I love the promotional playoffs in English Championship. They add an additional layer of drama to an already drama-filled promotional race at the end of each season. Often times, the playoffs expose little known teams to the big-time spotlight, giving those sides a rare shot of a match at the fabled Wembley.
The play playoffs are also provide a unique solution to a problem that plagues the promotion-relegation system in England.
In recent years, the top flight Premier League has received increasingly lucrative broadcasting deals, with a majority of these profits distributed amongst the member clubs based on final ranking in the league table for that season. So the higher your team finishes, the larger slice of the profits it receives. The lower divisions have a substantially smaller broadcasting contract than the Premier League, a jaw-dropping £1 million per game versus £45 million. This often produces a large disparity in revenues for lower league clubs compared to their top-tier counterparts, thus making it more difficult for those sides to compete.
After a club is relegated from the Premiership, for the next two seasons they receive a parachute payment from the higher-tiered league’s television contract to help them cope with the loss of revenue. The complaint here is that these parachute payments to former Premiership sides has in-turn created another gulf in wealth between those clubs and clubs who have never reached such lofty heights.
Many believe, and rightfully so, that these parachute payments have created a “bounce back” effect that enables the richer sides to quickly regain promotion back to the higher league. And as the cycle repeats itself, an ever increasing gap in income eventually makes it impossible for new sides to ever be promoted… or so the paranoid will have you believe.
That’s where the playoff system comes in as a solution. By allowing the sixth through third place finishers in the league fight through a playoff tournament for the the third and final promotion place, you increase the chances of a side that hasn’t been promoted before (or at least in a while) to make the jump up. The final of the Championship playoff is often referred to as the richest game in football, due to the large financial boost the winning club will receive from the Premier League’s broadcasting revenue the next season.
Want proof that the playoff system serves this important purpose? Here are some examples from the last ten years:
- Burnley finished 5th in the Championship last year, yet gained promotion to the Premier League for the first time since 1976. They earned this reward by first knocking off 4th place finisher Reading, and then by defeating third-placed Sheffield United in the final before a crowd of 80,500 at Wembley.
- In 2005, West Ham finished 6th in the Championship before beating 5th place finishers Preston North End in the playoff final to earn promotion.
- The 2004 final saw 6th place Crystal Palace knock-off 3rd place Sunderland in the semifinal, and then 4th place West Ham to go up.
- In 2003, 5th placed Wolves beat 3rd placed Sheffield United to make the jump.
- The 2002 playoffs had 5th place Birmingham City and 6th placed Norwich City advanced to the playoff final, with Birmingham city taking the spoils.
In fact in the last decade alone, only four 3rd place finishers (Bolton in 2001, Watford in 2006, Derby County in 2007 and Hull City in 2008) have won the playoffs to claim the promotion spot that would have been theirs had there been no playoffs.
And it’s this discussion and thought process that scares the living bejezus out of the Big Four clubs.
Why? Because some members of the Premier League are pushing for awarding the fourth and final Champions league spot to the winner of a similarly designed playoff. No set format has been discussed to this point, but they are debating allowing teams as low as 7th place to have a shot at the big show.
Man United’s Fergie isn’t a fan. Liverpool’s fat spanish waiter doesn’t want it, though admittedly that’s probably because his side is most likely to concede their spot. Arsene Wenger of arsenal thinks it’s a bad idea. And even Man City’s Roberto Mancini is against it, even though it’s his side who would currently benefit from the plan.
So the next question becomes, why would the Premier League do this?
One word: money.
Remember the 39th Game proposal that the clubs shot down a season ago? This plan was to serve two purposes. Firstly it was to give smaller sides (who typically don’t do foreign tours in the summer) more exposure in new markets, and consequently grow the fan base of those sides and the Premiership as a whole. Secondly and as a result of the first, by increasing the fan base and exposure of the Premier League, the demand for watching the entire season would go up in new markets and would likely grow foreign revenue streams (broadcasting rights, shirt sales, sponsorship opportunities, etc.). Oh yeah, and the league could continue to line it’s pockets by broadcasting these games on a pay-per-view basis.
FIFA was, unsurprisingly, against this idea. Sure, it would grow the Premier League’s popularity… but it would also cannibalize the local leagues’ exposure at the same time. I mean, who would you rather watch: a bunch of hacks locals that play for Selangor FA from the Malaysian Super League, or a mid-table Premiership side. No contest, right?
This European playoff is no different. The EPL will try to mask their new plan’s monetary ambitions by saying things like, “It will give the mid-table teams something to play for at the end of the season,” “The fans will love it,” or “It will provide more parity in the league.”
The fans will no doubt go crazy for it, especially for those that rarely — if ever — see their club compete for a Champions League spot suddenly getting a shot at the big time. That’s why it’s not really that surprising that mid-table clubs are obviously throwing their support at the proposal. And why not? Tottenham and Aston Villa have been trying to crack the top four for years now; this would give them an easier route to do so. And yes, by giving more teams a chance to pull in lucrative Champions League money, parity might be restored… if only a tiny, tiny bit.
But make no mistake, the playoff for the last Champions League spot would serve the exact same purpose as the 39th game plan. They want to find a new way to get a tsunami of cash pouring into the league coffers each season. And it’s that greedy ambition that makes me think that the Champions League playoff proposal is a terrible idea.
The first, and biggest reason why the playoffs shouldn’t happen is fixture congestion. The fixture calendar in England is already too crowded, with some teams taking part in up to five official competitions in a season (Ex: Manchester United in 2009-2010: the Premiership, FA Cup, League Cup, Champions League, and the FIFA Club World Cup). Asking a team to play potentially three more games would further expose the players to exhaustion and injury. In years that feature international tournaments, the playoffs would rob players of some of the crucial rest period between the end of the domestic season and the World Cup/European Championships.
The other thing that the Premier League may be taking for granted is that the fourth Champions League spot is hardly a guarantee. UEFA awards the number of Champions League places given to each country based on how that country’s teams have performed in European competitions over the previous seasons. If your league’s teams consistently perform poorly, then your coefficient will change and one of your spots could be awarded to another country (I hope you’re listening, Italy).
When Blackburn qualified for the Champions League by shockingly winning the title in 1995, the Rovers crashed out of the Champions League finishing bottom of their group with just four points to show. Though a talented side, their lack of European experience was the obvious reason for their failings on the continent.
If the Champions League playoffs had been in place last season, we could have potentially seen Fulham in the Champions League this season. And though Fulham are handling themselves just fine in the Europa League this season, would they be able to cut the mustard in the more competitive competition? Notice that European heavyweights Liverpool struggled this season in the Champions League, despite being very acclimated to the competition.
The point I’m trying to make is if the Premier League sends under qualified competitors to the Champions League, and they perform poorly, then there is a good chance that England could lose out on their fourth spot.
And there’s another huge kink in this design. How will the Premier League deal with doling out the Europa League qualification places if the playoff format is applied? Normally the qualification spots(s) is(are) given to the the fifth (and typically sixth) place finisher(s) in the league. Do they give the europa spots to runners up for the playoffs? Do they give it to the fifth place finisher as normal, and if so, what happens if that team wins the playoff?
If the the Premier League adopt this plan, there are just too many complications if you ask me.
Now don’t get me wrong: I would love to watch these playoffs regardless of what teams were involved. There would be just as much drama and excitement in them as the promotional playoffs. And as a Tottenham fan, the playoffs sound great since Spurs chances of reaching the Europe’s biggest stage will definitely go up.
But honestly, the system works just fine as it is now. Why throw in any more unnecessary layers in the process? Let’s leave Champions League qualification alone, and let everyone qualify based on season long-merit. Don’t let the thoughts of even more money skewer the judgment in this scenario.
And besides, knowing my luck, Tottenham will finally land fourth place the year that these rules are enacted… and you know they’ll just blow it in the playoffs anyway.