In the relegation zone
After another season of abysmal performances, the Lions are bottom of the SuperRugby table once again.
And with SARU’s promise to include the Southern Kings in next year’s line-up the Johannesburg team are likely to be relegated from next year’s tournament.
But what impact will relegation have on the Lions and the SuperRugby tournament as a whole?
On Sunday, Manchester City won the English Premier League in fine style.
The EPL is clearly one of the most vibrant and competitive tournaments in world football and serves as a model for how a professional sporting league should be run.
After all, it is currently the most lucrative in the world, and the one thing that has always underpinned the EPL is the promotion/relegation system.
In fact, the turnover of teams competing in the 20 year history of the EPL is quite high.
There have been 45 different teams that have filled the 20 spots in the league over the 20 years that it has existed.
Only 7 teams currently in the league have never been relegated: Arsenal, Aston Villa, Chelsea, Everton, Liverpool, Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur (even current titleholders Man City have been dropped from the league in the past).
Is this the secret to the EPL’s success?
Is relegation what keeps the tournament vibrant and competitive?
Perhaps... but I think there are arguments against it.
Despite the fact that that the EPL is the most lucrative competition in the world (in terms of revenue generated), only 4 of the 20 teams competing last year actually made a profit (with many of them significantly in the red).
There is clearly a huge gap in terms of revenue generated by the top clubs and those fighting it out in the relegation zone.
Also, since 1995, only 4 different teams have won the league (Man U, Chelsea, Arsenal and now Man City).
The teams that have never been relegated all finished in the top 8 (with the exception of Aston Villa down in lowly 16th).
So clearly relegated and promoted teams have an uphill battle when it comes to mounting a serious challenge for the title, and raising finances (in fact, it was only because Man City pumped astronomical amounts of cash into buying players and player salaries that they became competitive enough to win the league).
So is relegation good for the league? The same handful of teams end up competing for the title every year, with the relegation zone teams serving as cannon fodder for the top teams.
In turn the relegation zone teams experience a promotion windfall in one season, only to end up fighting to avoid relegation and the disastrous financial consequences and player sell-offs that brings, the very next season...
But there are a lot of professional football teams in England – far more than a single league could handle.
It could be argued relegation/promotion at least allows a mechanism for some of those teams to eventually compete in the top flight.
Which brings me back to rugby. In South Africa we have a region that has a long and proud tradition in our rugby history that is currently not being represented at the highest level (the Eastern Province).
And though I am a Lions supporter, it pains me to admit that the Lions haven’t been representing South African rugby in a very positive light throughout their years of involvement in SuperRugby.
So it seems fair that perhaps another team should be given their shot at the highest level of competition.
No one expects that the Southern Kings will excel (they might lose just as many as the Lions have) – but the same expectation follows every Premiership football side that is promoted to the top flight each season.
It would be ludicrous to imagine that the Kings will be successful in their first season. The Lions have never really been successful after 15 seasons!
But a relegation/promotion system is only truly fair if there is an objective basis for the promotion and relegation each year.
In English football, that mechanism is a healthy and robust second division where the top finishers get the chance to compete for a spot in the higher league in the following year.
We don’t have that in South Africa at the moment.
The Kings did not manage to win the Currie Cup First Division last year (why isn’t it the Boland Cavaliers who get a shot at Super Rugby next year?), and it doesn’t look like they’re going to win the Vodacom Cup this year either...
And what will the aftermath of the Lions’ relegation be? There have been numerous reports in the past year that the club is already in financial trouble.
Would being relegated from SuperRugby be the killer blow to the Lions’ finances?
The loss of sales of the television broadcasting rights, along with the loss in associated advertising and sponsorship deals at the stadium could force the club into liquidation.
At least when a club is relegated from the Premiership in England, there is still the chance to keep the franchise competing in the Second Division, as well as other prominent tournaments like the FA Cup. Outside of SuperRugby, Vodacom Cup is a rugby wilderness (I don’t have any official stats, but I wouldn’t be surprised if even Varsity Cup rugby is attracting more viewership than Vodacom Cup).
That leaves the Currie Cup as the only platform for the Lions to generate revenue, but even that tournament is receding from prominence as the SuperRugby and Tri-Nations (er, Rugby Championship) schedules continue to expand each year.
Even if the Lions do manage to survive as an entity in the year outside of SuperRugby, what shape will they be in to compete in SuperRugby when 2014 rolls around?
In the context of SuperRugby, this relegation/promotion won’t be completely fair because it will only be the SA teams that are under the threat of relegation.
That could lead to the ludicrous situation where all five SA teams do really well (say finishing in the top half of the overall table) yet still one of them will have to be eliminated from the following year’s tournament.
The relegation system functions in the Premiership only because there is a clear and objective basis for promotion/relegation each year, and there is a competitive league below the top flight that allows for clubs to continue building their franchises so that they’re ready to endure the rigours and expenses of top flight competition when they are promoted.
But even in the Premiership it can be argued that the threat of relegation and the churn in personnel and finances that relegation causes keeps the minnow teams minnows, and allows the top teams to forge ahead and build unassailable empires at the top of the log.
SARU needs to consider those implications, and until they’re satisfied that they can put a workable promotion/relegation system in place which addresses these issues they really shouldn’t be considering it. Unfortunately, as usual, that horse has bolted...