Promotion/relegation is a competition format that is often used in many countries for professional leagues as a way to have many teams participate and yet not dilute the top level of play, by only allowing the best teams to play in the highest division while leaving a path to the top open for lower teams, should they improve enough to reach it.

For example, in England, there are thousands of football (soccer) teams, in varying divisions from the Premier League (top 20) all the way down to "amateur" level. However, even teams at the lowest division could theoretically one day play in the Premier League if they were to be successful enough to reach that level.

Due to the size of the United States, it seems like this format would have been ideal here to allow teams to exist all over the country. Yet it seems like this kind of format has never been used for professional sports in the United States. Why is that?

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    Excellent and intriguing question. Background can be found in Wikipedia's "Professional sports league organisation" entry. I haven't read it yet, but it might very well contain some "official" reasons (perhaps in its references; besides those given in the good-looking answer by @KeithS).
    – user1564
    Oct 24, 2013 at 16:58
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    @ipso - "who would want that?" anyone who doesn't live in a city that already has a pro-sports team. The whole point of pro/rel is to allow more cities to have teams, so more people have a local team to support. Imagine if you live in Omaha, Nebraska or something. You don't have a team in ANY sport to support. Under pro/rel, you would likely have a lower division team who could theoretically win their way into the top division. So then you could support your home town team instead of having to root for Denver, Dallas, or whoever is considered "closest" but not actually close at all.
    – ZeekLTK
    Aug 4, 2014 at 17:28
  • That is why I find it odd that pro/rel doesn't exist here, because there are so many areas where fans have absolutely zero teams to support. There are entire states that do not have a professional team in a certain sport, and some that don't have a professional team in ANY sport. It would make sense to have an "American" type league in such a small place like England, because 30-some teams COULD be pretty close to just about everyone. But in a country the size of the USA, it just doesn't make sense. So many fans live HOURS from the nearest team because of the closed system.
    – ZeekLTK
    Aug 4, 2014 at 17:31
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    @ZeekLTK So the lower leagues could be regionalised. In England, until the mid-fifties, football divisions were 1st, 2nd, 3rd(North), and 3rd(South). At that time only one team was promoted from each of 3North and 3South. But two were relegated from Div2. If both relegated teams were southern teams - say - then some otrher team from the south, that was closest to the north would have to transfer. All this was changed, so nowadays all 4 top leagues are national. But the leagues below them are still regionally divided - but maintaining the promotion/relegation principle.
    – WS2
    Apr 24, 2021 at 19:20

7 Answers 7


Lots of reasons.

First, and primarily, there are a lot of sports, and sports teams, competing for spectators' attention in the U.S., and the subsequent ad dollars for TV airtime, stadium naming rights, on-field logos, etc. I realize there are other sports besides soccer in Europe, but the gap in overall popularity between association football and basketball or handball in Europe is much wider than the one between the big three team sports in the U.S. There are also more teams in each top-tier sports league in the U.S. than in the English Premiere League (or anywhere else in UEFA), with 32 NFL teams, and 30 teams each in the NBA, NHL and MLB. More teams means more games means more airtime needed.

Second, and just as important, is risk/reward for the players. Gridiron football is a violent, dangerous sport, and to be picked in the NFL Draft says as much about your ability to avoid injury as it does for your skill. Despite this, ejections are relatively uncommon in gridiron football, so it's an exceptional case when a player is called to answer for causing injury to an opponent. The result is that, by the time a football player is drafted into the NFL, they may already be at the halfway point of their career in terms of the wear and tear on their bodies, which will stay with them the rest of their lives. There simply isn't enough reward inherent in playing the game at anything less then the premiere professional level to justify the risks the game presents.

Association football, in contrast, is technically a non-contact sport; aggressive actions made towards opposing players are penalized. As a result, injuries in soccer, though they do happen, tend to be more minor, and players who deliberately injure opponents are held to account for those actions more frequently. That allows soccer players to have careers spanning decades, rather than the average of about 10 years that you see for NFL players other than QBs and kickers. Now, this emphasis on injury being against the spirit of the game is seen in other U.S. sports, even hockey in more recent times, and you do see longer careers in those leagues, with basketball and baseball players continuing to dress for games into their 40s. However, the mentality of "move up or move aside" is still prevalent as players grow up through the school leagues; if you don't end up playing for the pros, there's not much money or opportunity continuing to play past your college years.

Which leads to the next reason; in the U.S., the player, not the team, is regarded as being mobile. The sports that do have notable minor leagues in the U.S., being baseball and hockey, typically have teams in various tiers that are either owned outright by one franchise or have partnership agreements. That's in addition to the prevalence of college sports teams in the U.S. (and by the by, if you want to see a loyal sports fan on the level of European soccer fans, don't look at the pros; look at college grads cheering their alma mater). The net result is that the player "grows up" through a series of teams, hopefully developing into a player that can compete in the premiere leagues, and the job of all the lower leagues is to help the player with that development, then let him go. In Europe, it's not just the player but the team that is mobile in the overall structure of the league. They player still grows, still develops, but the team that helped him do that is much more willing to try to hang on to him if they can, because this star striker or forward midfielder could be the ticket to a league championship and promotion.

We still haven't gotten exactly to why the U.S. hasn't bought into that same mentality, though, and the next reason is the one I think is most important; geographical coverage. The U.S, without Alaska (no professional sports teams in that state to speak of), is about the same size as all of non-Nordic Europe combined. That means that maintaining a national fan base for a sports league in the U.S. requires paying very careful attention to the geographic dispersal of your teams. In England, you'll notice the EPL teams are concentrated in the London metro and the Manchester/Merseyside area, with Birmingham growing up as a third center for English football. That's mainly happened through promotion and relegation; teams in urban centers have more spectators, get more ticket and ad revenues, can afford to hire better players, and become better teams, moving up into the premiere league and forcing out the teams from outlying areas.

Now, that's OK in a country with a total land size about the same as that of the U.S. Eastern Seaboard; if you want to cheer on a premiere-league team, there's one within a couple hours of pretty much any town in England. Or, as the commenter states, you can keep cheering for your hometown team even if they're not in the premiere league.

In the U.S., however, that kind of league management would result in a disproportionate number of teams being crammed into the East Coast cities, much as the EPL's teams have gravitated to London and Manchester/Merseyside. That would place a lot of large "heartland" cities, each with populations in the millions, at least a day or more away from the nearest professional team by car. With no minor leagues to speak of due to the risk-reward problems of many of these sports, support for the sport in any form in areas without a major team would simply die out, robbing the leagues of valuable TV time. That would be compounded by the concentration of teams in the most populous areas, which force teams to fight each other for the biggest slice of the revenue pie. As a result, teams are carefully managed by franchise owners and league leadership to ensure that the teams are spread as evenly as can be supported around the populous areas of the U.S., giving each team a built-in home crowd.

That, in turn, requires the teams to be kept on roughly equal footing; it's in the league's best interest to keep all of the teams it has financially healthy and competitive, and the two go hand in hand. So, instead of punishing franchises that can't buy a good team, we give the worst teams the first picks of new incoming talent. Instead of letting the richest teams self-perpetuate by spending more money on talent than anyone else can, we put salary caps in place to ensure no team can spend more than any other on their players. The current scheduling system even gives each team a game against a team from another conference they normally wouldn't play, with the same division ranking as their own, meaning the better teams have overall tougher opponents. This egalitarian approach lets dynasties rise and fall over a period of a few years each instead of a few decades (as is seen in baseball and in collegiate sports, where the school's reputation as a sports powerhouse is self-perpetuating over long timespans), and gives every franchise and every fan the best chance for their team's success.

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    I'll have to disagree, respectfully. I would argue that the major reason is that fans have little to no loyalty towards the teams in the US. The explanations in your answer make it sound like if your team is not in the top division, it's not worth seeing the games. Precisely that mentality is the reason why there aren't lower divisions with promotion/relegation. Ask anyone in england whether they'd support another club from the same city/region as their own, just because their own team isn't in the top division, I can almost guarantee you that they'd look at you like you're out of your mind.
    – posdef
    Nov 18, 2013 at 12:01
  • Oh, and I don't understand the first factor you mention. Football is the biggest sport in Europe and all around the world. But it's far from being the only sport in Europe, basketball and handball are really big sports as well, also not seasonal... I don't follow how the popularity of football allows for existence of multiple divisions in Europe but not in the U.S.
    – posdef
    Nov 18, 2013 at 12:05
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    @posdef I think it's the other way around: they aren't loyal to their teams because those are fake-teams basically managed by the federation.
    – o0'.
    Mar 10, 2014 at 9:34
  • Couple of points. Football (what some call soccer), at the top level affords playing careers of no more than about 16-17 years. There are very few players over 35 in the Premier league - other than goalkeepers. If you think it is a non-contact safe sport take a look at this from the Everton v Liverpool match earlier this season. Pickford, (Everton and England) goalkeeper, actually escaped punishment because van Dijk was offside, but the latter was out of action for the rest of nearly a whole season, and has had to undergo a lot of surgery.
    – WS2
    Apr 24, 2021 at 19:55

In the light of the existing answers, and the wikipedia link given in the first comment to the OP, I believe the only factual answer one can give is: the difference in the business model.

The franchise system, used in the Northern American leagues, both for the league itself and the teams, aim to secure and maximise the interest and viewership for the sport in question. It is partially because the sport itself is birthed as a business with an interest in profit.

Many sports associations in Europe, starting presumably with football, is formed based on organised competition. The goal is not to maximise viewership or profits, but rather sportive success both in athleticism and management. I guess one could also argue that in Europe the common idea is that the club belongs to the fans and tradition, rather than he/she who pays the most. Admittedly, larger leagues have become huge franchises based on TV-sales, but it is still unthinkable to see establish clubs move or change their profile (i.e. color, logo etc). It is simply unthinkable that Steven Gerard playing for any other club, or Liverpool FC would, for instance move to London or anywhere actually. This is a common recurring event in the franchise model, where teams move around the nation (here's a parody of franchise relocations from Baseketball the movie).

All in all, relegation/promotion model aims to optimise the sportive success rather than viewership and tv-profits. I hope that answers your question


The United States does use a relegation model, but it is the struggling player(s) who gets relegated to a team in the minor leagues, rather than relegating the entire team. It has the same effect of ensuring that only the best play in the top league; the system is just organized differently.

There are many reasons it is done this way, but the most obvious is that the talent gap between, say, and NBA team and a Developmental League team, is huge. No D-League squad could come close to competing with even the worst NBA team. Asking them to would not make much sense, and no one would go to see the games because they would be completely one-sided.

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    If it's not automatic, it doesn't count as relegation.
    – o0'.
    Mar 10, 2014 at 9:35
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    This seems obviously untrue. There are teams that continuously struggle in the NFL and other major leagues, but removing the worst players doesn't change the fact the teams are still bad overall. Disallowing relegation of teams forces a minimum number of players to be kept in the league, even when many of those players aren't justified by their ability.
    – Nij
    Mar 5, 2018 at 19:48

Sport around the world is about success on the field and the fans, in the US it is a franchise to make money. The owners of a team like the Mets for instance would rather come last every year in the 'Majors' and have the season over before half the games are played, than play in the 'second division' at the top of the league, simply because they would make more money from TV coverage in the 'Majors'. It isn't in the American mind to be second best, even when (as with many teams) you clearly are second best, and have to play teams many times better than you all season. In the US it's about the money the franchise can bring, in the rest of the world it is about being as good as you can be, whether that is PL Champions or 4th tier runners up.


One aspect that has been ignored in this discussion is the origin of the competition. In Europe all teams started locally as amateur teams. When you play, you have a vested interest in playing at a suitable level. Some amateur teams are only competing for the love of the sport, others are trying to be as good as they can within the limits of being an amateur. This has led to the diversification to different playing levels aka divisions with the possibility of promotion/relegation when teams are getting worse or better on the field.

Most professional clubs are the top of the pyramid of an organisation with teams at various levels of competition, with only the top as professional and the teams below as amateurs, extending to youth level. It just happens to be that in England professionalism has led to a system with multiple levels of competition. In other countries there are only 2 or 3 levels of professional football competition. Look below that level and you will find amateur football/handball/hockey, etc.

In the USA this environment of establishing local 'grass roots' teams never took off, as the only organised play (football, baseball, etc) was through school. There was no need or requirement for organised sports on amateur level, since it was provided through high school, followed by university. After that, the real world awaits and there is no time, no need, no opportunity for spending so much time on recreational organised sports.


Not sure I buy the geographic answer. Russia and Brazil are physically huge countries with horrible infrastructures for getting around that run league systems. And yes, the top tier teams do concentrate in the larger cities. But this is true of the US teams as well, simply because large populations and major TV markets do go together.

One of the vested interests not referenced is wiping out the draft lottery system. If teams with poor seasons do not get top draft picks, they would stay poor teams and be relegated to the next tier. Yes, this is hard on teams with long losing traditions, but if you live in "the cellar", shouldn't you be competing in a more appropriate weight class?

Another thing that would go is the way franchise owners can move teams without consulting the fans which has sparked several notable outrages (Brooklyn Dodgers, Baltimore Colts, Cleveland Browns). This almost never happens in league systems as fan bases effectively own the teams.

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    This is speculation/opinion on how relegation would be better. All well and good (and I'm inclined to agree), but it doesn't really count as an answer to the question asked.
    – TRiG
    Sep 24, 2016 at 19:17

The answer is simple. It's all about money! The franchise model used in the states is all about profit above everything else. In Europe it's about sporting prowess, history, passion and belief. Belief that your local club can work it's way up and play with the big boys.

A point in case is Wimbledon FC, who were a "non league club". Which basically means they were originally an amateur club. Within 5 seasons they worked themselves into the English Premiership, even getting to, and winning the FA Cup Final. That was every fan's dream. Ok within 10 years they had gone bust, were taken over, with the new owners proposing to move the club to the "new town" of Milton Keynes 40 miles away, where there was no existing pro soccer team and a readymade market of 400k people. The original fans, were having none of it, and started a new club AFC Wimbledon who were forced to start at the bottom of the pyramid. But through a desire and passion they have worked there team back up to our pro leagues and are in the same division as the now renamed MK Dons. That, I thought was the American Dream.

The jeopardy of promotion and relegation is where most of the excitement comes from in European sport and is what you are missing out most. You just can't see the wood for the trees. My own team are Watford FC, you follow them through thick and thin and believe me, there are more downs than ups, but the ups are all the more sweeter for it.

Just recently the American owned teams in the UK, Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United were instrumental in trying to start a new "Super League" for the biggest clubs in Europe with the sole intention of controlling the money to the detriment of the sport and not allowing their teams to be relegated from it. Thankfully, through popular support from fans, ex players, and even politicians the game as we know it has been saved. Long live promotion and relegation and all the passion that goes with it.

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    I don't see that this adds anything to the existing answers.
    – Chenmunka
    Apr 22, 2021 at 15:17

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