HEAR ME OUT: MLB should restructure league like Euro soccer

And I’m not bothering with relegation, which teams would never go for

Make it happen, Manfred!
Make it happen, Manfred!
Photo: AP

It’s always neat when a European sporting event comes along and provides some games to watch during the daytime hours here in North America. Right now, it’s the pandemic-delayed Euro 2020 soccer tournament, and while the teams involved are national sides, part of the nature of soccer is that there’s a lot of time between goals to get lost in thought.

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The biggest nations in Europe for soccer are England, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Spain — six places with a combined population of 331 million, or just a couple million more than the United States.

The top leagues in the top sport in those countries have a combined 116 teams, and that’s before you even consider the robust promotion and relegation system, which in England features three more 24-team leagues, plus the mix of professional and semi-pro teams in the fifth-tier National League, with still more levels below that for smaller and smaller clubs.

The idea of making American sports leagues more European isn’t new, but the standard proposal is something like making a promotion/relegation system with Triple-A baseball as the second tier. The obvious problem is that major league teams would never go for it. The Pittsburgh Pirates, right now, have a pretty sweet deal: it doesn’t matter how much they stink, they’re safely an MLB team, cashing MLB television checks, charging MLB ticket prices, raking in MLB licensing money. Why even consider the possibility of giving that up?

What if, instead, we took a different European-style approach, and broke our continent up into regionally based leagues? It would require a total restructuring of what minor league baseball means, but that’s something that also needs to be addressed anyway, and can be discussed another time. For now, here’s how such a structure might look, starting with the existing major league markets, then joined by the current minor league and expansion cities that would join them.

  • Northeast Division: Baltimore, Boston, New York Mets, New York Yankees, Philadelphia, Toronto, Washington, Brooklyn, Hartford, Long Island, Montreal, Norfolk
  • Central Division: Atlanta, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Detroit, Miami, Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay, Carolina (Charlotte or Durham), Jacksonville, Memphis, Nashville, New Orleans
  • Midwest Division: Chicago Cubs, Chicago White Sox, Colorado, Houston, Kansas City, Milwaukee, Minnesota, St. Louis, Texas, Albuquerque, Oklahoma City, San Antonio
  • Pacific Division: Arizona, Los Angeles Angels, Los Angeles Dodgers, Oakland, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle, Fresno, Las Vegas, Portland, Salt Lake City, Vancouver
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With 12 teams in each division, you could play a schedule in which each team played each of its division rivals a dozen times, for 132 games, with reduced travel and generally less stressful competition due to the expansion of the talent pool. Obviously, big-market teams are going to have an advantage, but it’s still baseball so not unthinkable that the Albuquerque Isotopes might make a run every now and then.

Of course, 132 games is not a full baseball season, but that purely regional competition gets us to late August, and another key part of this plan. First of all, August becomes more exciting than its traditional dog-day drudgery, as teams jockey for position within their division. But then, the stretch run gets wild as the competition level ratchets up.

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For the final month and last 30 games of the regular season, the divisions split into top halves and bottom halves, playing five home games apiece against the parallel half from one circuit, and five road games apiece against another. This does require some on-the-fly scheduling, but with the divisional structure in place, it’s possible to schedule each team’s home games well in advance, with opponents TBD, allowing for advance ticket sales.

Four teams from each division make the postseason, and off we go for October, where things could either be aligned into divisional playoffs, or seeded into transcontinental matchups based on overall record. While 16 seems like a ton of playoff teams, we already saw 12 last year, and with the league going up to 40 teams, it would be the same proportion of postseason-bound clubs.

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But what of those teams at the bottom? Wouldn’t they just be playing out the string in front of dwindling crowds? Well, that’s already happening anyway, but now you wouldn’t get a scenario where the Dodgers and Giants are racing for a playoff spot, but while San Francisco is facing a tough San Diego team, Los Angeles gets to beat up on Arizona. Instead, teams toward the bottom would have their own incentive: the top pick in the following year’s draft, or in the event that the draft is rightfully abolished, the largest financial pool for signing prospects.

Instead of a system where there’s a benefit to outright tanking, it would become worth a team’s while to compete down the stretch, as the best of the teams from the bottom-half round-robin in September would get the reward. That, or you could go ahead and set up a relegation system in which one team from each region does get dropped to a lower league. And honestly, if the Arizona Diamondbacks can’t find a way to finish ahead of the Fresno Grizzlies, maybe they shouldn’t be in a 40-team MLB, and it’s time to give Reno the chance to be the biggest little city in the majors.