Promotion And Relegation Could Bring Parity To High School Sports

With each passing high school sports season, stories always seem to bubble to the surface around massive blowouts that call into question disparity amongst high school sports.

This past fall, Washington’s own Archbishop Murphy football program made national headlines when teams, instead of getting blown out, opted to forfeit the game each and every week. Over the course of their nine-game regular season, Archbishop Murphy were handed five wins via forfeit. The Wildcats allowed zero points in their remaining four games while averaging 54.5 points a game themselves. Unsurprisingly, Archbishop Murphy went on to win the 2A State title game by a score of 56-14. 

Last week, news out of Arizona popped up regarding two separate girls basketball score lines in the same night; 72-0 and 102-11

For obvious reasons, this shouldn’t be the norm. However, it is under the current rules and guidelines of many high school athletic associations across the country. 

Not all sports are created equal. Having a system of classification where every single program at a school has to be ranked at the same level will always yield cases of severely underperforming and over-performing teams. The only instances where this won’t be the case are private schools, or public schools in districts with open enrollment, located in a large metropolitan area with enough booster funding for all one to two dozen athletic programs. Those instances are obviously few and far between. 

Speaking from experience, when I was in school, we had one of the best mens and womens cross country programs in the state and it had been that way for quite some time. On the flip side, our mens golf sucked in league play for most of the time I was there. I know…I was on the team. I was slotted as No. 1 my junior year.

There’s an odd sense of relaxation you feel when you already know you’re going to lose by 20 strokes to everyone in your group before to tee-off.

So, how do you solve this? Team-based promotion and relegation.

The point of promotion and relegation is to create better parity in a league. It prevents the Cleveland Browns of the world from remaining in the top tier indefinitely and allows up and comers in the tiers below, who are making mince meat of their competition, a chance at opponents that are closer to their skill level. And, when the Browns decide to draft an actual NFL quarterback, they’re able to get right back where they once were. 

The issue with high school athletics (among many but those are other stories) is programs are unable to compete against appropriate competition because all teams move up or down levels as one; if they aren’t already forced to move up a level because of an attendance increase. Couple that with pitting public and private schools in the same leagues (something that apparently doesn’t exist elsewhere in the US but the Pacific Northwest still does) as well as open enrollment that favor certain historic programs who’re able to load up on talent from outside of their district, these issues will always exist. 

Promotion and regulation shouldn’t be that scary of a solution for high school athletic associations to implement. Here’s why.

For starters, there is no financial incentive for a high school to be at a certain level. Going from 4A to 3A via promotion and relegation isn’t the same as going from the Pac-12 to the Big Sky Conference from a financial standpoint. It’s for this reason why Major League Soccer will never implement promotion and regulation in the US and follow the rest of the soccer world. It’s because those who’ve invested in an MLS club and all that comes with it don’t want to see their team, all of a sudden, playing in the USL after a poor season. The same is true for colleges and other professional sports with a robust minor league system such as baseball and hockey. There should be no financial hit or benefit for a high school team if they move down or up a level. 

Another issue that would be non-existent in most cases would be travel differences. For example, where I live in central Washington the two largest conferences are 4A’s Big 9 Conference and 2A’s CWAC. The longest drive between schools in the Big 9 is just over two hours. The longest drive between schools in the CWAC is just under two hours. When combining schools from both conferences, the longest drive is…two hours and fifteen minutes. This is the rural option. Imagine the lack of travel time differences between conferences in metro areas like Seattle or Portland. If a school is already having to travel these distances then what’s the difference, once again financially, with traveling the same exact distance but in a slightly different direction. Region-based promotion and relegation, which should be simple to implement, wouldn’t cause much strain, if any, on preexisting school travel budgets. 

High school athletic associations can even implement unique rules regarding promotion and regulation. To prevent instances of teams at the same school being at drastically different levels, you could implement promotion and regulation limits. Going off of attendance size which is already, for the most part, used to divide schools, you could add restrictions that prevent teams from being promoted or relegated more than one level.

For example, a school in Washington that would be placed at the 2A level based on attendance could only have teams at either the 3A, 2A or 1A level. This would prevent schools who have an all-star or all-scrub incoming class (sorry IKE) from feeling the long-term effects of an out of the ordinary class. After all, Archbishop Murphy’s success this past season was largely attributed to their senior class. What will happen next fall when those players are gone? Will they still be forcing teams to forfeit?

Another limitation you could implement would be the teams inline for promotion and relegation would have to agree with one another to be promoted and relegated. While this could be a bit thorny if you run into cases of stubborn programs who don’t want to be relegated, it would give otherwise good teams a mulligan for a poor season and would allow fast-rising teams to put on the breaks for a year or two to make sure they’re ready for the jump. 

Quite frankly, I don’t know why it’s taken me this long to think about promotion and relegation for high school sports. Stubbornness by certain athletic departments who are too attached to labels seems to be the only thing holding this up, which is a bit sad and pathetic. Archbishop Murphy allowed less points the entire 2015 regular season then what they scored on average in a single game. They should’ve been a 3A team this past season to prevent what happened. However, stubbornness by members of WESCO who didn’t want their football teams to face Archbishop Murphy this past fall ended up forcing the Wildcats to make national news.

In the meantime, enjoy the constant blowouts that demotivate kids and cause ripple effects that prevent other kids from trying out for the team; thus creating perpetually mediocre and awful teams. Then again, they played on a 4A team. That means the world to sixteen-year-olds. 

Maybe we should resubmit our realignment proposal to the OSAA?

When is WIAA set for realignment again?