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Relegate the Idea of Relegation for North American Sports Leagues

Although it’s true that in a meeting with Phoenix Suns employees NBA commissioner Adam Silver mentioned the idea of relegating the league’s two worst performing teams to the G League, it’s a safe bet that neither the NBA nor any other major pro sports league will adopt the model that has long been the bedrock of professional soccer in Europe.

While making for click-grabbing headlines that the NBA “considered” or “explored” the idea as a way to prevent losing clubs from tanking in order to improve their draft position, a close look at Silver’s comments make it apparent that the conversation around relegation falls under the “we’re just spitballing; there are no bad ideas,” type of discussion familiar to anyone who has been in a business brainstorming session.

According to ESPN, Silver commented during the Suns Q&A that “(relegation) would so disrupt our business model. And even if you took two teams up from the G League, they wouldn’t be equipped to compete in the NBA.”

Aside from competitive reasons, there are two primary roadblocks to relegation in the NBA and other U.S.-based leagues. The first is the all-powerful team owners who stand to gain nothing and lose plenty under such a system. Imagine the response from Steve Ballmer if the L.A. Clippers had a terrible season in 2023-24 and opened his $1.8-billion Intuit Dome playing in the G League.

The second is teams’ corporate partnerships. One of the untold stories of the billions of dollars in sponsorship that pours into European soccer each year, is the negotiation and re-valuation of those deals in the event of relegation or promotion. (Promotion is not something all sponsors of a team will want. Consider a local business sponsoring a G League team that does not want or need—nor can afford—the increased exposure of being in the NBA.)

Under a relegation system, every team partnership needs to have contract terms that address what happens if the team is forced to change leagues or will have to be re-negotiated under those new circumstances. It is not uncommon for professional soccer sponsorships across the Atlantic to have release clauses allowing a partner to exit a deal altogether upon a change in the team’s status.

Faced with opposition from ownership and the potential of destabilizing long-term corporate partnerships, it’s clear that relegation is an idea that is dead in the water for North American sports. And with continued interest from European soccer clubs in resurrecting the Super League concept, it may be a tradition that is nearing an end in other parts of the world as well.

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