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Soccer 101: What Is Relegation In Soccer?

In soccer, relegation is one of the worst things that can happen to a club. In short, if relegated, the club loses its membership in a league and has to play in a lesser division. This can have huge repercussions for players, coaches, fans, and the club as a whole.

If you’re a soccer fan, it’s important to understand relegation, as it greatly impacts the tactics, pressure, and emotion associated with games at the bottom end of the table, especially towards the end of a season.

Keep reading to find out everything you need to know about relegation and promotion in soccer.

What Is Relegation In Soccer And How Does It Work?

Nearly every major soccer league is part of a pyramid system that goes from grassroots, amateur soccer, right up to the elite professional level in a country. All of the “Big Five” European football leagues (Premier League – England, Bundesliga – Germany, La Liga – Spain, Serie A – Italy, and Ligue 1 – France) follow this system and in every league, there are a set number of teams that will be relegated at the end of each season.

Each league has slightly different rules, depending on the amount of teams in the league and the overall structure of the pyramid in that country. But put simply, if you finish in a ‘relegation position’ in a league, you are relegated to the league below.

In the Premier League and Serie A, the bottom three teams are relegated after all the matches are played, but in Ligue 1 and the Bundesliga, just the bottom two teams are automatically relegated, and the team that finishes third from bottom plays in a ‘relegation playoff’ against a team who wins the ‘promotion playoff’ in the league below.

League position is dictated by the number of points a team accumulates across a season. All major soccer leagues and competitions apply the following point system: three points for a win, one for a draw, and zero for a loss.

What Is Promotion In Soccer?

Promotion is the opposite of relegation in soccer. A set number of teams that finish in ‘promotion positions’ either get automatically promoted to the league above or enter into a playoff to try and achieve the feat.

In the English Championship (second division after the Premier League), clubs that finish the season in the top two positions are automatically promoted, and the clubs that finish in positions three to six enter the playoffs.

Clubs that are already in the top league of a respective country can’t win promotion. Instead, they compete to be the overall champion of their league and country, and usually for the right to play in continental competitions, like the Champions League in Europe, or the Copa Libertadores in South America.

In theory, any club that is a member of the soccer association in a respective country can work its way up the pyramid with promotion, competing in higher levels of competition with more prize money and rewards attached.

This is exactly what Hollywood superstars Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney will be hoping for as owners of the Welsh football club, Wrexham A.F.C, which competes in the English football league system.

The pair completed a deal to buy the club in February 2021, and at that time the team was competing in the National League, the fifth tier of English soccer. Thanks to investment from their new owners, the club was promoted as champions of the 2022–23 National League and now plays in EFL League Two, the fourth and lowest tier of fully professional football in England.

Why Does Promotion And Relegation Happen In Soccer?

The ‘open’ system of promotion and relegation is mainly a European phenomenon in professional sports. It is not exclusive to soccer, though, and many other sports like basketball, rugby, and even eSports use the model.

Unlike the ‘closed’ franchise model for professional sport in the US, when European soccer leagues were being developed in the 20th century, promotion and relegation was seen as a way to create competitive balance and for a club’s position or prize money to be based on merit.

There are pros and cons to both franchise and promotion/relegation models. Many critics of the franchise system would argue that the worst-performing teams in the NFL, for example, have nothing to play for at the end of a season, and may even purposely underperform to try and gain a favorable draft pick in the following season.

However, in soccer leagues with promotion and relegation, the financial implications of relegation can cause massive disruption and long-term damage to a club that can have wide-reaching implications.

Portsmouth FC went from FA Cup winners and Premier League regulars in the 2000s, to financial trouble and three relegations in 2010, 2012, and 2013, falling to the fourth tier of English football for the first time since 1980.

Portsmouth supporters at Wembley 2010 FA Cup Final
Portsmouth supporters at the 2010 FA Cup Final: Glenn Merrett, Wikipedia Commons

The Impact Of Promotion And Relegation In Soccer

The Premier League is financially the biggest soccer league in the world and where the impact of promotion and relegation is felt most keenly. It provides the biggest benefits to promoted clubs and can be devastating to relegated ones.

According to expert Ben Peppi, head of sports services at JMW Solicitors, a football club that has been relegated from the Premier League to the Championship will see an £85-100 million ($103-121 million) loss in revenue, year on year.

Relegated clubs primarily try to balance the books by selling star players, but this doesn’t come without risk. Leicester City sold England Internationals James Maddison and Harvey Barnes for a combined total of around $90 million following their relegation from the Premier League in 2023.

While this plugs a significant financial hole, these players still need to be replaced, and even if the club achieves promotion in the next season or two, the squad will most likely be weaker than when it was relegated. This makes it harder for the club to reestablish itself in the Premier League.

In England in particular, many clubs struggle to deal with the financial burdens of relegation, and not every team has players that can command elevated transfer fees. As a result, several English football clubs entered administration or had other significant financial troubles following relegation.

How To Survive Relegation In Soccer

To help combat the financial burden of relegation, the Premier League introduced “parachute” payments that mean relegated clubs receive 55% of the per club Premier League basic TV money in the first year, 45% in year two, and 20% in year three if the club was in the Premier League for more than one season before relegation. This helps lower the risk of a club going into administration due to the high cost base (mainly player wages) they incurred in the Premier League.

Famous Soccer Promotions And Relegations

1. FC Kaiserslautern

German club FC Kaiserslautern made history in the late 90s when they became the only team in German football history to win the 2. Bundesliga (German second division) and Bundesliga in consecutive years.

The team was relegated from the Bundesliga in 1996 but bounced back and in the following season (1996–97) won the 2. Bundesliga title, and reclaimed their place in Germany’s elite soccer league. Remarkably they followed up their 2. Bundesliga title by winning the Bundesliga and claiming the German football championship, beating the imperious Bayern Munich by 2 points.

2. Leicester City

Leicester City had spent 9 seasons outside the English Premier League when they were promoted as winners of the 2013–14 Championship. Fans were optimistic about reestablishing themselves as a Premier League club, but none of them could have expected what happened next.

On the 3rd of April, they were seven points adrift from safety and time was running out on the Foxes. They needed a huge change in fortunes and the team delivered. They won seven out of their last nine games and eventually finished in 14th position.

Leicester City v Southampton
Leicester City v Southampton in 2016: LIHD Leicester City/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

When the 2015-16 season rolled around, many fans and pundits expected Leicester to be in a relegation battle once again, but things couldn’t have gone better for the club. Leicester went on to beat 5000-1 odds and claim the Premier League title under the management of Italian Claudio Ranieri, going down in sporting folklore.

3. Deportivo de La Coruña       

Spanish soccer team Deportivo de La Coruña has the unbelievable record of being promoted or relegated for seven consecutive seasons during the 1960s. The club yo-yoed between the Segunda División and La Liga every year from 1962 to 1968, which led to the nickname “elevator team”.

There were even more promotions and relegations in the years that followed, before the club eventually spent 15 years outside the Spanish top flight, incurring huge financial and infrastructural debt.


In summary, promotions and relegations in soccer represent the highest of highs and the lowest of lows for clubs across the globe. This high-stakes drama summarizes soccer as a sport, and avoiding relegation means the world to fans and players alike.

So, before you skip past Luton Town vs Sheffield United, remember that this game could be the deciding factor in a promotion or relegation, and all the drama that goes with it.

For more soccer guides, check out Soccer Positions Explained or the Best Soccer Teams Of All Time.

Lead Image Credit: Moazzam Brohi/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

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