Football (soccer) leagues around the world are almost all open systems. This means teams move up and down divisions.
For those of us with an interest in sport and economics, this is crucial to competition design and makes these leagues different to closed systems like the National Football League (NFL), Major League Baseball (MLB) or Major League Soccer (MLS) – a rare example of a soccer league with no ‘punishment for failure’.
In the world of Covid-19, the difference between open and closed systems is now more apparent than ever.
Debate continues to rage as to whether leagues should restart (when safe) or should be scrapped. For the majority of leagues that follow an August-May schedule, at least two problems with declaring the season null-and-void present themselves.
Firstly, most leagues are probably 80% complete hence a narrative is written. Secondly, and more critically, open systems promote and relegate teams. The designation of champions, while important for bragging rights and prize money, is not as critical as promotion and relegation. Qualification for intercontinental tournaments is a further element of complexity.
Turning to the Premier League in England as an example, while Liverpool are clearly the best team so far this season, the plight of Norwich City, Aston Villa, Bournemouth, Watford, West Ham, Brighton, etc. is far more critical to the league structure. Relegation will result in the loss of millions of pounds of revenue in season relegation+1. This is exemplified the longer one is outside the Premier League.
Nottingham Forrest are now 20 years outside of the Premier League. This is important too. The East Midlands club are currently 5th in the English Championship. Promotion to the Premier League is in sight. In fact, 13th placed QPR are just 6 points away from the coveted 6th placed, that could lead to Wembley and the Premier League.
Finishing these leagues is crucial so that a restart is possible. A restart without finishing 2019/20 is more complicated than the delay leagues currently face. The obvious league battles that will arise could last for years.
Cups on the other hand could get the axe. There does not need to be an FA Cup winner for 2019/20 to have the competition next year. The same is true of the UEFA Champions League. The 2019/20 is effectively closed, aside from the winners getting automatically into the following seasons competition.
The best way to start 2020/21 is to finish 2019/20. This is why all open system leagues will have to finish – probably.
For Liverpool, top of the Premier League, their near 30-year association with Carlsberg couldn’t be more apt. They will be league champions - probably.