You would be hard-pressed to find anyone who disagreed with the notion that competition is the lifeblood of sport. Monopolies asphyxiate. Consider European football over the last 25 years, where "financial doping" has arguably created unsurpassed aesthetic spectacles through the concentration of megastar talent but - Leicester City's miracle notwithstanding - has largely killed surprises, and thus restricted true competition to a smattering of clubs in each league.
Competition can mean many things, of course. It can be the competition for places within an organisation, which pushes people to raise their standards, while competition between teams has the same standard-raising effect. Yet - and here, seemingly, lies a paradox - the competitive drive, such as seen in the previous example of European football, doesn't necessarily contribute to the overall competitiveness of a sporting culture, or "ecosystem".
In other words, competitiveness - at least not in all its senses and frames of reference - might not be quite the unequivocal virtue that it's often assumed to be. (Recent events concerning my own club have borne this out, more of which below.) And attempts to stimulate greater competitiveness through the device of promotion and relegation don't necessarily serve to produce a stronger or "healthier" sporting culture, either.
Take Test cricket, which, if not quite yet on the endangered-species list, certainly has enough right-minded individuals concerned with its health. A recent attempt to inject the endless cycle of bilateral series with greater meaning and context saw the ICC float the idea of a two-divisional structure, to be split seven and five, with promotion and relegation at the end of a three-year cycle. Ostensibly the plan was rejected because it was felt that the stigma of locking one of the traditional powers out of the party would do the exact opposite of generating interest in the Test format. Our question is: does removing the element of jeopardy have an impact on the competitiveness of the cricket? Would the standard be lower without the sanction for "failure"?
A similar set of questions can be posed about county cricket's development since the establishment of the two-division structure, which is often assumed to have raised the standard of the England team by concentrating talent at the top of the system. This may well be true, although it isn't always that easy to parse real causation from such a complex reality (if England succeeding really was a simple case of concentrating the talent as much as possible, then that would be an argument for creating a regional tier between the counties and the national side). The rise from the late-'90s omnishambles to the No. 1 Test ranking may well have been down to two divisions, but equally it could have been the result of everyone else being rubbish, of central contracts, or of Graeme Swann's stint on the Northampton naughty step.
"Isn't it sufficient for teams to be incentivised to win (for pride, for glory) without them also having the fear of slipping down the structure and into irrelevance, anxiety over which in turn leads to all the distortions of the culture?"
It may also be true that the trapdoor of relegation or the treasures of promotion distort the domestic ecosystem from the point of view of providing players for England - which, sentimentalism aside, is its primary purpose, since England finances the domestic game (in Australia, all this is unequivocally accepted, but then the states cannot be relegated). For example, as Ashley Giles groused in the summer, with county coaches inevitably being judged on results - that is, on retaining Division One status and thereby remaining attractive to ambitious young cricketers keen to push their England claims - it can be much harder to blood youngsters, since very few games are without significance in the wider scheme of things. It's no great surprise that the top division has largely been populated by the counties with Test grounds, and thus with the resources to cherry-pick the juiciest fruit from the smaller counties. Is that greater competitiveness?
It is beneath the professional game that the dynamics of promotion and relegation, in combination with the increasingly deleterious influence of money (in the form of player payments), is having the most destabilising effects, chafing slowly at the grass roots binding the cricketing ecosystem together. In theory, the pyramid structure should increase competitiveness and thus help with Raising the Standard, the title given to the ECB's blueprint for the overhaul of club cricket at the turn of the century. In practice, however, it often tempts clubs to take short cuts with money, shaking the system up all right, but far too hard. Players' egos get inflated by desperate captains offering them £63.50 a game and a pint per wicket. The increased player traffic starts to erode teams' identities, then clubs' identities, perhaps leading to resentment and demoralisation among volunteers. Some of the soul - the community that underpins it all - is inevitably sucked from the game.
It would be remiss to generalise too much from one's own experience, and the situation across the country's patchwork of leagues is far from uniform, but in my own league - which in 2006 expanded from 24 to 48 teams (playing in four "symmetrical" divisions, the 2nd XI's fate following that of the 1st XI), and in 2016 went to a ladder structure of nine divisions, with promotion and relegation for all - it's highly debatable whether things have improved since all local clubs were sucked into its pyramid. Indeed, far from concentrating talent at the top, now it's common for Premier League standard cricketers to turn out for an ambitious fourth- or fifth-tier club, if the money's right and "the project" is appealing (and their ego is sated by easy runs).
Perhaps, then, rather than promotion and relegation per se, what matters is having the optimal amount: just enough to inculcate competitiveness and ward off complacency, not so much that it induces panic over free fall.
Without promotion and relegation, or with it restricted to two divisions, would the standard inevitably be lower? Is the cricket weaker in the Lancashire League, where the same 14 clubs - including Burnley, alma mater of James Anderson and decent county pros such as Michael Brown and Jonathan Clare over the past two decades - play each other year in, year out? Do they lack sufficient motivation to generate that fierce competitiveness? Isn't it sufficient for teams to be incentivised to win (for pride, for glory) without them also having the fear of slipping down the structure and into irrelevance, anxiety over which in turn leads to all the distortions of the culture, to all the money spent to project strength, to be seen to be ambitious?
Often teams begin the slide down the league through no fault of their own. It can be because the players they have nurtured are cherry-picked. In the case of Oulton - a well-run village club near mine and with which we are in the process of merging - it is because they were unable to put out the stipulated number of junior sides across the age groups. Consequently, they have been punished with successive demotions, despite finishing mid-table in Division Two, then fourth in Division Three, the latter proving the final straw for some players, whose reluctant exodus was averted by the proposal of this merger.
In Oulton's ecosystem, the increasingly fierce competition for resources (young cricketers) has led bigger clubs in their vicinity - ours included, from certain perspectives - towards aggressively proactive recruitment, selling themselves as centres of coaching excellence. Little Billy's parents see all this, notice the struggle at his own club, and whisk him off to the apparently thriving club down the road. The trickle becomes a torrent, and it soon becomes impossible for the club to fulfil the league-mandated criteria. And so, despite having excellent facilities and a group of tightly knit players - a real, enduring community of committed cricketers - a good club is forced by red tape and the prospect of relegation freefall into such drastic action.
There are no simple answers here, but it should not be automatically assumed that using relegation and promotion as a means to engender competitiveness necessarily creates a stronger culture, or that it inevitably raises the standard. In this regard, perhaps the most progressive model is provided, ironically enough, by American sports - veritable socialist islands in a sea of capitalist self-interest, with their conference system, and administrative interventions from the draft system to salary caps, and revenue-sharing, all designed to safeguard the competitiveness, and thus ongoing appeal, of their sports.