It’s always great when a European sporting event comes along and offers some games to watch during daylight hours here in North America. Right now, it’s Euro 2020 that has been delayed by the pandemic, and although the participating teams are national teams, part of the nature of football is that there is plenty of time between goals to get lost in thought.
The largest countries in Europe for soccer are England, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Spain – six places with a combined population of 331 million, or just two million more than the United States.
The major leagues in the top sports of those countries have a combined 116 teams, and that’s before you even consider the robust promotion and relegation system, which in England has three leagues of 24 teams, as well as a mix of professional and semi-professional teams. in the Fifth Division of the National League, with tiers lower than that for the smaller and smaller clubs.
The idea of making American sports leagues more European is not new, but the standard proposal is like creating a promotion/relegation system using Triple-A Baseball as the second layer. The obvious problem is that the top teams in the league will never turn to them. The Pittsburgh Pirates, right now, have a pretty sweet deal: It doesn’t matter how much it stinks, they’re the MLB team safely, they cash MLB TV checks, they charge MLB ticket prices, and they raise MLB licensing money. Why even consider the possibility of giving up on it?
What if, instead, we took a different, European-style approach, and divided our continent into regional unions? It would take a complete restructuring of what minor league baseball means, but that’s something that also needs to be addressed anyway, and could be discussed at another time. For now, here’s what that structure might look like, starting with the existing major league markets, then joining the current minor league and the expansion cities you’ll join.
- Northeast division: Baltimore, Boston, New York Mets, New York Yankees, Philadelphia, Toronto, Washington, Brooklyn, Hartford, Long Island, Montreal, Norfolk
- Central Division: Atlanta, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Detroit, Miami, Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay, Carolina (Charlotte or Durham), Jacksonville, Memphis, Nashville, New Orleans
- Midwest Division: Chicago Cubs, Chicago White Sox, Colorado, Houston, Kansas City, Milwaukee, Minnesota, St. Louis, Texas, Albuquerque, Oklahoma City, San Antonio
- Pacific Division: Arizona, Los Angeles Angels, Los Angeles Dodgers, Oakland, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle, Fresno, Las Vegas, Portland, Salt Lake City, Vancouver
With 12 teams in each division, you can play a schedule in which each of their opponents has played 12 times, in 132 matches, with less travel and generally less stressful competition due to an expanding talent pool. The big market teams will obviously have an advantage, but it’s still baseball, so it’s not uncommon for the Albuquerque counterparts to tour every now and then.
Of course, 132 games isn’t an entire baseball season, but that purely regional competition gets us into late August, and another essential part of that plan. First of all, August gets even more exciting than the traditional dog toil, as teams race to gain a spot within their division. But then the extended run becomes unruly as the level of competition rises.
In the final month and the last 30 games of the regular season, the divisions were split into two top halves and two bottom halves, with each playing five home games against the parallel half of one tournament, and five road games against each other. This requires some quick scheduling, but with the division structure in place it’s possible to schedule each team’s home matches ahead of time, with TBD opponents set, allowing tickets to be sold in advance.
Four teams from each division do post-season work, and we kick off in October, where things can either align in the divisional playoffs, or seeded in the Intercontinental matches based on overall record. While 16 teams sounds like a lot of playoff teams, we actually saw 12 teams last year, and with the league going up to 40 teams, it will be the same percentage of clubs linked post-season.
But what about those teams at the bottom? Wouldn’t they just play the string in front of the dwindling crowd? Well, it does happen anyway, but now you won’t get a scenario where the Dodgers and the Giants race for a playoff spot, but while San Francisco faces a tough team in San Diego, Los Angeles is hitting in Arizona. Instead, teams going lower will have their own incentive: the top pick in the following year’s draft or, if properly scrapped, the biggest signing pool.
Instead of a system where there is a benefit to direct tanks, it will become worth the team to compete in the long run, where the best teams from the bottom half of September will receive the reward. That, or you can go ahead and create a relegation system in which one team from each region is dropped to a lower league. And frankly, if the Arizona Diamondbacks can’t find a way to finish before the Fresno Grizzlies, maybe they shouldn’t be in the 40-team MLB, and it’s time to give Reno the opportunity to be Biggest small city in specialties.