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Why the Championship play-off final is the richest game in soccer

Can there be anything in football more magnificent than the goal from an overhead kick?

When Gareth Bale scored exactly that goal on Saturday in a Champions League final, the acme of elite-club-football competition, it was literally breath-taking. The stage, the spectacle made it possibly the greatest goal ever scored.

But for all the beauty of that goal and how it will undoubtedly be admired throughout the ages, it wasn't even the most important scored that day. That accolade rests with Tom Cairney, a midfielder who has plied his trade all season in the second tier of English football. This is because Cairney's winning goal in the Football League Championship Play-Off final at Wembley was worth £170.3 million ($215m) to his club, Fulham.

That play-off match has become the football equivalent of the 725,000-pound-per-square-inch pressure that forms diamonds, concentrating all the weight of a 46-game season into a single 90 minutes that bear the greatest riches of any game in the sport.

And while the victors on Saturday, Fulham, will reap the benefits of this colossal financial boost, the future looks far less certain for Aston Villa.

What makes this one game so lucrative?

England's top division is the wealthiest domestic league anywhere in the world and promotion into it brings a fortune unparalleled anywhere else in the sport. The Premier League guaranteed all shareholder clubs a minimum of £94.7m ($125.9m) this season, rising to £149.4m ($198.7m) for the winner, Manchester City.

If a club drops from the top flight after only a single season up, the "parachute payment" aimed at softening the blow is worth £41.6m ($55.3m) in the first season out of the Premier League. Clubs that spend a second season out of the Premier League will earn a further £34.0m ($45.2m) from its distributions.

The Premier League's broadcast revenues are being renegotiated for the three-season period beginning in 2019-20, meaning that future parachute payments are not guaranteed to remain as they are. However under the current structure, if a club manages to eke out two seasons in the Premier League before relegation, it would be worth at least £288m ($383.0m). That figure factors in the extra year's Premier League participation and a further third year of parachute payments that is lost to clubs who only spend a single year up.

Come what may have, the parachute money was due to run out for Fulham with the final whistle of the Play-Off final. The club's owner, Shahid Khan, who also owns the Jacksonville Jaguars and is separately in talks over the purchase of Wembley, had already indicated to his club's board his strong financial support would remain irrespective of whether they prevailed in the Play-Off final. Now though, with Fulham's share of the Premier League pie guaranteed, it is a question of building for the future from a position of financial strength.

This arrangement has led to great success for promoted teams in recent seasons. Of the 18 individual clubs promoted since the 2011-12 season, 13 will be playing in the Premier League next year. Considering there are only 20 teams in the division, that's a pretty good record.

Fulham were approaching the end of their parachute payments but thanks to winning promotion, their financial future looks much more secure again.
Fulham were approaching the end of their parachute payments but thanks to winning promotion, their financial future looks much more secure again.

Much of the reason for this is that the huge injection of new funds allows promoted clubs to improve on what are (by Premier League standards) relatively frugal wage bills. Fulham's was £37.1m ($49.3m) in 2015-16, the most-recent season for which all clubs' financial data are available, compared to a top-divisional average of £113.9m ($151.5m) and median of £84.3m ($112.1m).

Fresh income from the Premier League broadcasting payments is also only one element of financial turnaround promotion brings. With the added profile come more valuable sponsorship deals and a broader merchandising opportunity. There is also the chance to raise season-ticket prices although Fulham have declined to do so for what will be their first season back in the Premier League since 2013-14.

Given that Fulham's sponsorship and gate receipts were all but cut in half following relegation, from £24.4m ($32.5m) in 2013-14 to £12.6m ($16.8m) in 2016-17, there is much for the club to leverage after Saturday's success. It is clear there is a lot of leeway for promoted clubs to make substantial future investment and the same applies for clubs promoted into the Championship Fulham is leaving behind.

Although Coventry City will find that the step up in broadcast payments from their promotion from the fourth-tier League Two to the third-tier League one is relatively marginal, from £952,000 ($1.2m) to £1.425m ($1.9m), moving up to the Championship is more lucrative. Rotherham's League One Play-Off final victory raises their broadcast revenues by £5.5m ($7.3m) in an instant, to £6.925m ($9.2m).

There is also the impact on home gate receipts based on the larger away followings of the generally bigger clubs in the Championship. Leeds United, Sheffield Wednesday and Nottingham Forest take many more fans to away games than Gillingham, Walsall and Northampton. Add it all together and there is a big revenue differential between the two divisions.

For a club of Rotherham's size, this makes the Championship a lucrative promised land. But for a club accustomed to life in the Premier League like Aston Villa, whose defeat to Fulham in Championship Play-Off final condemns them to another season in the second tier, there is no milk or honey to be found there.

The trouble ahead for Villa

Meanwhile, Aston Villa's outlook is far darker as they face a tough choice to keep investing or cut their budgets.
Aston Villa's outlook is far darker as they face a tough choice to keep investing or cut their budgets.

Villa's financial accounts for the 2016-17 season were filed with Companies House in February and they do not make for pretty reading. This was the first year after Randy Lerner, the former owner of the Cleveland Browns, sold the club for £57m ($75.8m) to a Chinese group under Tony Xia's chairmanship. It prompted a waterfall of money flowing out of Villa.

On turnover of £73.8m ($98.2m), the costs of running Villa day to day -- through its wage bill, utility bills, travel, stocking the retail store and such like -- meant the club overspent by £15.9m ($27.8m). But that was before net transfer spending of £14.3m ($19.0m). Add to that the £57m ($75.8m) purchase cost and the new ownership funded the club to the tune of about £87.2m ($116m) in its first season.

Estimates suggest that Villa's extensive use of loans and free transfers for the 2017-18 season ensured that sales of players like Jordan Veretout, Carlos Sanchez and Nathan Baker created a net transfer profit approaching £15m ($20m). That was made necessary by the decline in Villa's "parachute payment" revenues, which fell by £7.6m ($10.1m) year on year, and a wage bill that was likely high by Championship standards given the presence of high earners like John Terry.

The drop in Premier League parachute revenues is now set to plummet even more dramatically. As described above, second-season payments were worth £34m ($45.2m). But in 2018-19, Villa's third successive campaign outside of the top division, the value of the parachute is more than cut in half, falling a further £18.9m ($25.1m). Whereas they have been used to receiving several tens of millions of pounds more from broadcasting than their Championship rivals, now Villa will only be £10.5m ahead of the others and it will only last for one more year before they must make do with the same as everyone else.

With money already tight, Villa face the added complication of Football League Profit and Sustainability rules, more commonly known as Financial Fair Play or FFP. These apply over a rolling, three-season period and oblige clubs to ensure losses do not exceed £13m ($17.2m) per season while in the Championship. They also penalize clubs whose losses during their Premier League relegation season rise above £35m ($46.4m).

Although Villa's first-season operating loss in the Championship was an almost-compliant £4.4m ($19.1m), it was the enormous £81.3m ($107.8m) loss in the 2015-16 Premier League season that on the face of it would seem to place them in breach of the regulations. But this came under Lerner, so should Villa be hit with sanctions, then an appeal on the grounds that the club under its current ownership should not be held accountable for the losses of a prior regime would naturally carry weight.

What matters more is how large was the deficit in their operating result for the Championship season just passed. At this stage, that cannot be seen. If it dramatically exceeded the permissible £13m, then sanctions might very well follow.

This explains why the trend of sales is already continuing this summer, with Jordan Amavi's loan to Marseille becoming permanent in a deal worth perhaps £9m ($12m). But the asset dumping can only stretch so far. Of Saturday's starting line-up, Sam Johnstone, Robert Snodgrass and Lewis Grabban were all on loan from parent clubs. Another seven players from the Villa squad are out of contract this summer and another six are entering the final year of their contracts, much reducing their transferable value.

In fact, only four Villa players have more than two years to run on their deals. The rest, including the highly regarded Jack Grealish, their best-performing player Saturday despite the intense pressure of that big match, have two years to run. This is traditionally when clubs seek to commit players to long-term extensions or cash in. Whether they do depends entirely on how much longer Villa's ultimate owners are prepared to fund the club.

The notes to Villa's 2017 company accounts state: "The directors have received confirmation that the ultimate holding company, Zhejiang Ruikang (Recon) Investment Co. Ltd., intends to provide [financial] support to the Group and Company for at least one year from 31 May 2017."

That might sound like a positive, long-term commitment or it might not. But if it isn't, then there is a strong chance that Grealish, who may very well have ambitions of his own that Villa cannot satisfy in the Championship, will move on from the club.

Villa are certainly at a crossroads. As they observe from a distance as Fulham take the place in the Premier League that might have been theirs, Villa must either request more funds from their owners for another throw of the dice or fit their new, reduced circumstances.

The gamble would require enormous investment in players to refresh a first team whose average age on Saturday was 30.1 years. The alternative will be to liquidate the most valuable assets such as Grealish and settle for a lengthy spell outside of the Premier League, as has been the case for their fellow former European champions Nottingham Forest and several other storied English clubs.

Only time will tell how things develop from here but Villa fans might brace themselves for the despondency they felt on Saturday evening to be the start of the disappointments to come.

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