America, the European Way

Same names...different thing

I played soccer as a kid, but really wasn’t into it, to the point that my mother tells stories about me sitting on the field and picking grass while the game was going on. Oh, what a sensitive young lad I was.

I first discovered what soccer means to the rest of the world when I was in Europe during the 1998 World Cup. The tournament was in France, and the whole continent was crazy. I heard English football songs, watched a Scotland match in a pub in Edinburgh (they lost), and spent an entertaining afternoon with a Spanish family who spent an entire afternoon screaming at the TV. And Spain wasn’t even in that game.

Cut to last year, when I had an epiphany brought about by the only thing I love in the world as much as sports (and my wife): gambling! Yes, I started betting on football. Just a few English Premier League and Champions League matches. I won a few and lost a few. But I got hooked on the game itself: the history of the leagues and cups, the skill levels involved, the antics of the players, the awesome team names and, my God, the haircuts. I even dragged Caryn to a pub in Dingle, Ireland to watch Barcelona and Man United in the 2011 Champions League Final.

In my growing fandom, I soon learned that the typical EPL team will play a long season for its own trophy, then play in the FA Cup (decided among all the teams in England, from the very top to factory teams and amateur leagues), the League Cup (decided among the teams in the top four levels of the English football system, none of whom really want to win it) and up to two different European leagues. The same holds true for most other countries, which have both leagues and domestic tournaments. Top teams are tested over and over against the best in their league, country and continent. And teams that don’t measure up are demoted in a cruel process called relegation. Basically, if you don’t play well, you’re kicked down a level and lose a ton of money and prestige. Also, your fans go insane. Likewise, if you play really well in a lower league, you get kicked up through promotion. Thereby, leagues are constantly cycling new teams in and out and good play is rewarded, while bad play punished. Darwinism in action.

Relegation: Even the young must have their heart broken

As an American sports fan, we’re used to order and consistency. Other than moving and expansion, the teams are always the same. The regular season is always the same number of games, current NBA season excluded. And you play to win your division or make the playoffs, then play in a tournament for that sport’s title. That’s it. No other games. Bad teams usually stay bad, often for decades; and good teams usually stay good. That’s the way your grandpa did it and that’s the way you’ll do it.

But I started thinking about international football and how some of their traditions could merge with our traditions (interfaith sports, I guess). And the more I thought about it, the more it seemed like a cool exercise to see how they’d really apply, and what they’d mean. So I decided to focus on three traits that could be really interesting new quirks to add: promotion/relegation, international team tournaments and national tournaments. And to keep the changes impactful, I focused on the three major American sports, leaving out hockey.

Obviously, not all of these work for every sport. The NFL is the pinnacle of American football, and no semi-pro or international team could ever beat an NFL team, so any kind of tournament that goes outside the NFL is pointless. And the NBA doesn’t need promotion and relegation so much as it needs contraction. I also didn’t want to touch salary structure and player movement, since I don’t really understand how it works in soccer.

But some of these could lead to fascinating, once-in-a-decade games; or at the very least, something more exciting than another Wizards vs. Raptors tilt, or the Browns taking on the Panthers in a game that means nothing. So over the next few days, I’m going to explore a few scenarios and I hope you’ll take the ride with me.

Scenario 1: Promotion and relegation in the NFL
Scenario 2: A national baseball tournament going from semi-pro leagues to MLB
Scenario 3: An international “Champion’s League” for basketball involving the NBA

Come back soon to take a trip to an alternate universe where there are two NFL’s and 9-7 teams don’t make the playoffs.

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