How exactly did the system of promotion and relegation come about in English football? Specifically, what were the driving forces that made it such an intrinsic part of the game?

As an American soccer fan, I've had difficulty trying to dig up this history. Even though there's no pro-rel in any of the sports in the U.S., it gets talked about a lot in relation to the future of the different soccer leagues.

  • 2
    There is some interesting info in the answers to this question, although that question is the opposite of this one: it asks why the US does not use promotion and relegation, and this one asks why England does use it.
    – Ben Miller
    Commented Mar 3, 2014 at 1:29
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    That question is part of what I'm trying to address. How did teams move between the tiers, and why were these methods implemented the way that they are? The links on that page are interesting, but they don't talk about those methods. They talk about promotion, relegation, election and re-election, playoffs and relegation battles and such. But no context is provided for why there was pro-rel or why there was an election (recent history of Glasgow's Rangers is somewhat interesting), or even why leagues assented to these changes in their team lineups at all.
    – eksortso
    Commented Mar 5, 2014 at 16:19

1 Answer 1


Here is the relevant information from the Wikipedia article on Promotion and Relegation. Originally the teams who finished bottom of the Football League (the top competition at the time) faced a process of re-election.

The new league was not universally accepted as England's top-calibre competition right away. To help win fans of clubs outside the Football League, its circuit was not closed; rather, a system was established in which the worst teams at the end of each season would need to win re-election against any clubs wishing to join.

The Football Alliance (formed 1889) merged with the Football League in 1892 but not on equal terms. Most of the Alliance teams were entered into the newly formed Football League 2nd Division. The top teams in the 2nd division then replaced the worst teams in the 1st division.

For decades, teams finishing near the bottom of The Football League's lowest division(s) faced re-election rather than automatic relegation. But the principle of promotion and relegation had been firmly established, and it eventually expanded to the football pyramid in place today.

So the system of relegation evolved from a series of mergers with other leagues, teams from the newly merged leagues would be entered into lower leagues like the 2nd or 3rd and earn promotion through their league standing rather than election to a higher league. I guess the system came about to ensure their was equality for all the teams and that teams were not gaining promotion based on how teams were voting.

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