Wired has named sports-thought rabblerousers Stefan Szymanski and Stephen Ross to its “Smart List”, which pinpoints—with the magazine’s signature sober, conservative understatement—”12 shocking ideas that could change the world.” Szymanski and Ross’s contribution to this paradigm-shift all-star team: the notion that sports teams should earn their place in the big leagues, rather than enjoy perpetual droit de seigneur based on franchising decisions made decades ago.
As Szymanski and Ross point in their book Fans of the World, Unite!, American-style sports cartels function like Masonic lodges rather than true competitive endeavors. If you’re in, you’re in. If you’re not in, the only way to get in is pay an enormous entry fee, get gouged on the open market in the rare instance of expansion or a franchise sale, or steal another city’s team by emptying the public coffers to build a new stadium. Like the Electoral College, the closed-league franchise system is one of those American Exclusivity things. We do it largely because we’ve always done it, and because it now enjoys the fervent support of entrenched interests that would wither without it, such as the State of Wyoming or the Los Angeles Clippers. Step back, though, and franchising begins to seem bizarre. Shouldn’t pro sports be one of the most competitive and dynamic segments of our culture, rather than one of the most calcified and protected?
The Szymanski/Ross solution is simple: bring relegation to America. Worst teams out; best teams up; an entertaining zero-sum Darwinian battle at the bottom of the standings every season. To imagine the bracing effect of such an innovation, turn your mind to our most communistic national institution, the NFL. How much better could the NFL become if clubs like the Detroit Lions had to go away for awhile after disgracing themselves? The dregs of each season could spend a bit of rest/recovery time playing in some ESPN-Z second tier—perhaps called “the Canadian Football League”—while new, more enterprising organizations from sports-hungry cities like San Antonio, Las Vegas or Portland took their shot at the big time.
Oh, how the owners must shudder at the idea. Really, though, they should see it as a meaty opportunity. If the NFL announced a new second division of 32 teams, it would probably field 1,032 applications from multi-millionaires. A second tier would provide the league a perfect chance to execute its long-planned international expansion: it could suck up all the CFL markets, stick a team in Mexico City and maybe even tuck a couple over in London and Berlin, lay a steel-mesh salary cap over the whole thing and wait for yet another enormous television-rights check to defray the cost of hiring a couple thousand ex-college players and wash-out veterans willing to work cheap to keep their desperate pro-ball dreams alive.
The final weeks of the season would acquire not one but two extra dimensions of fan obsession; in addition to the usual playoff scramble, the bottom-feeder NFL Premier teams would be fighting for their lives and the best NFL International (I do this brand consultation free of charge, may I add) clubs would take the promotion battle down to the wire. The second division’s championship game could serve as a Saturday-afternoon warm up for the Super Bowl. Even relegated teams would get to live on under the league’s banner.
Brilliant? Why, yes. Impossible? Of course.