What if baseball took a lesson from soccer?
December 7, 2007 7 Comments
Shhhh… don’t tell anyone this, but occasionally, I cheat on baseball by watching Fox Soccer Channel. I picked up the soccer habit a few years ago, and now my wife always knows when I’ve been watching TV, because the channel will be set to 35 when she turns it back on. A few years ago, baseball decided to do something very much borrowed from soccer when it put on the World Baseball Classic. It was meant as something of a World Cup for baseball, to be held every four years. Even though the players were in Spring Training mode, some of the matchups had that “An All-Star game that counts!” feel to them. It was beautiful. Soccer does this every four years and has since 1930, and it looks like baseball is about to follow suit, even if the ratings weren’t so good for the first time around. (You win a cookie if you can tell me… without using Google or Wikipedia… who won the championship game and who the winning pitcher was.)
For the benefit of those who don’t follow soccer (I can hear all you snobs out there wanting to yell at me for not referring to it as “football”), there’s a rather unique structure to most soccer leagues in Europe. There are several “levels” of competition, in that there is a highest-ranking league in the country (the Majors?) and several lower leagues in descending order of importance (AAA, AA, A, etc.) The names of the leagues are different in different countries, but the idea is the same. In England, the top level is the Premiereship, followed by the Championship League, and then League 1 and League 2. In Italy, they go with the much more alphabetical Serie A, Serie B, etc. In soccer, all of the teams are independent of one another, and there are no minor league affiliates as we understand them, although there are “reserve teams.” Teams also often have player development academies, in which young players are groomed for the senior squad, sometimes from the age of 9! These serve as something of a minor league system, although baseball caught on to this idea too, and many teams have academies in places like the Dominican Republic to feed them talent (but they can’t do that in the U.S.)
Here’s the thing: at the end of the season, the teams at the bottom of the standings in the highest ranking league (usually 3-4 teams depending on the country), are kicked into the lower league, a process called relegation. The top 3-4 teams in the league below come up to take their place. So, imagine if the worst four teams in MLB last year were politely excused from further participation in MLB, while the top four teams from AAA were “called up” to the majors! The incentive? Generally, people want to see top flight sporting action and the television revenues for the highest ranking league are a lot higher.
I present to you a thought experiment. I realize that this will never ever ever ever ever happen, but I’m curious to see where it goes. Suppose that baseball operated like European soccer. In addition to awarding a championship, there was something to play for in not being at the bottom of the standings. Suppose that baseball used soccer’s system of player allocation, the “transfer” system, as well. In soccer, it’s rare to have a straight-up trade of player for player. It happens sometimes, but it’s much more common for a team to buy their players from other teams. So, say that the Twins decided that it was in their best interest to get rid of Johan Santana for the money that he would bring in. Instead of the Yankees and Red Sox bidding on him with players (Hughes, Cabrera, and Tabata vs. Ellsbury, Lester, and Bucholz), they would simply be bidding against each other for his services in dollars. The Yankees/Red Sox would then write a check to the Twins. The Twins could then do whatever they would with the money. They could buy other players or simply spend it on salaries. Or doughnuts. It is a good system in that it does reward teams who develop players.
Problems that this would solve:
- The Florida Marlins couldn’t use their dive bombing methodology for attempting to win a World Series. If they attempted to have a fire sale after winning the World Series, they would soon be banished to AAA. In other words, Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis would still be wearing teal and black.
- The Tampa Bay
DevilRays and all 35 of their fans would have been banished to AA by now. In fact, that whole nasty “contraction” debate could have been avoided a few years back. The teams that are awful and whom no one wants to support are simply removed from the league.
- The trading deadline would get a little more interesting. In soccer, there is a window mid-season (the month of January) in which teams can buy players. Not only are the contenders looking to improve their squad, the ones battling against relegation are as well. They have a reason to not throw up the white flag.
Problems that this wouldn’t solve:
- All you salary cappers who like to complain about a lack of competitive balance… well… in England, it’s generally a matter of which of the top four (richest) teams will win the league that year (Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea, and Manchester United) and has been for about 15 years. Lyon has won the French League 6 years in a row now. In Holland, things are worse: Either Feyenoord, Ajax, or PSV Eindhoven have won the Dutch League title for all but one season since 1964! This is a system that rewards the rich owners. The Yankees and Red Sox would be in contention every year by default.So, really, nothing would change.
- Related to the above, teams with promising youngsters would probably end up losing them to the rich teams. A few years ago, a young striker appeared in England who, at 16, was starting in for his club and everyone recognized was “The Next Big Thing.” His name was Wayne Rooney, and he played for a team called Everton (based in Liverpool), who were a respectable middle-of-the-pack organization. A few million dollars later (well, British pounds later), he was wearing the Red Shirt of Manchester United. Man Utd won another title last year, although Everton has become a slightly-better-than-middle-of-the-pack team of late.
Some intriguing things that could happen:
- All the folks who harken back to the days when New York City had the Yankees, Dodgers, and Giants, you could get your wish for a three-team NYC again. A town in England can have more than one team playing in a league. (London has something like 5!) Think the Cubs-White Sox thing is rough? Imagine if there were four teams competing for the hearts of a city!
- One other feature of European soccer is that in addition to the league games, there is a simultaneous cup competition, which is a single-elimination tournament and anyone can enter. Minor league clubs play against the biggest teams in the country. The big boys usually send out their scrubs in this sort of a situation.
Again, I present this as just a neat little though experiment to start a discussion on a cold day in the off-season. If you have a little bit of familiarity with both sports, I’d be curious to what you might think would happen if by some random chance, baseball were to actually adopt a European soccer-style structure.