Promotion: a prize or a curse in disguise?

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It’s taken as a given that the ultimate quest of any fan of any lower-league football team is to see that team get promoted into the Premier League. And yet, in the modern-day atmosphere of parachute payments and global branding, is promotion really worth it?

The financial benefits of reaching the promised land of the Premier League are constantly mentioned. No match report of a play-off final game gets written without mention of the multi-million pound prize that awaits the winner.

In 2008, Hull City’s Dean Windass scored the £60m goal in the Championship play-off final. Three years later, Swansea City’s promotion allegedly earned them £90m and by 2013, the figure had risen even higher, with Crystal Palace raking in £120m for beating Watford.

But there are question marks over these figures. In reality, they may be purely superficial media tag lines, sprawled across newspaper headlines and shouted out in Sky Sports montages purely to generate attention and excitement. The increased revenue that Premier League football offers (largely from lucrative TV deals and sponsorship) is offset by higher costs.

After their 2008 promotion, Hull’s wage bill more than doubled, rocketing from £7m to £15m in 2008 thanks to promotion bonuses alone. New players were signed (such as Jimmy Bullard for a club-record £5m fee) and the wage bill rose to £38m. In 2010, the Tigers were in £40m of debt and staring down the barrel of liquidation, before being “saved” by Egyptain businessman Assem Allam.

After launching plans to change the club’s name to Hull City Tigers and telling supporters they ‘can die as soon as they want’, several fans are questioning whether Allam really did save their club after all. Similar trends can be seen elsewhere. Vincent Tan, Cardiff City’s Malaysian owner, oversaw promotion to the Premier League but then changed the Bluebirds’ kit to red, changed the club’s badge, booed his own players and sacked popular manager Malkay Mackay.

“The crucial, community role of football clubs is threatened by an alternative view of football clubs as money-making businesses.”

Modern football is becoming increasingly dictated by money. Promotion from the Championship, the quick-way at least, requires heavy spending, and – in an increasing number of cases – wealthy, foreign owners. Tan and Allam may have achieved success on the pitch, but in rebranding their clubs, they have alienated fans and attacked heritage. The crucial community role of football clubs as sporting bastions of their local areas, binding communities and generating local pride, is threatened by an alternative view of football clubs as money-making businesses.

Other Championship clubs have spent huge sums of money in a desperate attempt to get promoted. Blackburn Rovers, relegated under the ownership of Indian chicken processing company, Venky’s, continued to spend big despite relegation, paying £6m for Jordan Rhodes. Other clubs like Leicester, Nottingham Forest and QPR have gambled millions on promotion.

Then there is the question of what actually awaits newly-promoted teams.  Gone are the days of Brian Clough, Howard Wilkinson and Don Revie when promotion from the second-tier could be bettered the following season by a top-four finish in the top division and cup silverware. Most newly-promoted teams can hope for survival at best. Although there have been some exceptions in recent years (Swansea City for example finished 11th in their first season) the top four places are locked-out by the established, and wealthily backed, clubs.

Richard Scudamore, CEO of the Premier League, has aimed to distance the top-division from those below it, through a system of parachute payments that financially advantage newly-relegated teams from others in the Championship. Such a strategy has also reduced the importance of traditional, previously nationally-revered competitions, such as the FA Cup.

This narcissistic sense of self-importance, combined with the potential loss of heritage and enormous expenditure it necessitates, makes Premier League football increasingly unattractive. England’s top-division remains the promised land for all lower-league fans, but at what cost?

Photograph: Anonymous [Creative Commons]

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