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
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
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.
Follow the author on the twitter, @emijy