The system is rigged: Why neither Chivas or Puebla will get relegated from Liga MX this season despite sucking

Puebla and Chivas are duking it out with relegation on the line, but, in a rigged system, neither is likely to lose in the end.

In the United States, our communist-controlled sports leagues with a socialist ethos reward mediocrity. Teams that fare poorly don’t face the abyss at season’s end: just a lottery pick (in a draft that forces talented, newly minted employees to sign with shitty employers, go figure). In Europe, it’s the opposite. In most European leagues, the top three teams from the second division get promoted. The bottom three from the top division get dropped. This is social mobility incarnate. And it’s exciting.

In Mexico, though, the version of promotion and relegation is heavy on drama but low on social mobility. For starters, the league is a scheduling mess. Unlike Europe with single table and year-long seasons, the clubs play two “seasons” per year, the Apertura and Clausura. Additionally, each mini-season has a liguilla (playoff) for the top eight teams to determine the winner. The league has had promotion and relegation since 1950, when the second division, Liga de Ascenso, was created. However, only the sole team at the bottom of the table gets relegated. That’s right. A single team.

To spice things up, in 1968, Liga MX actually instituted a playoff to not be relegated. The bottom two or four teams squared off, but only if the point difference was fewer than four. Liga MX ended the don’t-be-relegated playoffs in 1985 “allegedly” due to a violent pitch invasion in Zacatepec. Then, in 1992, Liga MX officially instituted the much derided porcentaje rule: basically, the relegation table would now be based on the points-per-game metrics for the prior three years (six mini-seasons) for established clubs. The idea was simple: protect the powerful. Many big club owners feared a single poor season could tank their teams (and investments), so the porcentaje method in theory could protect them. The results speak for themselves: of the 18 teams in the Liga MX, six have never been relegated since getting promoted.

The porcentaje system may give big clubs some wiggle room to have a bad season and survive, but the past eventually catches up with the present. Even the once powerful can fall under their own weight. In Argentina, the clubs also instituted a similar system. Major clubs River Plate and Independiente have both been relegated since (to the delight of rival fans). In Liga MX, right now, Puebla has a paltry 1.026 points-per-game record and Chivas has a pathetic 1.08. In terms of results, that’s a draw a game, or a win and two losses every three games.

Relegation doesn’t occur until the end of the Clausura. And here’s the genius of the percentage system: with only one team relegated per year, big clubs can count on newly promoted sides to suck just a little bit more than them. New sides don’t have the backlog of previous years to help inflate their records. This year, Puebla and Chivas can look down upon recently promoted Club Universidad de Guadalajara. Also, Veracruz — in reality the relocated club La Piedad — was promoted in 2013 and also has a terrible points percentage (above Puebla but below Chivas). Thus, the combination of a points-per-game system and a single team getting relegated creates an almost unbreakable safety net for big clubs.

Here’s the last trump card: even if Chivas or Puebla go down, wealthy owners can just buy and relocate that season’s promoted franchise. Queretaro in 2013 is the most recent example. If Chivas goes down, then Jorge Vergara can just buy small but possibly promoted clubs Coras Tepic or Altamira (depending on who wins the Apertura/Clausura playoff). In Europe, a club that gets relegated normally has to either cut a ton of players or make the strategic decision like QPR or Juventus to overpay top-flight players for a year in the second tier. In Mexico, an owner just cuts a big check for a franchise. Sports franchise rebrands in the U.S. are annoying. In Mexico, they are cynical and sickening.

So, alas, Chivas and Puebla will square off with points on the line, but not survival. Until the field of relegated teams expands to three or the franchise-end around loophole gets closed, expect to see a bigger club go down about as often as Haley’s Comet. As in, hardly ever.