Welcome to another installment of Bundesliga 101. For more background on this series of posts, please see Bundesliga 101: An Introduction.
Promotion and relegation are the devices through which clubs can move vertically through the German football system.
The Bundesliga sits atop of the six tiers of the system, serving as the entirety of Germany’s top level of football. Likewise, the 2. Bundesliga (“Second Bundesliga”) and 3. Liga (“Third League) each stand at the only leagues in the second and third tiers.
The fourth, fifth, and sixth tiers each are made up of multiple leagues and systems filled with clubs of varying levels of professionalism and amateurism.
The nature of promotion and relegation is such that, in theory, a newly founded club could work its way from a group of amateurs playing for the glory of their favorite pub to a professional Bundesliga side. There are facility and fiscal qualifications to be considered, but that’s how it could work in theory as well as in the hearts and minds of the true football romantic.
At the end of each season, the bottom two finishers in the Bundesliga are directly relegated to the 2. Bundesliga, with the champion and vice-champion of the second division being promoted to replace them.
The 16th-place Bundesliga side is not automatically relegated, but must defend its Bundesliga spot in a two-match competition against the 2. Bundesliga’s third-place finisher in what is called the “Relegation Playoff,” taking place shortly after the conclusion of the two leagues’ seasons.
Each club hosts one match. At the end of regulation of the second match, the team with more goals between the two games gets to play in the Bundesliga the following season. Should the aggregated score be level, the tie would be broken via the away-goals rule, wherein the team that scored more goals in their opponents’ home would be deemed the victor. Barring a resolution from those two scenarios, the second match would then be extended into extra time and be decided through penalty kicks, should the two additional fifteen-minute periods not produce a result.
Promotion and relegation between the 2. Bundesliga and 3. Liga is conducted in precisely the same manner as between the first and second divisions.
From the bottom of 3. Liga and below, the systems for deciding promotion and relegation are slightly more-involved, but the principal remains the same: win and you’re in.
Here in the United States, we have absolutely nothing resembling promotion and relegation. Instead of movement through an open sports-league system, the leagues here are decidedly “closed.” There is a grass-roots movement called Soccer Reform that (very) actively promotes the idea of instituting the system in the US soccer “pyramid,” but Major League Soccer, which is nominally the top division of the sport here, has no interest in adopting it, preferring to model other North American sports leagues, rather than participate in its sport’s traditional systems.
Occasionally, a US-sports personality (notably, Bill Simmons with his beloved NBA) will suggest the idea of promotion and relegation as a way of addressing certain ills in traditional American sports, but always knowing that the ownership structure of our major leagues would never allow such an idea. While (non-Knicks) fans would likely embrace the idea of an awful New York Knicks team getting sent to a lower division in favor of a “Maine Red Claws,” the people who paid millions to own that team have no interest in ever risking the revenue loss that would certainly come from playing in the “minor leagues.”
The movement between tiers of big, traditional Bundesliga clubs is not at all uncommon. As recently as 2013-14, the 1. FC Köln played in the 2. Bundesliga. For the 2015-16 season, former Bundesliga champions 1. FC Kaiserslautern and 1. FC Nürnberg both reside in the second division for their fourth- and second-consecutive seasons, respectively, while small-timers SV Darmstadt cruised straight through the 2. Bundesliga to go from 3. Liga to the top flight in a little more than a calendar year.
One of the major outcomes of the system is that the battles for promotion spots and for places safe from relegation frequently are not decided until the final match day of the season, providing intense excitement to the very final whistle of the season.
Beyond the playing surface, relegation can also be levied as punishment from the offices of the DFL (German Football Leagues). Despite an eleventh-place finish in the 2012-13 season, MSV Duisburg was sent to the 3. Liga for the following season due to financial irregularities. Duisburg’s loss also benefited SV Sandhausen, a small club that had been relegated to the third division following a poor single season in the second, but was instead was given a second chance to survive the 2. Bundesliga, which it has done for two succeeding seasons.
Whatever your personal stance on the idea of promotion and relegation and whether it should ever be instituted in the USA, it remains sacrosanct for the vast majority of football fans throughout the world.