Monday, 21 May 2012

A brief history of promotion and relegation

There is nothing more British than promotion and relegation in sport.  Just like those cucumber sandwiches we are always eating, it is an intrinsic part of our national identity.  Now Andy Burnham has repeated the claim, and as a former secretary of state for sport he must surely know what he is talking about.  In the Guardian he is quoted as saying "I don't think the closed shop approach that we have in rugby league at the moment is consistent with the British way of doing things.  The dream factor is the lifeblood of any sport – it keeps hope alive within the club and it keeps fans going through the turnstiles."

But when even football's famed pyramid system only came into being 25 years ago, it does make you wonder how so many sports have survived without any lifeblood.

There are 14 different top-flight leagues for professional team sports or which are regularly televised in the UK.  Only half of these have promotion and relegation, of those four are the home nation football competitions.  Outside of football, the longest current example of promotion and relegation only dates back to 1984.

In England, rugby union has had promotion and relegation since the RFU first accepted the concept of leagues in 1984.  While it still retains this for its Premiership, it is regularly accompanied by  discussion as to its suitability.

The first official Scottish league system in rugby union was introduced in 1973, while in Wales it took until 1990.  But in 2003 the Celtic League replaced those as the top domestic competition in both nations and Ireland.  A closed shop where the only admittance is by invitation.

Cricket's first class counties, another closed shop, split into divisions for the first time in 1999.  Initially with the limited overs National League, then the following year in the County Championship.  The turnstiles probably did not notice.  Changes to the first class game were neither to keep hopes alive or attract fans, but to provide a better development environment for England test players.

Meanwhile, competition from the new Twenty20 format, which uses regional divisions, saw attendances at domestic one-day matches decline.  After ten seasons the divisional competition was scrapped and a new 40-over competition replaced it and the knock-out trophy.  This swapped the system of promotion and relegation for a random draw, each season the 18 first class counties and three invited representative teams placed into separate pools.

Following the second world war, ice hockey had struggles in Britain.  In 1982 the British Hockey League was founded, and four years later added a second division with promotion and relegation.  This lasted for ten years until the top division was replaced by the Ice Hockey Superleague.  Like its successor, the Elite League, this was another closed shop where admission was by invitation.

A similar history exists for basketball, which was first organized into a league in 1972 and added a second division three years later.  But after 13 years of promotion and relegation the top division of the National Basketball League was replaced by the British Basketball League, a franchised closed shop.

Although still an amateur sport, netball's Superleague has been televised by Sky Sports for several seasons.  This, like its predecessor the 2001 Super Cup, is a franchised closed shop with teams created for it.

Finally, speedway has a tumultuous history of leagues breaking away and merging but it was not until 1991 that promotion and relegation was introduced between the top two British League divisions.  At least until being lost to further restructuring in 1995.  In 2008 the Elite League introduced a promotion playoff, however no Premier League side has ever won this.  Despite that, teams have still switched between leagues through resignation and election, as they did when it was a closed shop.

Say what you will about licensing or the way the RFL administer it, as many do, regularly, but the idea that Britain has a strong tradition of open and automatic promotion and relegation is a myth.  Even those sports which do employ this system require promoted teams to meet minimum standards to ensure they will also be viable as a business.

Beyond football, no other sport has the money or depth to provide a suitably graduated system between its top tier and those behind it.  If there is a British tradition, it is leagues constantly reinventing themselves as they struggle to find sustainable structures.  Only football and rugby union have continuously maintained promotion and relegation between professional and semi-professional levels. And this only for the last 25 years in England, although the Scottish Football League has combined the two for longer.

Burnham is correct in saying the closed shop approach of rugby league is inconsistent with the British way.  If it were it would mean Super League only allowing teams to join through invitation.  For as long as the RFL continue to guarantee a place to qualifying Championship clubs the game will be decidedly un-British.

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