Relegation and Promotion in College Sports

For years, I have been thinking of devising a relegation-and-promotion system for college sports.  In all likelihood this will never happen, so most of this is in reality a thought experiment.  One can dream, though, and I think that embracing this European system in some form would improve the NCAA.  This weekend, I read a lot of articles concerning this issue, and this post is a combination of all of these and some of my own ideas.  Unlike many of these other articles, I will also try to address the issue of other sports.

The basic premise of a relegation-and-promotion system is that the system is comprised of several tiers, and each year the weakest teams drop to a lower tier while the best teams advance.  Barring the case that there is an exceptionally good lower-tier team (which is extremely unlikely), the champion of the top tier would truly be the best team in the whole system, especially if the season was long enough.  The great flurries of realignment that have rocked college sports in the past two years have encouraged more people to write articles endorsing this for college sports, but I may have already been thinking about this before-I can’t remember exactly.  I will say that I can be a bit of an anglophile when it comes to sports.

The core of the idea is that the NCAA would be divided into four to eight regions, divided geographically.  The tiers would not have to be of equal size, but they would have to be approximately equal.  I believe that a lower number of regions might better encompass some of the other sports, although some of these, like ice hockey, are so regionalized and/or have so few teams that having more than one or two would be unnecessary.  Ultimately, sports like basketball would have the most regions, while sports like rifling (which only has thirty-four programs) would only have one.

Each tier would have a number of teams so that each team would at least play every member of its division and at least three other conference opponents.  Each sport would have a set number of conference and non-conference games.  For example, each top tier in football might have twelve teams, geographically split into two divisions, with eight conference and four non-conference games.

Each team would be ranked two ways: by a point system and by an amalgamation of several computer rankings.  Points would be earned based on game results.  Two points would be earned for beating a team of the same tier, while one would be earned for an overtime loss, while none are awarded for a regulation loss.  However, one point is subtracted from each of these totals when playing a team from a lower tier and a team would lose two points when losing to a team from two tiers below it.  Conversely, a team would gain three points for beating a team from a higher tier and five points from beating a team two tiers above it.  Overtime losses would not be greater than one point.  Possibly, road games that warrant a point could be credited with an extra tally.

Computerized formulas would also be used to officially rank the teams.  There would be three to six different rankings systems that would be averaged together to produce the rankings.  In football, they could use the six already found in the BCS, while basketball could use the Kenpom, Sagarin, RPI, and BRI rankings.  The scores would be averaged out, and the NCAA average would be set at 1.  Then, this total would be multiplied by the number of points to come up with a final number.

Relegation would be decided based on a weighted three-year average of these normalized point totals.  I believe that this normalization is necessary in case a team in a higher tier plays very poorly or a team in a lower tier plays very well.  The weighted average should be used simply because of the nature of college athletics.  Furthermore, the points system does not cover variables such as point spread, and the adjustments that do exist are rudimentary.  The teams with the lowest totals would be relegated, while those with the highest totals would be promoted.  The number of teams changing tiers on both ends of the spectrum should neither exceed two teams per division or twenty percent of all teams.

Another approach to decide which teams advance could be to calculate the percentage of possible points each team earns.  This may or may not be used in tandem with the computer rankings.  This would not punish teams that mostly scheduled within teams of their own tier level.  Conversely, it would also encourage higher-level teams to almost exclusively schedule home games against lower-level teams while also discouraging lower-level teams to challenge the big boys.  However, this system would be very open to incentives that would discourage the disadvantages.  Furthermore, using this in combination with the computer rankings might neutralize the negatives.

An idea that I got from reading online articles is to incorporate soccer-style cup competitions into the NCAA.  An example would be a conversion of the FA Cup.  The FA Cup is an English soccer tournament designed to allow teams in the top twelve tiers to compete in a (mostly) single-elimination knockout.  This year, 825 teams applied and 763 were accepted.  The tournament is played in midweek games throughout the regular season.  Two types of sports could use this type of tournament.  Sports like basketball that can sustain a high number of games played could start it early in the season and play through February or March.  No team that could reasonably compete for the title would play more than six or seven games, but it would still allow for upsets and Cinderella teams to take center stage.  Another type of sport would be ice hockey or water polo where there are a comparatively small number of teams primarily clustered around a single geographic area (the Northeast/Midwest and California, respectively).  In fact, hockey fits into both categories.  This cup’s rankings would be determined by recent success.

Another tournament that could be adapted to fit the NCAA’s needs would be the UEFA Champions League.  Each conference would receive a certain number of automatic bids into a group stage and another number into play-in rounds.  After the group stage, they would play home-and-homes based on total points until a Final Four at a neutral site.  Although this would not completely neutralize the possibility of an upset, it would greatly enhance the probability that the best team wins.  For the basketball, the group stages could be played on consecutive days at a neutral site, while the home-and-homes could be set up like the incumbent NCAA tournament is.  There is the problem that thirteen extra games would be added to the schedule, but schools could load up on regular games during winter break and other off-days.  For football, there could be four regional winners and the four best runners-up in a group stage, with the group winners advancing to a final at a major bowl game.

In reference to the Champions League idea, one blogger posed the problem of the massive year-to-year turnover of college teams.  His idea was strictly related to basketball, which is probably the most variable in the NCAA, and it is a good point.  However, I believe that this could be used as a play-off system taking place after the season officially ends.  There is the issue of what happens to the automatic qualifiers during the play-in rounds, but I believe that non-conference games could be scheduled during this period.  If a team were to play during the play-in rounds, then they would be required to financially compensate their opponent.  I know this is not a great idea, but the other solution is to make the play-in games single-elimination, and I am not sold on that idea, even though it is a better proposal.  I mean, who wants to play five games in a week, which a system of the latter format might advocate.

One of the major problems with implementing these European-style tournaments would be the greatly increased number of games.  However, I do not believe that this is a major issue.  With the exception of football, I am unaware of any collegiate sport that could not stand to add a handful of games to its schedule.  Although I am not extremely literate in fringier Olympic sports, I do know about the schedules for basketball, ice hockey, baseball/softball, lacrosse, and soccer.  I know that it would be possible to add games to these sports’ schedules without overtaxing the players, at least compared to their professional counterparts.  Furthermore, talent evaluators would greatly appreciate more opportunities to view and assess talent.  Games could be added during breaks, holidays, etc.  In the case of basketball, I am confident that the season could stay within the traditional November to April window without adding an extreme number of midweek games, most of which would concern the FA Cup-style tourney.  Conference tournaments could also be eliminated to free up space; besides, many of those at least partially include midweek games.  In the end, I do not see this as being too much of an issue.

Of course, here come the two major issues of a relegation-and-promotion system: revenue and crossing divisions (that is Division I, Division II, and Division III).  For revenue, TV contracts would be negotiated with each region for each tier.  For example, ESPN may negotiate a deal for the West Region’s Tier I, the Midwest Region’s Tier I, etc., while Fox might negotiate with the South’s Tier II.  The annual splits of the revenue would then be divided evenly among the current members of that regional tier.  Tournament money would be divided by conference based on number of teams and rounds traveled, similar to the way it is now.  However, individual school moneys would still not have to be shared.

As for crossing divisions, I believe that any Tier I champion should be able to apply to join the higher division.  However, relegation would not be necessary unless a school was interested in doing so, which I would imagine to be very rare.  The teams would then be placed in the lowest tier of the appropriate region.  However, if a school had promoted three of its programs, it would then be required to promote its remaining programs if one of them was football, basketball, or baseball/softball.  To ease the process, the separation between the FBS and the FCS for football should be eliminated; this would simply eliminate any problems.  There comes to the issue that there would be too many or an unequal number of tiers, but there can always be two conferences at the same tier in the same region; it happens in European soccer regularly.

There is also the issue of traditional rivalries.  Because of the way relegation-and-promotion is set up, it is highly likely that traditional rivals may be split by tier or even region.  My solution for that would be to allow schools to register a certain number of rivalry games that would ensure that these games occur on a regular basis if not annually.  This portion of the scheduling may be taken out of the schools’ hands if they so approve.  For example, the entire Ivy League could register as a rivalry.  A third party would ensure that as many of these games as possible would be scheduled while still allowing for the schools to schedule other nonconference games if they so wish.  Since it is equally likely that several of these teams will be playing in the same conference at the same time, it is probable that more than half of these games would be played each year.  Furthermore, I have read that some English soccer fans believe that it is not necessarily a good idea for rivals to play every year; in fact, sometimes they view it as a negative.  Granted that some English rivalries are fiercer than some American ones and that English fans are traditionally more prone to hooliganism, this may not be fully valid, but it is true.

Alas, this will never happen.  I believe that this proposal is a solid amalgamation of some bloggers’ viewpoints as well as my own.  I have been fostering this idea for several years, and I have occasionally refined it, but this is the first time I have ever published it.  I hope you enjoy my ideas, and please feel free to comment below with any ideas, fixes, solutions, opinions, etc.  Thank you for reading, and come back soon!  I may provide an outline for college basketball as a Part Two in the future.

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