The Tiered English Football System: What You Need to Know

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Promotion? Relegation? What do you mean there are no playoffs!??!

Photo via dayoutwiththekids.co.uk


As soccer slowly, but surely, establishes its position in the American sports conversation, something needs to be addressed. This is not geared towards the astute European football aficionado, this is for the casual fan, the by-passer. This is for the Xbox player who can’t quite make out the reason for that second section on the FIFA team selection icon. Why is there more than one option? Is it the D-League of soccer? Not quite.

Photo via EA Sports FIFA

Converse to the American sporting model, Europe thrives on a tiered league structure that allows even the smallest teams the slightest bit of hope for domestic glory. Specifically, England has a league structure made up of four professional tiers.

The structure consists of 1) The Premier League. Arguably the ‘biggest’ league in the world, the Premier League hosts footballing giants like Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool, and Arsenal. 2) The SkyBet Championship which includes former Premier League mainstays like Leeds United, Reading, Bolton and Middlesborough. And yes, this is the second tier, not the first, don’t be fooled by the name… 3.) SkyBet League 1, now home to former Premier League winners, Blackburn Rovers after a well-documented fall from grace and 4) SkyBet League 2, the weekly homestead of the 2016–2017 FA Cup Cinderella team, Lincoln City. Unlike American sports, these four leagues have an interchanging aspect.

This is what makes the English sporting system unique and frankly, beautiful!

Logos of the English Football Leagues

This interchanging system is called promotion and relegation.

Throughout the season, each team is awarded a point value based on the result of each match. The winner receives three points, the loser receives zero points and if the result is a tie, both teams receive one point.

At season-end, the bottom three teams in the Premier League each year are relegated, or demoted, down to the Championship.

In the Championship, the top two teams are automatically promoted to the Premier League, with the third spot being determined via a four-team playoff (“Playoffs!?”) between the 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 6th ranked teams in the league.

Promotion and relegation from the Championship to Football League One consists of three teams going up from League Two and three teams coming down from the Championship.

Finally, the top four teams in Football League Two are promoted to Football League One with the fourth spot being determined by a four team playoff. Conversely, four teams are relegated from League One to League Two. As such, two teams are relegated out of the Football Leagues to ‘the Conference National League’ each season.

If that wasn’t confusing enough, see the graphic below via Wikipedia…


Yes, it is all a bit confusing but that is what makes the system so great!

In America, with our current playoff/draft model, teams are increasingly being accused of losing solely to acquire the number one draft pick. Most notably, the Philadelphia Sixers lost 27 consecutive games and were ridiculed for purposefully ‘tanking’ the team. Now how is that entertaining? Who really wants to see the Timberwolves play the Suns with true excitement? How can you expect ticket operations to sell season tickets to a team losing on purpose!? Of course there is a certain beauty to the NFL and NBA draft, not to mention, it gives networks a nice talking point during lull periods.

However, imagine if these leagues had stadiums packed out to watch two of the worst teams in the league duke it out to avoid relegation! In the English system, every match matters. Every. Single. One.

Regardless of opinion, the league structure abroad creates a certain draw unique to anything known to American sports. It shouldn’t be forced on any league in the US but, conversely, should not be discounted. The nay-sayers will say it could never work and the optimists will argue why wouldn’t it work.

One thing is certain, understanding its importance on the European game can allow even the most uneducated sports fan to appreciate the joy it brings to so many people week in and week out.


This piece has been presented to you by SMU’s Master of Science in Sport Management.


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