Saturday, February 12, 2011

Arsenal Update: Relegation is a good thing...seriously

One of the intrinsic aspects of English soccer that is so difficult for Americans to accept is the concept of relegation.  In 'merica, if a team is in the NFL or MLB, by God they stay there, no matter how crappy they are.  It just feels...weird to kick them out, even in the face of overwhelming evidence supporting banishment.  How else do you explain the continued presence of the Oakland Raiders?
But what we have to learn to recognize is that relegation energizes the sport, because it makes both ends of the standings matter. 

Of course the teams at the very top of the league--currently Man U, Arsenal, Man City, Chelsea, and Tottenham--fight with tooth and claw into the spring.  Barely ten points separate those 5 teams at the time of this writing, so the championship in May could literally rest on whether a team collects a win or a draw a now.  This is not notably different from any American sports league heading into the end of the season, with the exception of there being no playoff tournament in the EPL (despite inaccurate reporting to the contrary in this space.  Though, really, the entire season functions as a round-robin tourney, so I wasn't TOTALLY wrong).  However, a key difference can be found at the bottom of the table.  The three teams who finish in last in the EPL (currently Wigan, Wolverhampton, and West Ham--wow, tough year for W's) do not qualify for play in the league next season.  They are replaced with the top three finishers in the Football League Championship, England's second-tier division. 

Think about the stakes here.  English football clubs are businesses, like any other pro sports team.  But the range of wealth is much broader than in American leagues.  All NFL, NBA and MLB owners are extremely wealthy, collecting hundreds of millions in revenue every season regardless of the quality of the team.  Sure, losers may not make as much in ticket sales and merchandising and whatnot, but revenue sharing and TV deals even out the take so that it is still a very comfortable wage no matter your finish.  There is even a certain amount of speculation as to whether some American professional sports teams do simply collect the paycheck, put a substandard team on the field year after year to hang on to more of that cash, and damn the fans.  Beyond the prospect of higher draft choices, there simply is no incentive for team owners to try to assemble and invest in the best possible team, but for that mythical "honor of the game."

Now, imagine if, after finishing dead last in your division, you can no longer play with the big boys.  Pittsburgh Pirates, have fun in AAA; welcome to the Bigs, Columbus Clippers.  Oh, and Columbus gets your share of the profits next year. 

What this amounts to is hunger.  Every team, as an organization, is hungry to make it to the big time.  England has hundreds of independent football clubs that play professionally at some level.  Technically speaking, any twenty of them play in the EPL with enough sustained winning.  And the English Premier League is the biggest professional sports league in the world.

Let that one sink in, NFL fans.  Super Bowl Sunday is a big day:  111 million viewers in 2011, $3 million per 30 seconds of commercial time, nonstop sports news coverage.  Attracts worldwide attention.  Now imagine Super Bowl Sunday every weekend from August to May.  Twice per weekend. 

There are perennial EPL teams that seldom if ever get relegated, sure.  But any one of hundreds of smaller, truly community teams can have a chance at the big time.  The teams that dwell in the bottom half of the EPL want desperately to stay there, in the league, to keep the momentum moving upward.  So when you get into the home stretch of a season, as we are now, you have motivated teams at both top and bottom of the standings playing for more than just pride.  Take today's match of Arsenal vs. Wolverhampton.  Wolves is second to bottom in the standings going in, Arsenal 2nd place overall, a few points behind Manchester United.  Arsenal of course needs the win to keep pace or gain on Man U for the championship.  But Wolves is just as motivated, maybe more so, because of what could await them next year.  So they've been playing giant-killer this season, fangs bared.  They beat Man U last week, ending that club's bid for an undefeated season, and also checked off wins against Manchester City, Liverpool, and Chelsea.  Because they're hungry.

Arsenal won, but only because they relentlessly attacked and never took their foot off the gas, trying to expunge from our memories the ugly draw to Newcastle last week (the first time in EPL history a club has given up a 4-goal lead), who are another of those hungry teams that is freshly back from the relegation woods this season.  The final tally was 2-0, but it could have been more had Wolverhampton rolled over.  But they are fighting simply for survival in the big time...and that cannot be underestimated.

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