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Action Replay: Ups and Downs

You might think that promotion and relegation in a league system would be essentially based on sporting criteria. But, professional sport being primarily a business, other considerations, especially financial ones, often play a part.

Doncaster Rovers Belles are one of the longest-established clubs in women’s football, with a fairly illustrious history. In 2011, the FA set up the Women’s Super League (WSL), with games played in summer. Donny did not fare too well, finishing second from bottom in the first two seasons. But, after one match of the current season, the FA have announced that the Belles will be relegated to the second division of the Super League in 2014. Their place will be taken by Manchester City Ladies, who only finished fourth in the confusingly-named Premier League (which has been the league below the Super League but will be re-named WSL 2). Sunderland have won the Premier League for three consecutive years, yet will not get promoted to WSL 1.

It’s not hard to discover the reasons for these shenanigans. The new WSL team are part of Manchester City, a would-be global brand with a lot of oil money behind them. Poor old Donny can hardly compete at that level. The manager of another WSL team described the FA’s actions as ‘morally scandalous’, but that will hardly get them to change their minds.

When the Indian company Venky’s bought Blackburn Rovers in 2010, it seems that the owners did not realise there was such as thing as relegation in English football. Presumably they thought the (men’s) Premier League ran on something like the US franchise system, whereby new teams can only enter if existing members vote them in. Many leagues in various sports operate a system of checking whether a team eligible for promotion has an appropriate stadium, for instance.

In rugby league, acceptance into Super League is via a licensing system, with clubs granted a three-year licence which makes them exempt from relegation during that period. There are current proposals to change this with effect from 2015, with promotion and relegation being reintroduced. As one rugby pundit commented (BBC Online, 13 May), ‘Sport has to have a meaning, otherwise what’s the point? A system based on individual or team achievement is the essence of the British sporting DNA.’

Except, of course, when it’s the money that really counts.