The $350 million match

It is the single most valuable sporting event in the world. The winner will pocket approximately $400 million when all is said and done. No single event, financially, means more to the winner. What is this event? The Super Bowl? The World Cup final? The Champions League final? The NBA playoffs? The answer is…the Football League Championship Playoff Final. This year, Yorkshire clubs Sheffield Wednesday and Hull City face off at Wembley Stadium to claim more prizemoney than any single other sporting event in the world gives out. If you’re scratching your head at this, you’re probably not alone. Why is a match contested between two teams who don’t even play in the top flight of their country’s football league system so valuable? The reason is that the Championship playoff final determines which of the two teams gain promotion to England’s world-famous Premier League, the richest football league on the planet. Unlike the AFL, which is an entirely separate entity from the VFL or any other second-tier leagues in Australian football, European and South American football operates under a system of promotion and relegation. Every year, three teams go up to the Premier League and three make the reverse trip down to the Championship. The top two clubs on the Championship ladder at the end of a gruelling, 46-game season are promoted automatically, while the clubs from 3rd to 6th at the end of the season take part in a series of playoffs- 3rd plays 6th and 4th plays 5th. Sheffield Wednesday upset third-placed Brighton, while fourth-placed Hull beat Derby. The effect is replicated all the way down the English football pyramid, which in total comprises 24 levels with hundreds of clubs involved. However, the gulf between the Championship and the Premier League is wider than any other, which makes promotion such a financial boon.
The Premier League is watched by millions of people worldwide. Why, exactly, it is the English top flight, rather than that of Germany, Spain, Italy or France, that is so popular is hard to explain. Perhaps it is a legacy of Britain’s sprawling colonial empire that inspires people from Melbourne to Mumbai to tune in to watch. Perhaps it’s because the Premier League is in itself explicitly a different organisation from the rest of English football (albeit while remaining part of the pyramid) and markets itself well as the best league in the world to watch. Or, it might be because, comparatively, and especially over the last half-decade, it has been far more competitive in terms of who wins the trophy at the end of the season than any other, as is evidenced by the unbelievable achievements of Leicester City this season. Regardless of its cause, the effect is clear, as evidenced by the sale of the Premier League’s total TV rights from 2016 to 2019 for an eye-popping £8.3 billion (A$16.7 billion). The domestic TV rights within the UK sold for around £5.1 billion (around A$10 billion), despite the fact that, unlike the AFL, not all matches are shown on television. All TV rights money is divided equally between the Premier League’s 20 clubs. The league itself is a private company wholly owned by the 20 clubs as shareholders. When all is said and done, whoever wins the Championship Play-Off Final will pocket around $350 million, according to Deloitte. Deloitte’s Money League, which ranks football clubs around the world by revenue, includes nine English clubs in its top 20, and estimates that by 2018 it is likely that all 20 Premier League clubs will be among the top 30 richest in the world.
If one of Hull or Wednesday (so named, incidentally, because it was originally an offshoot of a cricket club who played on Wednesdays) finish 17th or higher in next season’s PL, Deloitte estimates the original £170 million windfall would become almost £300 million. There is no single match in the world quite as valuable as this playoff. In 2014, Bobby Zamora scored a 90th minute winner for Queen’s Park Rangers in their play-off final against Derby County, sending his club up to the Premier League- a goal worth almost $150 million for QPR.
Unlike the more prestigious (but less financially valuable, strictly speaking) UEFA Champions League final, you won’t have the opportunity to tune in to the Championship play-off final on free-to-air TV in Australia. It may not have much of a reputation here, but it’s hard to imagine a more important football match for fans of the clubs involved. Come Sunday morning (Saturday afternoon in the UK), tens of thousands of supporters from south and east Yorkshire will watch on nervously at Wembley. One set of fans will return home triumphantly anticipating a season of big-money signings and away trips to Old Trafford, Anfield and the Emirates Stadium. The other set will curse what might have been. In a sporting world where money is more important than ever before to on-field success, there’s no match more important.

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