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Ryan O’ writerMay 26, 2023, 04:00 AM ET8 Minute Read

Coventry City haven’t been in the Premier League since the turn of the century, but they’re 90 minutes from returning to England’s top flight.Owen Humphreys/PA Images via Getty Images

Don’t you just love it when the title gets decided while one team are sitting in a conference room and the others are losing a match to a side 51 points back of first place?

If you’re a Manchester City fan, employee or family member, then you do. But for everyone else, a potentially classic Premier League title race quickly fizzled out into nothing as Arsenal capitulated after Easter. The same goes for a top-four chase that once included upwards of six teams but suddenly seemed all-but-decided before the season was over as Man United and Newcastle sealed the spots with time to spare. So too did the relegation fight, which included nearly half the league but now features just three sides (Everton, Leeds and Leicester) and a two-point gap between 17th and 18th, with Southampton already down.

– Stream LIVE: Coventry City vs. Luton Town, Sat. 5/27, 11:40 a.m. ET, ESPN+

Every commercial sports competition is trying to find a balance between identifying the best team and creating the most excitement. American sports have tilted toward the latter, with long regular seasons to determine seedings followed by an abbreviated cup competition to determine the champion.

Analysis by Michael Lopez, now senior director of football data and analytics at the National Football League, found that the best team advances from a best-of-seven NBA series around 80% of the time. On the other end of the fairness spectrum, you’ve got baseball: a 162-game regular season and then playoff series that would need to be best-of-75 to identify the best team as often as the NBA’s playoffs do.

Both of those leagues struggle with devaluing the regular season, though that isn’t the Premier League’s problem. The structure of a typical European domestic league is about as fair as it gets: everyone plays the same schedule, and whoever comes out with the most overall points is the champ. Week 2 matters as much as Week 32, but when one team is much better than the others — which is inevitable given the unequal spending power across these leagues — you often get a situation like the one we’ll see this Sunday, where the final games of the season are also the least important.

Thankfully, this weekend will also feature the final of soccer’s — and maybe one of all sport’s — best-designed competition: the Championship playoff.

The most lucrative game in sports

You hear it before every Championship playoff final: it’s the richest, or the most valuable, or the most lucrative game in soccer. It sounds like one of those pithy lines everyone assumes is true enough without applying any scrutiny. But not only is it true, calling it the “most lucrative game in soccer” might undersell just how lucrative it actually is.

“A team promoted to the Premier League will receive £110 million from the league just for coming in last place, compared to around £10m for doing well in the Championship, plus a further £70m or more as parachute payments after relegation,” said Omar Chaudhuri, chief intelligence officer at the consultancy Twenty First Group. “When you factor in potential increases in matchday income and sponsorship income, promoted teams are looking at close to a guaranteed £200m increase in revenue above what they would have had staying in the Championship.

“There is no sports game in the world where a team or individual can expect that big a range in future revenue based on the final result.”

Each season, the top two teams in the Championship are promoted to the Premier League (Burnley and Sheffield United, this time), with the next four participating in a four-team playoff: home and away ties, over two legs — third vs. sixth and fourth vs. fifth, followed by a one-off final at Wembley between the winners.

The comparative cash prize this season might be bigger than ever before, too. To prevent clubs from imploding after relegation — aka, they’re suddenly unable to afford their Premier League-level wages — they are given those parachute payments in their first three years after dropping down to the Championship: £44m in the first relegated year, then £36m, and then £16m. However, of this season’s finalists, Luton Town have never been in the Premier League and Coventry haven’t been there since 2001.

Per an analysis of the latest available accounts (2021-22 season) by football-finance expert Kieron O’Connor, the just-relegated sides all earned £51m in broadcasting revenue from the Championship’s TV deal and the parachute payments. Coventry, on the other hand, made just £8.8m in broadcasting revenue, while Luton earned £10.5m thanks to an appearance in the playoff semifinal.

All in all, the richest team in the Championship brought in £71.6m in revenue. The average across the league was £27.1m, and Luton and Coventry were both well below even that: £17.7m and £18.1m, respectively.

“Coventry and Luton are certainly surprise packages in the playoff final,” Chaudhuri said.” They both have bottom-half revenue and wage spend, and haven’t featured in the top flight for 22 years. The [playoff] final has produced a few of these teams though in recent years — Nottingham Forest and Brentford have both gone up despite having had long absences from the top flight — but in the main, it has featured teams that have been Premier League sides in the last decade or so.”

It’s exciting — and it’s not unfair

Nottingham Forest punched their Premier League ticket in last season’s Championship playoff. Whoever wins this season will enjoy an injection of cash that goes far beyond what you might think.Joe Prior/Visionhaus via Getty Images

While the MLB playoffs are wildly exciting, they’re also wildly divorced from what happens in the regular season. Last season, for example, the Los Angeles Dodgers won 111 games — the fifth most in league history — while the San Diego Padres won 89. In years past, the Padres wouldn’t have made the playoffs, but a recent expansion of the tournament from eight to 10 to 12 teams meant they snuck in. Then, in the second round of the playoffs, they beat the Dodgers in a best-of-five series 3-1. So who was really the better team?

Of course, no sports league is designed solely to determine the best team. There needs to be a large degree of inherent uncertainty in the tournament structure to make it interesting for fans to watch, but also not so much uncertainty that fans feel like they’re just watching world-class athletes flip a coin.

While all of the major American leagues have increased uncertainty over time by adding more and more teams to the playoffs, European soccer has moved in the other direction. Not only have these leagues mainly stuck with competition models that were devised 100 years ago, but while American sports have closed-off cartel models that increase parity (and limit player wages), European soccer has embraced the free market with open arms, falling prey to the same inequality-increasing dynamics that are affecting everything else in the world.

What you’re left with is a fairness-emphasizing competition structure combined with an unfair financial landscape. The result, typically, is the same (read: richest) teams winning each title and the final few weeks of the season offering little excitement.

The Championship, though, has found a better way. The top two teams in the league automatically qualify for the Premier League, which means the regular season still maintains a ton of value. But by creating the playoff, you do two things. First, you introduce five super-high-stakes games to the end of the season.

“It’s an excellently designed format if your objective is to maximize commercial value through audience size,” Chaudhuri said. “Championship playoff semifinals and finals regularly draw Premier League-sized TV audiences. The jeopardy of the game — not just the fact that it’s a final, but the amount of money on the line — draws a crowd.”

Second, the introduction of a four-team playoff makes it so more teams feel like they have a chance to make it up to the Premier League each season.

Since the competitive rewards of the Championship are so different from any other league, so are the competitive practices. This season, there were 12 teams within 10 points of qualifying for the Championship playoff, in addition to the two teams that automatically qualified. And with so many teams able to convince themselves that they’re oh-so-close to the riches of the Premier League TV money, those teams do whatever they can to get there.

“It very much affects how teams spend,” Chaudhuri said. “Results are correlated with spending — better players ultimately cost more money — and as such, teams spend beyond their means in order to have a chance of going up. In the last season before the COVID-19 pandemic, Championship clubs spent 98% of their revenue on wages alone. In top European leagues, this figure tends to be between 50% to 65%.”

However, unlike in those top European leagues, spending doesn’t correlate as tightly with success. The correlation between spending and results in the Premier League is 80%, per Twenty First Group. But in the Championship, it’s just 54%. This makes for a much more interesting competition.

Plus, it’s not like the Championship playoff frequently rewards unworthy teams who got lucky or hot at the right time. If it did, we’d see these sides get swatted right back down to the Premier League. But over the past 10 years, the playoff winners haven’t performed any worse than the automatically promoted sides.

The Championship winners have averaged a 15th-place finish in their first Premier League seasons, while the runners-up and playoff winners both averaged a 16th-place finish. Four of the previous 10 winners went right back down, while five of the previous 10 runners-up and five of the previous playoff champs went right back down as well. Next season, six of the sides in the Premier League will be winners.

“A third-place team might argue that it is unfair that the sixth-place team can leapfrog them into the top division,” Chaudhuri said. “But having teams chasing the final playoff spot keeps things interesting throughout the season and helps reduce the number of ‘meaningless’ midtable games from April onwards.”

– Stream on ESPN+: Championship, LaLiga, Bundesliga, more (U.S.)

In terms of which sports competition is the best-designed, it’s the NFL followed by everyone else. There’s a reason the league makes close to $20 billion a year. The regular season is so short (17 games) that every game matters. And the win-and-advance playoffs introduce just enough jeopardy that you see plenty of upsets but rarely an out-of-nowhere winner.

Every sports league is chasing that constant, high-simmering tension — and the league that’s come closest to it isn’t the Premier League. No, it’s the league right below it.

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