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League Structures: Important or not?

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Over the past couple of football seasons in Britain speculation has been rife with regards to league structures. Unpopular attempts to try and have a 39th game in the Premier League and restructure the SPL left me thinking. Does the layout of a league make football better and more exciting or is it simply the football itself that ignites a season. Particularly outside of Europe, there are different views and structures in place across the world.

The Argentine Primera Division is one of the biggest examples of this. A big league in regards to the world game, containing some of the most famous clubs on the planet and they have a unique layout to their league organisation. The basis of it is because the Argentines prefer a league that runs for a full year so rather than a 2010-2011 season it is just 2011.

Instead of the traditional structure used across Europe, the season is split into Arpetura and Clausura or ‘opening’ and ‘closing’ respectively. They are both single round-robin tournaments containing the same 20 teams. Both formats are identical and the winner of each crowned national champions.

Where it starts to get really complicated is the relegation system. At the end of a season the average of the past 3 seasons is taken and the lowest two are relegated. Then the 17th and 18th placed team play a two legged relegation/promotion clash against 3rd and 4th in Primera B thus meaning the number of teams promoted and relegated can be between 2 and 4 every year. This does add to excitement and can lead to some interesting changes in the leagues, but also a team can drop out of a league from one poor showing.

This system was brought in somewhat unfairly to protect the ‘big’ teams in the league after threats of relegation and since it was established in 1983 none of the traditional ‘big 5’ have been relegated. This has clearly become a biased layout to use and I’m sure would cause outrage amongst fans if it happened in the English Premier League.

Having 2 league sessions in a season does allow give twice the excitement to a season but in the end there a two champions of equal standing, so you get no outright number 1. They dropped the winner takes all clash in 1992 after controversy when Boca lost the finale…

Moving north to the USA and Canada you will find another way of running a season in Major League Soccer. Certainly its profile has been given a boost in England since David Beckham moved to L.A. but many people are left a little confused as to how it all works. The MLS is run similarly to the other major sports in America.

To start with all of the teams are divided into equal East and West conferences based on geographical location. All of the teams in the league play each other in a double-round robin just like the Premier League. The team that finishes top of this regular season is awarded the Supporters Shield. From the regular season an 8 team playoff ensues for the MLS Cup. As it is based upon the regular season league table it is possible for more than 4 teams from one conference can gain entry to the playoffs.

This has caused huge controversy as the lowest ranked team(s) can crossover from east to west divisions or vice-versa, bizarrely making it possible for a western team to become the eastern champion.  This also means that the MLS Cup final can be an ‘intra’ instead of an ‘inter’ conference affair. This has drawn much argument, it does seem quite strange and draws much frustration on the few occasions that it has happened

A major factor that sets their system apart is the ownership, it is effectively a franchise system centrally controlled by the MLS and clubs buy into the league. The main criticism of this is that there is no relegation or promotion to the league which is not looked upon favourably by Fifa. Funding and drafting is also setup to help struggling teams. For example, the lower ranked teams from the previous season will gain higher draft pick positions.

This makes the whole league fairer and gives everyone more chance of winning which is great. I think the drafting system, whilst not as important as in other sports, can lead to a lack of home town heroes.

If we move back to the European leagues for comparison there is a clear philosophy to keep it simple and let the football do the talking, which has left it in a good standing, but money does talk. The richest clubs usually dominate Barcelona, Real Madrid, Manchester etc. Plus we often see the same winners. The Premier League is having a great year with regards to competitiveness with 5 teams in a position to take the title and this even without Liverpool anywhere to be seen.

On the other hand the SPL is taking a turn for the worse, especially after a cruel winter clubs are struggling for financial survival.  There were big plans drawn up to change the structure of it completely but they were not approved. The trouble is that the teams play each other 4 times, which is not ideal and can get tedious, but the standard of football is not amazing more to the point. I don’t think the setup of the league makes a difference in this case, fans want to see exciting quality football.

After all 90 minutes of absorbing unpredictable football is what everyone is clamouring for. This is what always will rule football, what is happening on the pitch. Complicated or clever ideas to force the game to be exciting are never going to work if the matches themselves are dull.

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One Comment to League Structures: Important or not?

  1. A very good overview, but you seem to have neglected what is in my opinion, the part of the MLS system that is most different from the rest of the world – salary caps, exemptions, and allocations.

    Every team has the same player wages budget of around US$2.5m/year, teams can have certain players be exempted from counting towards the cap (Designated Players like Beckham and Henry, academy players under a certain age, such as Juan Agudelo, and outstanding drafted talents under a certain age through the Generation Adidas program – notable GenAdidas graduates include Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey, and Tim Howard), and allocations, essentially equivalent to in-league funny money used to trade for draft picks, intra-league player trades and transfers, etc.

    This system makes it so that, unlike in Europe’s top leagues, any given team in MLS can go from bottom of the league to title winners in a few years with good management and sound personnel choices (see: LA Galaxy under Gullit as compared to Arena.)