Sports league

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A sports league is a group of sports teams or individual athletes that compete against each other and gain points in a specific sport. At its simplest, it may be a local group of amateur athletes who form teams among themselves and compete on weekends; [1] at its most complex, it can be an international professional league making large amounts of money and involving dozens of teams and thousands of players.




In many cases, organizations that function as leagues are described using a different term, such as association, conference, division, leaderboard, or series. This is especially common in individual sports, although the term "league" is sometimes used in amateur individual sports such as golf. [2]

The term "league" is also sometimes applicable to competitions that would more traditionally be called tournaments, such as the UEFA Champions League, which is organized with multiple small round-robin competitions followed by a single elimination tournament to choose an overall winner.

Leagues and league systems

"League" and its synonyms may be used to encompass either a single competition or a related group of competitions.

Many groups use promotion and relegation, where the best-ranked team(s) in the lower division are promoted to the higher division for the next season, and the worst-ranked team(s) in the higher division are relegated to the lower division for the next season. Under this system, "league" may refer both to a league system, a group of leagues that are tied together in a hierarchical fashion by promotion and relegation, and to the individual leagues within the league system. For example, in English association football, the English Football League (EFL) is a league system, while the term "National League" refers both to the league immediately below the EFL in the English pyramid and to its associated league system.

An alternate system of league organization which is used primarily in Australia, Canada, and the United States is a closed model which always has the same teams playing, with occasional admission of expansion teams and relocation of existing teams. There is no team movement between the higher major league and the lower minor leagues .

In many of these closed-model leagues in Canada and the United States, they are divided into subdivisions on historical or geographical lines. These may be referred to as conferences or divisions. For example, the National Football League (NFL) is divided into the National Football Conference and American Football Conference; the latter conference was formed largely from the remnants of the American Football League after it merged with the NFL, though it now contains three original NFL teams and three expansion teams. Both the National Basketball Association (NBA) and National Hockey League (NHL) are divided into Eastern and Western Conferences. The conferences in the NFL, NBA, and NHL are further divided into subsets, all of which are called divisions. These are geographically based, and teams play their divisional opponents more than any others, and then play the other clubs in their conference more than their non-conference opponents.

Baseball has a unique nomenclature, with "Major League Baseball" (MLB) the name of the overall grouping of 30 teams in two "major leagues", the American League (AL) and the older National League (NL). They are titled leagues rather than conferences for several reasons. The National League predates the American by 25 years and was considered a "major" league in comparison to its early competitors, and in a sense it simply extended this recognition to the AL, the only league of similar financial clout. In addition, the leagues played no interlocking schedule of any kind until 1995, and then added only a small amount of interleague play, with the main AL-NL competition occurring between their champions in the World Series. Thus the two leagues played mostly separate competitions within the larger framework of MLB. Finally, until 2000, they were actually separate legal entities, unlike the conferences of other leagues. Nippon Professional Baseball in Japan has a similar history, with the Central League and Pacific League not founded together.

Due to this naming custom, it is common to use slightly different terms to discuss MLB. Where someone might refer to "the best quarterback in the league" and be understood to mean the overall NFL, a similar mention of "the best outfielder in the league" is almost always a reference to the American or National League, while "in all of baseball" or similar is used to denote the larger status. Each of the major leagues also has its own set of awards to recognize the separation between the two, which means there are two MVPs, two Cy Young Award winners, etc. Since its name is constructed differently—a description of the status of two leagues rather than the title of one—it is common to hear "MLB" without "the" attached to it, as in "the most home runs in MLB this year", since one would not say "the Major League Baseball".

League organization

The common thread between all sports leagues is a structure that allows teams or individuals to compete against each other in a nonrandom order on a set schedule, usually called a season, with the results of the individual competitions being used to name an overall champion.

A league championship may be contested in a number of ways. Each team may play every other team a certain number of times in a round-robin tournament. Usually, teams play equal number of games or matches at their own stadium and at other teams', because home advantage is a major factor in many sports. When teams competing for a tournament championship do not play the same teams the same number of times, it is known as an unbalanced schedule.

In such a set-up, the team with the best record becomes champion, based on either a strict win-loss-tie system or on a points system where a certain number of points are awarded for a win, loss, or tie, while bonus points might also be added for teams meeting various criteria. Many leagues also use playoffs, where after teams compete in a regular season in a league format, the top teams (possibly determined by conference or division) advance to the playoffs. In some such leagues having the best regular season record is relatively unimportant, though top-seeded teams in some leagues, such as the NFL, can gain byes to later rounds of the playoffs, and teams finishing with the best records usually have the advantage of playing the weakest teams that have advanced to the playoffs.

Alternatives to traditional league organization

While round-robin and modified round-robin competitions are the most common form of league organization, there are a number of ways to organize a sporting competition, almost all of which may be described as a "league". Many sports organizations fall on a continuum between a total lack of organization, as in a pick-up game, and a formal league such as is common at the highest level of professional team sports.

Non-league sports

The simplest form of competition is to allow teams to play each other whenever they see fit. In some sports, such as horse racing, the main goal of the entrants is to win individual purses, and there is little or no ranking or competition outside winning certain major races. A small amount of league organization may be imposed on these non-league sports by way of a series or tournament tying several individual events together, such as the Triple Crown.

Even in team sports that normally use a traditional league format, some teams often exist outside any league; these teams are generally known as barnstorming teams and either schedule games against local professional or amateur competition or bring their own competition, such as the barnstorming Harlem Globetrotters did when they toured with the Washington Generals. As with the Globetrotters, barnstorming teams sometimes emphasize spectacle over athletic competition.

In Europe, the term "cup competition" is used to describe single elimination or knock-out tournaments, where the pairing of teams in each round is determined by a "draw" (see for example, the FA Cup in England), to distinguish it from league competition, in which every club in the league or division plays the other teams a pre-determined number of times in a season, usually on a home and away basis.

Further, in England, the term non-league football is used for historical reasons to describe association football teams that play in organized leagues, but not in the English Football League or Premier League, the two highest levels of competition in that sport in that country.

Independent baseball is used similarly in the United States to describe baseball teams that play in leagues other than those sanctioned by Major League Baseball. These teams do play in leagues and should not be confused with barnstorming teams that play truly non-league schedules.

Rankings and leaderboards

Individual sports often use an alternative type of league organization where competitors are ranked against each other. In the simplest cases, such as boxing, the rankings mean little and the major competition is to crown a champion in a title fight.

In other sports, the rankings and leaderboards gain importance when they are used in seeding tournaments.

In some sports, points are assigned to results at individual competitions, and the resulting points are used to generate a season rankings and determine the season champion. While not usually referred to as "leagues", but "tours" or "series", these season-long competitions with set events are very similar to league structures in team sports. Examples of this are motorsport, tennis, golf, skiing, beach volleyball and rugby sevens.

Conferences and informal leagues

American college sports are traditionally organized into groups of teams known as conferences. [3] These conferences ordinarily keep league tables and crown champions within the conference, as other sports leagues do, but the individual schools also schedule a certain number of "non-conference" games that are organized independently between two schools in different conferences, or between a conference team and a non-conference team. Also, national championships in some college sports are determined by a ranking or playoff system that is independent of the individual conferences.

Round-robin sports leagues

Most major team sports play some form of round-robin schedule, where the goal is for each team to play a relatively balanced schedule with each other team in the league or in its league subdivision. Within this structure, there are a few significant differences between leagues, a few of which are set forth below.

Single-table versus unbalanced schedule

The simplest way to organize a sports league, and still one of the most common, is in a double round-robin format where each team plays each other team twice, once at home and once away. This ensures that every team plays an equally difficult schedule and that no team has undue home field advantage. This organization is still used in many team sports around the world.

One potential drawback of this simple double round-robin format is that the number of teams in the league determines the schedule. Larger leagues may not be able to play as many games as such a system would require, and smaller leagues may want more games. In addition, leagues whose teams are geographically spread out over a wide area (a common situation for leagues in North America) may face significant travel costs. One solution is to play an unbalanced schedule, with some teams playing additional games against some other teams; this is the way Major League Soccer has traditionally been scheduled, with the additional games being played against local rivals. Some leagues also break the league into subunits, often known as divisions and conferences, each of which may itself play a balanced or unbalanced schedule.

Central venue leagues

A "central venue league" (CVL) is a sports league where all the fixtures take place at the same venue, instead of rotating around the venues of the 'home' team, for each fixture. Several UK basketball leagues operate on this basis, intended to keep the costs of participation as low as possible, [4] including:

Cups, tournaments, and playoffs

Many sports leagues also participate in a single-elimination tournament each year. In the United States, Mexico, and some other countries, these tournaments are commonly called "playoffs" and are played at the end of the season, with the teams qualifying for the playoffs based on their performance during the season. In Europe, "cup" competitions are more common, with all teams playing in a single-elimination tournament that takes place during and parallel with the regular season.

See also

Related Research Articles

The playoffs, play-offs, postseason or finals of a sports league are a competition played after the regular season by the top competitors to determine the league champion or a similar accolade. Depending on the league, the playoffs may be either a single game, a series of games, or a tournament, and may use a single-elimination system or one of several other different playoff formats. Playoff, in regard to international fixtures, is to qualify or progress to the next round of a competition or tournament.

Southeastern Conference Collegiate athletics conference operating primarily in the southeastern United States

The Southeastern Conference (SEC) is an American college athletic conference whose member institutions are located primarily in the South Central and Southeastern United States. Its fourteen members include the flagship public universities of ten states, three additional public land-grant universities, and one private research university. The conference is headquartered in Birmingham, Alabama. The SEC participates in the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division I in sports competitions; for football, it is part of the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS), formerly known as Division I-A.

A tournament is a competition involving at least three competitors, all participating in a sport or game. More specifically, the term may be used in either of two overlapping senses:

  1. One or more competitions held at a single venue and concentrated into a relatively short time interval.
  2. A competition involving a number of matches, each involving a subset of the competitors, with the overall tournament winner determined based on the combined results of these individual matches. These are common in those sports and games where each match must involve a small number of competitors: often precisely two, as in most team sports, racket sports and combat sports, many card games and board games, and many forms of competitive debating. Such tournaments allow large numbers to compete against each other in spite of the restriction on numbers in a single match.
Bracket (tournament)

A bracket or tournament bracket is a tree diagram that represents the series of games played during a knockout tournament. Different knockout tournament formats have different brackets; the simplest and most common is that of the single-elimination tournament. The name "bracket" is American English, derived from the resemblance of the links in the tree diagram to the bracket punctuation symbol ] or [. The closest British term is draw, although this implies an element of chance, whereas some brackets are determined entirely by seeding.

In an organized sports league, a typical season is the portion of one year in which regulated games of the sport are in session: for example, in Major League Baseball the season lasts approximately from the last week of March to the last week of September. In other team sports, like association football or basketball, it is generally from August or September to May although in some countries - such as Northern Europe or East Asia - the season starts in the spring and finishes in autumn, mainly due to weather conditions encountered during the winter.

Exhibition game Sporting event wherein the result has no external impact

An exhibition game is a sporting event whose prize money and impact on the player's or the team's rankings is either zero or otherwise greatly reduced. In team sports, matches of this type are often used to help coaches and managers select and condition players for the competitive matches of a league season or tournament. If the players usually play in different teams in other leagues, exhibition games offer an opportunity for the players to learn to work with each other. The games can be held between separate teams or between parts of the same team.

NFL playoffs Single-elimination postseason tournament

The National Football League (NFL) playoffs are a single-elimination tournament held after the regular season to determine the NFL champion. Currently, seven teams from each of the league's two conferences qualify for the playoffs. A tie-breaking procedure exists if required. The tournament culminates in the Super Bowl: the league's championship game in which two teams, one from each conference, play each other to become champion of the NFL.

An athletic conference is a collection of sports teams, playing competitively against each other in a sports league. In many cases conferences are subdivided into smaller divisions, with the best teams competing at successively higher levels. Conferences often, but not always, include teams from a common geographic region.

Games behind Sports league statistic

In most North American sports, the phrase games behind or games back is a common way to reflect the gap between a leading team and another team in a sports league, conference, or division.

Sports rating system

A sports rating system is a system that analyzes the results of sports competitions to provide ratings for each team or player. Common systems include polls of expert voters, crowdsourcing non-expert voters, betting markets, and computer systems. Ratings, or power ratings, are numerical representations of competitive strength, often directly comparable so that the game outcome between any two teams can be predicted. Rankings, or power rankings, can be directly provided, or can be derived by sorting each team's ratings and assigning an ordinal rank to each team, so that the highest rated team earns the #1 rank. Rating systems provide an alternative to traditional sports standings which are based on win-loss-tie ratios.

There are a number of formats used in various levels of competition in sports and games to determine an overall champion. Some of the most common are the single elimination, the best-of- series, the total points series more commonly known as on aggregate, and the round-robin tournament.

In games and sports, a tiebreaker or tiebreak is used to determine a winner from among players or teams that are tied at the end of a contest, or a set of contests.

A wild card is a tournament or playoff berth awarded to an individual or team that fails to qualify in the normal way, for example by having a high ranking or winning a qualifying stage. In some events, wild cards are chosen freely by the organizers. Other events have fixed rules. Some North American professional sports leagues compare the records of teams which did not qualify directly by winning a division or conference.

In sport, a championship is a competition in which the aim is to decide which individual or team is the champion.

Professional sports leagues are organized in numerous ways. The two most significant types are one that developed in Europe, characterized by a tiered structure using promotion and relegation in order to determine participation in a hierarchy of leagues or divisions, and a North American originated model characterized by its use of franchises, closed memberships, and minor leagues. Both these systems remain most common in their area of origin, although both systems are used worldwide.

A bye in sports refers to organizers scheduling a competitor not to participate in a given round of competition, due to one of several circumstances.

In a group tournament, unlike a knockout tournament, there is no scheduled decisive final match. Instead, all the competitors are ranked by examining the results of all the matches played in the tournament. Typically, points are awarded for each match, with competitors ranked based either on total number of points or average points per match. Alternatively, competitors may instead be ranked by winning percentage, defined as the number of wins divided by the total number of matches played.

A one-game playoff, sometimes known as a pennant playoff, tiebreaker game or knockout game, is a tiebreaker in certain sports—usually but not always professional—to determine which of two teams, tied in the final standings, will qualify for a post-season tournament. Such a playoff is either a single game or a short series of games.

In American sports, the final four is the last four teams remaining in a playoff tournament. Usually the final four compete in the two games of a single-elimination tournament's semi-final (penultimate) round. Of these teams, the two who win in the semi-final round play another single-elimination game whose winner is the tournament champion. In some tournaments, the two teams that lose in the semi-final round compete for third place in a consolation game.

In sports, strength of schedule (SOS) refers to the difficulty or ease of a team's/person's opponent as compared to other teams/persons. This is especially important if teams in a league do not play each other the same number of times.


  1. "Adult Sports & Exercise · WHAT PARK DID YOU HANG OUT AT? · Somerville Archives". Archived from the original on 2015-10-06.
  2. "A Golf League of Their Own". Archived from the original on 2009-12-23.
  3. Some conferences, though, use league instead of conference in their names. About The Ivy League Archived 2011-09-03 at the Wayback Machine . The Ivy League official website. Council of Ivy Group Presidents. Retrieved 2011-09-05.
  4. 1 2 Community Basketball League, About the Community Basketball League', accessed 11 July 2020
  5. Newcastle Eagles Community Foundation, 15 Years of the Central Venue League, published 2 November 2017, accessed 11 July 2020

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