Senior British soccer officials fear that the increasing influx of American owners into the English Premier League will usher in a drastic overhaul that could end the system of promotion and relegation that has been in place for 123 years.
English soccer has used a tier system since the inception of the football league in 1888, but several foreign owners have already raised the possibility of scrapping it in favor of an American-style franchise model similar to that seen in the NFL and NBA.
Such a move would horrify most English soccer fans and fly in the face of history. However, with 10 EPL clubs now owned by overseas investors, including five Americans, it is increasingly becoming a possibility.
"There are a number of overseas-owned clubs already talking about the avoidance of promotion and relegation in the Premier League," said Richard Bevan, chief executive of the powerful League Managers Association, which represents the interests of head coaches in English soccer. "If we have four or five more owners, this could happen."
American influence on the EPL has become more significant in recent years, with leading clubs such as Manchester United (the Glazer family), Liverpool (John Henry) and Arsenal (Stan Kroenke) all controlled by interests based in the United States.
Financial experts Deloitte recently predicted that the number of foreign owners, particularly from the U.S., will only increase as the possibility of tapping into the lucrative television rights market offers the potential for increased revenue.
However, the threat of relegation is chilling for investors because the value of teams who suffer the dreaded drop plummet by tens of millions.
"If you look at sport all around the world and you look at sport owners trying to work out how to invest and make money, you will find that most of them like the idea of franchises," Bevan said. "If you take, particularly, the American owners, without doubt there have been a number of them looking at possibly having more of a franchise situation.
"That would mean no promotion or relegation. That would obviously not be good luck for English football."
Such an outcome, which would end the dreams of dozens of hopeful clubs of ever winning the right to participate against the leading teams in the EPL, would undoubtedly create an outcry. For such a move to be considered, it would need to have two-thirds support among EPL owners – 14 of the 20 teams.
At that point it would need to be ratified by the Football Association. Many observers feel that the FA, which governs the sport in England, would rebuff any such suggestion. However, the FA has grown more reliant on the EPL and its ability to generate money and drive interest in soccer around the world, and may be more compliant that most expect.
If the FA did sign off on the move, the only way in which it could be stopped may be through government influence. The UK has shown it is willing to get involved with soccer matters, and took steps last week to encourage clubs to decrease the amount of debt that they are carrying.
Bolton chairman Phil Gartside proposed a revamp of the relegation formula two years ago, which was met with little support. The American influence was not so well established at that point though, and there is little doubt that some of the newer EPL owners are swayed by men such as Henry, whose history in sports ownership with the Boston Red Sox makes him a powerful figure.
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- English Premier League
- promotion and relegation