The $200-million football spectacle

Money has come to be football’s defining obsession. How much does Cristiano Ronaldo earn every minute? How much is the net spend of your favourite club? What is the value a team would get if it were to invest in its academy? Clubs, administrators, and journalists rush to monetise the quantifiables and the intangibles. These are the questions that fill many newspaper spreads.

It should come as no surprise then that the English Football League (EFL) Championship (English football’s second tier) playoff final serves as the epitome of the gold rush.

Every year, the bounty for the winner-takes-all contest seems to rise exponentially. It is the kind of inflation that would make investors uneasy in any industry. Barring football though, which seems to inhabit a bubble that cannot be pricked. The richest football clubs remained in rude health even when the global downturn was ravaging economies a decade ago.

It is this seemingly inexhaustible pit of wealth that drives the frenzy of the playoff final. Here’s how it works. The top two teams from the Championship qualify automatically to play in the Premier League. Teams from positions 3rd to 6th then battle it out for the last promotion spot through a two-legged semi-final. The two that emerge victorious then meet for the final; for the Most Lucrative Match in the World, at Wembley Stadium.

And the rewards are plenty. Last year’s winner Fulham were the beneficiaries of more than $200 million. It could be worth more, depending on the fortunes of the promoted team. Fulham certainly did not make the most of its opportunity as relegation arrived swiftly this year. But even if the club does not return to the Premier League for the next two seasons, it is expected to receive around a $100 million in parachute payments to smooth the landing back down into the Championship.

Some teams mess up in spite of the largesse. Blackpool shocked observers in 2010 when it returned to the English top flight after nearly four decades. But it took only a single campaign to burst the bubble; the slide down the divisions thereafter has been ugly.

Now Blackpool finds itself mid-table in League One (the third tier of the English football pyramid), convalescing after years of fan revolt. But the club’s supporters must count their stars too as they still have a team to support after long-running, colossal mismanagement by the Oyston family. Only this February, the club was forced to file for receivership after its former owner failed to clear substantial dues.

But even Blackpool may not have touched the nadir. In 1990, Swindon Town became the first side to win a playoff final at Wembley in front of over 72,000 spectators. However, it was the vanquished Sunderland who took Swindon’s spot in the erstwhile first division as the latter was found guilty of making illegal payments to players over the previous few seasons.

It does not always have to end badly. Ask Ipswich Town or Blackburn Rovers who managed to finish in the Premier League top five at the first time of asking. One could go on about the fate of promoted sides but it is the explosion of wealth that has come to supply the drama associated with promotion to the Premier League.

No other game encapsulates football’s reality better. It remains an unsaid rule that financial might goes a long way to assert a team’s ambitions. Even the ‘surprise’ Champions League semi-finalists this season, Tottenham Hotspur and Ajax, are relatively affluent. The heightened rewards of the Championship playoff final drive home the transformative impact of coming into wealth.

Norwich and Sheffield United, the top two teams in the Championship, have already sealed the sizeable prize. Meanwhile, the contenders for the playoff spot this year have differing motivations to earn the bounty. Unlike Huddersfield Town in 2017, this year’s competing clubs are of more familiar vintage. While West Bromwich Albion and Aston Villa were part of the Premier League until recently, Leeds United and Derby County are legacy clubs who were once top flight residents.

Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds go into the playoffs as favourite, having missed out on automatic promotion after a late-season collapse. It is a dip that is not entirely unfamiliar to Bielsa’s teams and it will offer hope to Leeds’ competitors.

The larger question is of the impact of promotion to the Premier League. All of the four sides can put down a legitimate claim for a lengthy stay in the elite division. They own some of the biggest stadiums in England, possess a considerable fan base, and their experience of Premier League football is not insignificant.

Nor do teams that get promoted through the playoffs necessarily do badly. The financial rewards on offer in the Premier League could help each of the Championship clubs to sustain their riches.

The money pot is considerable, and widening. Football’s money train will continue to chug along.

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