The NFL Needs Relegation
The National Football League is mediocre, and NFL owners have no incentive to improve. Enormous television contracts, local government subsidies, and the threat of a team’s departure give owners leverage over fans and no fear of repercussions. So if your team is 2-14, no worries, the NFL will still pay your club handsomely and reward you with high draft picks. As a result, fans are trapped in a system that rewards clubs for uninspired play.
Just look at the Washington Football Team where I live in the DC-metro area. Since the dawn of the 21st century, the Football Team has only had five winning seasons. Yes, they made the playoffs last year but limped in at 7-9. Considering their losing record earned a home-field playoff game says more about the weakness of the division rather than the strength of their play.
With little change on the horizon, what can motivate Dan Snyder and other owners to create better organizations? The fear of relegation to a second division. Such a threat would raise the stakes and create consequences for inaction and poor management. And it would improve the NFL from top to bottom, motivating owners in Jacksonville, Detroit, Cincinnati, both New York teams, and elsewhere. Without reforms, we are doomed for more of the same. European soccer offers a great model to emulate for a second division. Each year, teams in England’s Premier League must win a certain number of games or risk dropping out. Called relegation, it motivates owners and players, and keeps fans engaged through the end of the season. Furthermore, teams sent down the previous season have every incentive to play as hard as possible to break back into the top division. Creating a second division for relegated NFL teams would change everything for the better.
First, each game would matter for every team throughout the entire season, mirroring the dynamic in college football that makes it a better product. No longer would the last games be meaningless in a losing season, as they could decide everything for the following year. The fear of demotion would generate season-long urgency.
Next, relegation would require expanding the NFL. Cities like St. Louis, San Antonio, Portland, Birmingham, Oklahoma City, and London (UK) could get clubs, all starting in the second division. The expansion would bring the NFL to other football hungry markets and remove the ability of the current owners to threaten to leave. Why? Because there would be nowhere else to go.
And more teams and two divisions would mean America gets pro-football every day of the week except Saturday. With pro games already on Thursday, Sunday, and Monday, second division games could play on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday.
Lastly, to put an American twist on relegation, playoffs would determine who goes up or down. Upper and lower division playoffs would create end-of-season drama that is currently lacking. The NFL already recognized this by expanding the playoff formula to now include 14 teams. Yet 18 clubs will still go home early.
Instead of seasons ending with a whimper in empty stadiums for more than half the League, relegation playoffs would touch every team. Seeded by record, relegation playoffs would determine who remains in the upper division. At the same time, second division playoffs would determine who gets promoted next season. These games would be arguably more intense than regular playoff games, true must-see TV, with livelihoods hanging in the balance.
None of this will be simple. Player contracts, draft picks, and trade rules would need adjusting to account for demotion. It would upset divisional balance. Relegation could come for an entire division like the NFC East. Purists will oppose upsetting “tradition” and removing old rivalries. But upheaval is needed. That’s the point. More of the same will just ensure more mediocrity.
And what if the NFL refuses to consider relegation (which it will)? When I dealt with hostile governments as a State Department diplomat, I quickly learned saying “please” was never enough to spur change. Consequences for inaction moved the needle. So, much like when negotiating with authoritarian governments, only repercussions will motivate the NFL and its owners. Congress reevaluating the NFL’s anti-trust exemption would get their attention.
The NFL needs to adapt. College football is constantly evolving to create new excitement, with playoffs and enlarging conference affiliations. Creating relegation and expanding the League would improve competition and the product each week for fans.