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Bringing relegation to the NBA

In my last article, I briefly brought up the idea of bringing relegation to the NBA and addressed it in a paragraph in the comments, and a Pounder named "Manute Bol legacy" posted a lengthy rebuttal in the comments with a few valid points. So what the heck, let's talk about relegation.

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If you're unfamiliar with the concept, relegation is a big deal in soccer leagues across the world. Most countries have multiple soccer leagues or "divisions." The best players play in the "first division," the next tier of players play in the second division, and down it goes, to the point were fourth and fifth division teams are basically weekend warriors who need to have regular jobs on the side to make a living. Leagues typically have between 16-24 teams a piece, fewer than we're accustomed to in the states, and this is crucial. Having fewer teams in the leagues helps ensure that some top-division talent slips through the cracks and winds up playing in the lower divisions, to help prop those teams up.

Basically, relegation is another word for "demotion," though there is a promotion side to it as well. In each league the bottom three teams at the end of the year are demoted to the division below them and the three top teams from the division below are then promoted to take their place. Obviously playing in the top division is a big deal for owners. They get to share in the massive TV money the top divisions enjoy and they can charge more at the gate for their fans to watch the best talent in the world. They form more lucrative sponsorship deals with corporations to advertise on their shirts. Even if you're not a contender for the championship, it's a massive deal to be a top division club as opposed to one in the second division.

Anyway, here was my initial comment about relegation:

The only way the relegation system can ever work in America is to expand each of the leagues to 40 teams and then split them off into a first and second division of 20 teams each, creating a bunch of super teams in the top division and really separating the wheat from the chaff. Frankly, I think it'd be pretty cool. Not only would we solve the problem of all these random American cities (like Seattle in the NBA and San Antonio in the NFL, for example) pining for pro teams, but we'd solve a lot of the small market teams whining too if you stick the bad ones in a second division with smaller payrolls.

And here was Manute Bol legacy's reply:

Imo, the biggest problem of your proposal of splitting the NBA in a first and second division would be that small markets would become in short time even smaller.
What could be the appeal of a Milwaukee-Fresno second division match, where most players are not talented enough young players or retiring veterans ?
Even if the cap for the 1st division is not much bigger than for the 2nd, which talented rookie would want to play in second division ?
That would mean that the potential first rounders wouldn't sign long contracts with bad teams and would rather try themselves on the bench of big teams.
As most of the talent would move into less teams, it's fair to assume that after a few years the bigger cities would become also the better teams, with media and TV contracts rewarding them even more.
A New York/Chicago/LA team would always be profitable regardless and would always attract big players but what about teams that are not in that league?
Those 5-6 teams would become soon much better than the rest and would be the ones competing every year for the title, while the others would be just basically only sparring partners for those teams.
The Spurs have been elite for 20 years now but when Duncan/Pop/Ginobili retire would it be so surprising to think that they could be just average or even fighting to avoid relegation ?
Unless massively overpaid, what talented players would want to play for them knowing that he could be potentially find himself in second division the following year ?
I don't want to sound too critical of the idea, but that's what is happening in European Football (soccer, i forgot).
As teams like Chelsea/Manchester/Bayern/Real/Barcelona are the ones drawing big money they are taking more interest these days in playing each other and getting even bigger revenues and there have already been a few talks about an Elite Europe-wide league, a proposal that would absolutely kill smaller markets.

Let's tackle this step-by-step. First of all, as I mentioned before, we'd need to expand to 40 teams. That means clubs in Seattle, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Vancouver, Mexico City, maybe a second one in Chicago and so on. Heck, maybe even teams in London and Paris. Then you split 'em up into two divisions of 20, the top division and the second division. The second division probably wouldn't have a national TV deal --at least not with a major network-- but the local markets would still keep their deals because people want to watch the teams where they live. I'd also give the second division a 25 percent cut of the top division's TV deal, just to keep those teams afloat.

As Manute suggested, enticing rookies to play in the second division would be a problem, but I think it's solvable. Tweak the rules so that kids coming out of high school or just one year in college --the "one-and-dones"-- are only eligible for the second division draft. The top division can only draft those who stay in college at least two seasons. I think most of the top talent would still opt to go to the second division for a few reasons.

A) They'd still be getting paid as professionals to play basketball. Kids out of high school are already starting to choose foreign leagues or even the D-League instead of college, so this would be a no-brainer for the top talent. It'd still be the same three-year rookie contract, either way, the money wouldn't be different.

B) There would be a much better opportunity to get playing time and for young players to show their wares and to develop right away, starting on second-division teams versus rotting away on the benches of ultra-talented first division teams.

C) The appeal of being a "star" in their own market versus a cog in another will appeal to the kids early on. Once they've made a name for themselves, then they can explore bigger markets.

I don't think we'd have the problem of having just 5-6 super teams and scraps for everyone else for one main reason. Unlike European soccer leagues, we'd still have a salary cap, and we'd make it a "hard cap," without all the loopholes for Bird rights and mid-level exceptions and such. There are a lot of talented guys out there and only so many you can fit onto a roster with a hard cap. Right now, with a 30-team league, you can argue that half the teams are more-or-less "good," and seven or eight are true contenders. Squeeze that talent into 20 teams and all of a sudden virtually all of them would be competitive with one another, there'd be reasonable parity and there would no doubt be some talented guys left over for the second division, especially if those clubs can offer more than the minimum.

The way I envision it, the top division would have twice the cap of the second division. Contracts would be shorter, with a four-year max for incumbent teams and a three-year max for free agents, so there would be more roster shuffling. This isn't a big deal. In soccer leagues fans root for the shirt above all, not the players, and it's rare for any one guy to stay in one place for too long (though it happens). Guys in lower divisions change clubs constantly.

Being promoted to the top division would be a huge achievement. Not only would the owner of the club get all the financial benefits, but he'd have double the cap space to work with. Which means that the three newly-promoted clubs would have their pick of the litter for all the prime free agents, both already in the top division and the ones looking to leave the second division. There would be a real chance to build something long term, not just "stay up," but to really contend.

Not that simply staying up isn't a big deal, mind you. One of the appeal of soccer leagues is not only are there multiple trophies to fight for, but the very act of staying in the top league becomes a goal by the end of the year. Teams fight like hell for it. Fans obsess over it. It's far more engrossing than our system, where half the fans can stop caring by February. Also, I shouldn't have to point out that having relegation will do away with the idea of "tanking," once and for all. Everyone will compete.

What Americans would embrace about relegation, given the chance, is it would be the personification of Horatio Alger's "American Dream." We'd get to see true underdog stories in action, every year. The narrative of a second-division team rising up from the ashes to win a first-division title, it'd be unlike anything we've ever had. It'd be incredible, the ultimate redemption story, and I'd love a chance to see it happen in my lifetime.