Why you should care
Because Cinderella can dance well past midnight.
The opening of March Madness, next month, will find die-hard fans and casual ones alike overcome with a fervor found only in Upset City.
The truth is, though, those four days of college hoops are but a blip on the radar of the glory that could be, and for that we can thank the NCAA’s closed system. It operates kind of like a plutocracy. Only a small pool of programs are capable of winning championships, while everyone else messes about in the mud puddles of mediocrity. Blame a widening division between the haves and the have-nots, both money and recruiting power, and an awful vicious cycle that privileges the haves. The good news? The fix for this dismal state of affairs is within sight, alive and kicking the whole rest of the world over. It’s called promotion and relegation.
“Pro-rel” is what has arguably made soccer, aka football, the most popular sport in the world. Sounds technical perhaps, but it’s really quite simple. The best-performing teams in a conference are promoted to the next (and more glamorous) tier. The worst-performing ones are demoted (or relegated) to a lower tier. The result? Strong season-long effort, no matter a team’s chances at championship contention. There’s no tanking seasons for draft picks or resting starters — every game matters. And for fans? The possibility of redemption, or damnation, is ever present.
Last year’s English Premier League champion Leicester City Football Club is perhaps the best example of how relegation could launch collegiate sports into an era of magnificent mayhem. In 2008, Leicester City dropped to Britain’s third-tier England Football League One, a devastating slide for a team that’d never fallen below Division II. Six years later, in 2014, it returned to the EPL. The club’s collective talent was vastly inferior to perennial EPL leaders, but it repped a rabid fan base and ownership inspired by the re-emergence. In 2015-2016, Leicester pulled off the most monumental upset in the history of sports: After opening the year as 5,000-to-1 underdogs, Leicester won the league, giving sports fans the gift of hope. “It’s probably the biggest sporting story ever. Nobody saw it coming and, even halfway through the season, nobody thought it could be sustained,” Rob Scudamore, who chairs the EPL, told BBC Sport.
If the main benefit of pro-rel is disrupting the vicious cycle that perpetuates mediocre play, on the one hand, and inefficient closed systems, on the other, there are ancillary benefits too. Not only could small schools with major ambition truly audition on the big stage but these programs could boost their profiles and attract otherwise oblivious applicants as well. Relegation also offers a clever disciplinary option for programs that skirt the rules. So rather than hollowly vacating past victories, the NCAA could drop the Fighting Irish to Division II for academic infractions.
Not everyone is sold, of course. Despite a loud chorus of journalists and even management consultants, Major League Soccer has so far refused to adopt pro-rel, saying an open system is just not part of American sports. The amateur leagues, they say, lack the infrastructure, and in some cases the talent, to play with the big boys. Some argue that kind of fundamental change would cheapen March Madness magic. “Upsets by unknown mid-majors are what makes the tournament great,” argues CBS Sports College Basketball Insider Jon Rothstein.
But, in the Land of Excess, why limit ourselves to one month of mania? As Dickie V would say: “Let’s open up the floodgates, baby!”