Understanding Relegation in Soccer: What Does It Mean?

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As an American, the concept of relegation in soccer can be hard to understand. Most American sports, including Major League Soccer, don’t involve teams being relegated. Thankfully, once it’s explained, I think you’ll agree that the meaning of relegation isn’t too hard to understand.

In soccer, relegation means a team has dropped from their current league to an inferior league. A team is relegated when they finish the season at the bottom of the league. The relegated team starts the following season in a lower league.

Relegation is a huge deal for a team and can affect a team’s long-term future in many ways. In this article, I’ll show you:

  • How relegation works
  • What does it mean to get relegated
  • What is the relegation zone
  • and look at the pros and cons of relegation

What is Relegation?

Relegation in soccer is a system of transfering the lowest-ranked teams in a division at the end of a season down to a lower division for the next soccer season.

One significant difference between European and North American sport is the concept of promotion and relegation in league competition.

Most elite leagues in North American sports are static or closed, meaning the same teams play each other every season. This only changes if the league invites another team in or if one team leaves.

For examples of this, just consider the MLS, NFL, MLB, or the NBA. Each of these sports operates as a closed league consisting of elite teams.

Soccer Game

In Europe, sports leagues operate with a different system. Every team has to earn their place in the top league.

It doesn’t matter who is in the team or who owns the team; every new team starts at the bottom of the rankings, in the lowest league. The team then works their way up to the top league by finishing at the top of their current league each season.

When a team ends the season at the top of the league they are in, they are promoted and start the next season in the league above.

Based on this system, it can take years for a new team to arrive at the top. They have to consistently finish at the top of their league season after season until they are promoted to the top league.

But once a team arrives at the top league, there is no guarantee that they will stay there. This is where the process of relegation comes into play.

Relegation is the process of transferring the lowest-ranked sports teams from one league to a lower league or division at the end of a season.

To get relegated means a team will play the next season in a lower league or division than the one they are currently involved in.

Relegation is a real possibility for every team in a league.

It drives a team to do all they can to avoid being relegated. The possibility of relegation can inspire a team to compete to the best of their ability right up until the very last game of the season, but we’ll look at this in more detail in a moment.

First, let’s focus on how relegation works.

How Relegation Works

Relegation in soccer works by taking the lowest-ranked teams in a league at the end of a season and transferring them down to a lower-ranked league. These teams will then compete in a lower league for the following season.

Throughout a season, every soccer team competes to be the best team in the league. Every player wants to finish at the top.

But for many teams, the best they can do is avoid finishing at the bottom of the pile.

In a closed league such as the MLS, finishing the season at the bottom of the league has relatively few consequences. The team that finishes at the bottom returns year after year to continue competing in the same league.

Soccer player after being relegated
Soccer player after being relegated

But in a league, such as the English Premier League, where the lowest-ranked teams will be relegated, ending the season in last place has significant consequences.

As an example of how relegation works, let’s look at the English Premier League – the top soccer league in England and often regarded as one of the best soccer leagues in the world.

English Premier League – An Example of Relegation

In the Premier League, 20 teams compete every season to be the best soccer team in the country. But over the course of a season, there will always be some teams that are just not good enough to keep up with the competition.

They will lose more games than the other teams, concede more goals and ultimately end up at the bottom of the league rankings after the last game of the season is played.

Premier League relegation works by taking the bottom three teams in the league at the end of a season and transferring them down to the English Football League Championship, the second-highest league in England. The three relegated teams will compete in the Championship for the duration of the following season.

In many ways, relegation in soccer is a way of saying to a team that they are no longer good enough to compete in the league they are currently in. Next season they must compete in a lower league with teams more similar to their abilities.

Check out my article – The Meaning of Relegation in the English Premier League: How it Works – for more info on this topic.

What Is the Relegation Zone?

The English Premier League is an example of a league that relegates the bottom three teams at the end of a season. Although most soccer leagues worldwide utilize a relegation system, the number of teams relegated at the end of a season can vary.

For an example of this, look at the table below showing seven of the highest-ranked soccer leagues in the world. Notice how many teams are relegated each season.

LeagueNumber of teams relegated
La Liga – Spain3
Serie A – Italy3
Bundesliga – Germany2
Liga MX – Mexico1
Brasileirao – Brazil4
Argentine Primera – Argentina4
Premier League – England3
Number of teams relegated from each league at the end of a season

Throughout a season, if teams are in a league position where they would be facing relegation if the season were to end, the fans refer to their team being in the relegation zone.

The relegation zone in a soccer league is the bottom section of the league table that consists of the teams who will be relegated if they finish the season in that position.

For example, the relegation zone in the Premier League consists of the three lowest-ranked teams.

The teams that end up in the relegation zone at the end of the season will be relegated.

Pros and Cons of Relegation

The majority of leagues outside of North America use a promotion and relegation system based on teams reaching the top leagues based on merit. Teams work hard to earn and maintain their place at the top.

It’s very doubtful that a closed system model would ever catch on in Europe. And to prove this point, a selection of teams recently attempted to start a closed league based on the North American model. They called it the European Super League.

But within hours of the announcement, the players, coaches, and fans were in uproar. The sense of shock and animosity to the idea was palpable across Europe. With 48 hours, it was clear it was going to collapse, and teams were already pulling out.

But as with anything in life, there are advantages and disadvantages to any system.

Pro’s of Using Relegation in Soccer

One of the most significant benefits of using promotion and relegation is that teams keep competing until the last day of the season. 

Too often in North American sports, we see teams tanking at the end of the season when they know they have nothing else to play for.

When a team has to fight hard to avoid being relegated, you get to witness some fantastic and competitive games from beginning to end of a season.

Avoiding relegation gives a team a strong incentive to improve. 

It can be too easy for a team to settle for just being OK in a closed league system. The team knows they won’t lose their position in the league no matter how well or poorly they perform.

For a team battling to avoid relegation, there is a strong incentive every year to invest in the team and improve their performance as much as possible.

A system of promotion and relegation allows new teams to enter the league each year.

Having new teams entering a league adds freshness and new excitement to a competition. It can be easy for a league to become stale with no new teams.

And who doesn’t love the excitement of a small team working their way up the leagues and finding themselves promoted to the top league with an opportunity to compete against the best teams in the country?!

Cons of Using Relegation

Having listed the advantages of using a relegation system, it’s important to acknowledge that there are also disadvantages.

Most significant is that relegation causes substantial financial problems for a team. 

If a team has been competing in the elite league for several years, they will have a financial structure that reflects the income received at that level. It is common for a relegated team’s revenue to drop dramatically from one year to the next as they compete in a lower quality league.

Some leagues such as the Premier League do aim to minimize the impact of relegation on a team by offering “parachute payments” to help financially support a relegated team.

Another reason relegation can harm a league is that a team can be relegated for just having one bad year.

All teams struggle at times. Whether it’s because of poor coaching, injuries to players, or outside influences, some seasons are just worse than others.

A system of relegation puts these teams at risk of losing their position in the league because of one bad year. As I mentioned in the previous point, relegation can be disastrous for a team, and they may never bounce back.

Moving Forward

Relegation is a mainstay of most soccer leagues worldwide. Hopefully, this article has helped you discover more of what it means and how it works.

For more helpful information about soccer, I recommend you check out one of my recent articles:

Ben Clayfield

Hi! My name's Ben. I've played, watched, read about, and enjoyed soccer throughout my life. I really enjoy finding out more about the game I love and sharing it with you all. Find out more about me here - Ben Clayfield

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