in the top flight one year, does not guarantee that you will be the next. They treat membership in a league at any level as a privilege that must be earned from year to year. Currently, if a team, for example, in the NFL goes winless, something I've seen at least a couple of times, they're still guaranteed to be in the NFL the next season. Oftentimes, teams that know they have no shot at the playoffs just roll over and play dead the last game or two of the season, since they know it won't mean anything. However, in other leagues, the games among those at the bottom of the field take on as much, if not more, importance than those at the top of the field as the end of the season draws nigh. I will use as an example the English football (soccer) system, as that is the one with which I am the most familiar.

The following applies to all leagues in the English system: A win is 3 points in the standings; a draw, 1; and a loss gets a team nothing. If two or more teams are tied, they go to goal difference, and after that, I honestly don't know, though it rarely goes beyond that first tiebreaker. The English Premier League has 20 teams, with the bottom 3 teams being relegated to the Football Championship League at the end of each season. Each team plays each other twice, once at home, and once away, for a total of 38 league games per team per season. There are 24 teams each in the Football Championship League (3 relegated teams), Football League 1 (4 relegated teams), and Football League 2 (2 relegated teams). In each of these lower leagues, the top performing teams in the lower leagues are automatically promoted to the next highest league until all but one promotion slot is filled. The last promotion slot is determined by a playoff of the top 4 teams that did not get an automatic promotion. In addition, in all leagues in the English football system, teams may lose points in the standings and even face expulsion from that level of play for the most serious infractions

The two teams that are relegated from the Football League 2 are removed to the Football Conference, with all divisions having 22 teams each. The winner of the Football Conference is promoted to take one team's place, with the other promotion being determined by a playoff of the 2nd through 5th teams. The bottom 3 teams are relegated to two coequal divisions, the Football Conference North or Football Conference South based on geography. The winners of each division are promoted automatically, with a playoff among the 2nd through 5th teams of both the FC North and FC South, with the 3rd and final promotion spot being decided by the winners of the North and the South promotion playoffs. 3 teams from both the FC North and the FC South are relegated to one of three still lower leagues (the Isthmian League, Southern League, and Northern Premier League), each of which also has lower divisions, with the lowest division of each drawing from the various Feeder Leagues.

At the end of the 2004-2005 EPL season, there were four teams that were vying for the final survival spot: Norwich City (33 p, -29 GD), Southampton (32 p, -20 GD), Crystal Palace (32 p, -21 GD), and West Bromwich Albion (31 p, -27 GD). If Norwich City won, it didn't matter what the other three teams did because they'd all be relegated. If Southampton and Crystal Palace won, and Norwich City did no better than a draw, it would go to Goal Difference, but if only one of them won, they would automatically win the last survival spot. The only way West Bromwich Albion would ensure their survival is if the other three teams did no better than a draw. This was the atmosphere at four stadia in the English Premier League on Closing Day, May 15. All games started at the same time, 1500 local, so no one had an advantage knowing exactly what they had to do to survive. Everyone had all but written off WBA far earlier in the season, everyone, that is, except themselves. So here's how it went down: Norwich City got destroyed by Fulham 6-0. Southampton lost 2-1 to the heavily favored Manchester United (3rd in the league, 77 p, +32 GD). Crystal Palace scored a 2-2 draw against Charlton Athletic. And then, there was WBA, the team that had been the laughing stock of the Prem. Shocking everyone except themselves, they won 2-0 over Portsmouth, and at the end of the match, stood still waiting for word on the other matches. Slowly, as the word trickled through the stadium, there was this huge roar, people hugging strangers, tears flowing, and fans rushing onto the pitch as they learned that their team would be in England's top flight next year. I doubt the energy, the emotion, was any greater when Chelsea clinched their first Premiership trophy in 50 years than it was in that stadium that afternoon.

Can you imagine what it would be like if that were the way it is in all of the US/Canadian top flight sports? This is what I would like to see in our sports, where every game and every fan is considered immensely valuable and important. But, alas, I don't think I'll ever see it in my lifetime. Still, I've been wrong before, and I've only rarely wanted so badly to be wrong. Is anybody with me?

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