Beating a Dead Horse: Ideas for How a Basketball Relegation-and-Promotion System Might Work

During my recent blogging hiatus, I discovered the website  While I had been on the site previously, I had not quite appreciated just how good and expansive it is, with regularly updated statistics for a whole host of international leagues-including places so far-flung as Bulgaria and Cyprus-to bare bones versions of ESPN articles.  Furthermore, they have a handful of bloggers who write short, interesting, and presumably original articles concerning the basketball world.  Thus far, my favorite of these columnists happens to be Jonathan Tjarks.  Tjarks is a very good writer with interesting ideas that seem to play the role of the moderate in the partisan arguments of analytical and conventional wisdom.  In this regard, I consider him preferable to Zach Lowe, although I will not go so far as to say that I agree with all of Tjarks’s opinions.

Those of you who have read my work for some time-and I quite honestly have no clue how many of you that is-know that I have a seemingly incurable fixation with relegation and promotion.  Well, Jonathan Tjarks inadvertently conspired to rekindle those fascinations as I got some ideas after a reading an article he wrote on the Sacramento Kings relocation situation.  In that article, Tjarks pointed across the pond and stated that European teams rarely ever relocate or con cities out of millions upon millions of dollars because most major cities already have teams.  The article reads to some degree as a scathing condemnation of the franchise system, referring to it as a “rotten foundation,” and advocates the institution of relegation and promotion as a way to end this rigmarole.  Personally, I was salivating at this support when I read the article, and with a little thinking, I was able to think of some ideas for the structuring of a relegation-and-promotion system for American professional basketball.

If I were a proponent of the franchise system who was not already a part of it, my one of my first retorts against releg/promo (which I will from now on use to shorten relegation and promotion) would be that the European clubs often have a long, established history, a history that we do not have in American sports.  In fact, baseball is the only sport that does have minor clubs with an established history, but the minor leagues are so hopelessly tied to the big league clubs that doing anything resembling releg/promo in American baseball would a fantasy.  While European soccer clubs do fail, these are seldom in a major division; have you ever heard of a team in the Football League or Serie B going under?  Therefore, a way to make releg/promo feasible in any American sport would be to monitor the creation of the lower-level teams.  There are many ways to go about doing this, and my ideas are really the basis of the article.

I believe that one factor that would aid fan support would be a guarantee of the club’s short-term existence.  One of the fears lying in the back of the mind of any fan of a lower-level American sports club must be that their beloved franchise will sooner or later disappear or relocate.  As such, I think that there would be several steps to ensuring that the clubs do not indeed go under.

Of course, the first one would be thorough vetting of any prospective owners.  They must be reputable people with solid finances.  This is obvious.  However, I think that another aspect of same idea would be to have low or (perhaps preferably) nonexistent expansion fees, provided that the owner is on solid financial ground and is reputable.  While this seems counterintutive-if an owner has invested a lot of money just to start a club, he will naturally want to ensure its success-it also makes the expansion process more open.  The idea here is that there needs to be a large number of clubs established at the lower levels to even have a prayer of the lower levels’ long-term success and viability.  If there are more clubs, then by extension more markets have a team.  In this scenario, one  major impetus for instituting releg/promo would be to curbstomp attempts at relocation, and so the more stable teams, the less likely those fiascos will occur.

Of course, the lack of expansion fees is not practical without the next part of my plan.  In fact, the lack of expansion fees would almost be counterproductive without this next segment for reasons already outlined above.  This important portion would be to guarantee that the club will continue to exist in its current location for an extended period of times; my current thoughts lean toward five years.  This is the method I believe would encourage fans to come to the arena; they know that the club will be there for long enough for them to become attached to the team.  This would be maintained by instituting prohibitive fines to the owners for relinquishing club control to the league, which would occur if the owner tried to sell the club and failed to find a buyer who met the league’s approval.  If the owner tried to fold the club, the league would pay him a settlement in order for the club to remain above water.

In order for the club to remain in business beyond the five-year window, the league would have a rule taking effect after the five years stating that the club must have a balanced budget or face penalties.  This is an idea very similar to, and inspired by, the regulations trying to be instituted in European soccer.  Ultimately, I believe that this, coupled with the prevailing attitude among American businessmen that sports are to be a profitable enterprise and the greater number of large markets, would eventually make American releg/promo stronger than the European version.  While I have not quite thought of penalties that would be suitable in this case, particularly since fining the owner would be counterproductive, while the vacation of games appears draconian and would remind some of the NCAA in a none-too-fond way.  However, the key point here is that the penalties would be punitive and accumulative while still being sympathetic.  For example, they would not apply to teams within the five-year window, the revenues considered would be for earlier seasons rather than the current year to safeguard against major drops, and the cap would be adjusted up if a team was promoted.  Having a balanced budget required would be beneficial as it might attract more owners and prevent them from overspending unsustainably, as the former guarantees them a profit unless they fall into the latter group, which would lead to stiff penalties.

Another possible method to attract fans would be to have Local Player discounts.  In these instances, players who went to high school or college in the same general area as one of the clubs could be classified as a “Local Player”.  Teams would be able to have a small quota of designated Local Players-I’m thinking that three would be a good number-for whom the league pays a percentage of their salary.  While The Wages of Wins and other such works have discounted the viability of individual players increasing attendance at the major league level, lesser professional teams could benefit from local players buoying support at least initially.  It would also help relieve the financial burden on newer teams by allowing them to sign a bigger-name player from their area to boost their record.

One of the appealing aspects of playing basketball in Europe is that many of the teams pay taxes and some amenities, such as a house or a car, for their players.  This, while far from crucial to the league’s success, would definitely be a positive, especially for the smaller teams who might not otherwise be able to sway less talented but still able Americans away from crossing the pond.

In order to ease these payments and the structure of the league, the cost of membership would come in the form of a tax on revenues.  The leagues would probably be highly localized to diminish travel costs and use play-off series to decide which teams are promoted and relegated.  If there would be a salary cap, I would ideally have it be a hard cap slightly higher than the current cap with no salary floor.  There would be no floor because the threat of relegation eliminates any advantages that could be gained from fielding a bargain basement team and because there would be such a variety of markets involved.

I know that these ideas are crazy and infeasible as far as implementation is concerned, but I honestly believe that they are fiscally reasonable.  It really is ironic that releg/promo was originally an American idea borrowed by the English.  Nothing but sympathy can be felt for diehard fans whose franchises are being moved because of greedy billionaires who want to take their ball and go home.  Too many will simply point to the major talent gap between the NBA and the D-League and say that is that, never mind that European teams beat NBA squads in the preseason every year.  Thank you for reading, please comment, and please come back.




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