The eyes of the soccer world will be on Lisbon on Saturday for the biggest match of the club season when Real Madrid faces local rivals Atletico Madrid for the right to be hailed champions of Europe. It will not, though, be the most lucrative game of the year, or indeed even the day. Instead, the contest with that curious honor will be taking place a few hours earlier, around 1,000 miles north of Portugal’s capital at London’s Wembley Stadium between two teams who don’t even play in the top tier in England, never mind the continent.
It is the bounty on offer for reaching the Premier League that makes the Championship play-off final, not just the richest game in soccer, but the biggest payday for any sporting event in the world. While the winner of Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid will earn €10.5 million ($14.3 million) and the losers €6.5 million ($8.9 million), if Derby County was to triumph at Wembley it would net £120 million ($202 million). Victory for Queens Park Rangers would see it pull in a cool £80 million ($135 million).
That barely conceivable amount of money is evidence of the Premier League’s immense pulling power which has helped land ever-increasing television deals both at home and across the globe. The gulf between the Premier League and the rest of English soccer has never been greater and the rewards for getting to the top level never higher.
Even if the wining team on Saturday were to finish bottom of the Premier League and be relegated straight back down to the second tier, it will pick up £40 million ($67 million) in “prize money,” as well as parachute payments of at least £62 ($104 million) over the next four seasons. The payments were introduced by the Premier League, which formed as a breakaway division from the rest of English soccer in 1992, as a way to try and ease the fall of clubs dropping back down to the rest of English soccer’s pyramid. QPR are still receiving such payments for their relegation from the Premier League last season, reducing their possible gains for getting back up.
The price of failing to win for QPR, however, is far greater than for its opponents. The London club chased the dream spectacularly in the Premier League last season, signing a host of big-name players with lavish transfer fees and perhaps even more costly, with the incentive of huge salaries. When its investments failed spectacularly and its Premier League status disappeared, greatly reducing their income, their financial commitments didn’t go anywhere. Unlike many clubs, QPR are not thought to have inserted clauses in the majority of their players’ contracts, which would automatically reduce their wages upon relegation.
It means they were faced with situations like Julio Cesar, the goalkeeper who will start for favorites Brazil at this summer’s World Cup, earning almost £4.68 million ($7.88 million) a year while in England’s second division. QPR were desperate to move such salaries from its obligations but, unsurprisingly, could find no club willing to pick up that tab. It simply couldn’t give him away. With three years remaining on his contract, and even though he was frozen out of the team, Cesar was happy to stay put. After a six-month impasse, the 34-year-old eventually moved on a short-term loan to Major League Soccer side Toronto FC in order to get playing time ahead of this year’s World Cup. That and other similar deals, where loan clubs pick up at least part of the wage bill, have eased QPR’s burden, but their risks remain high.
Last year, even with Premier League income, 128 percent of its entire turnover was paid in wages. Incredibly their wage bill was higher than that of a team from that other, considerably more glamorous game on Saturday, Atletico Madrid. QPR’s losses for the year ending May 2013 were £65.4 million ($110 million), with their debt up to £177 million ($298 million).
Still, its endlessly hopeful, many would say desperately naïve, Malaysia owner Tony Fernandes has continued to sanction sizable transfers this season for manager Harry Redknapp in an effort to get back to the Premier League. With the gains of promotion so tantalizing, it is no wonder they are far from alone in risking so much to get to the promised land of the Premier League.
For the season ending in 2013, total wages of the 24 Championship clubs represented 107 percent of total turnover, according to a report by The Guardian. Net debt was a staggering £947 million ($1.6 billion). Like Europe’s governing body UEFA, England’s Football League has introduced Financial Fair Play rules to try and control spending. It doesn’t yet appear to have stemmed the flow of cash, and several clubs, including QPR, could face heavy fines for their excessive expenditures even if they are promoted.
In comparison to QPR, opponents Derby are regarded as something of a model club. Its fans too, however, are all too familiar with financial misadventure, having suffered serious peril, eventually forcing the club to enter administration, after relegation from the Premier League in 2002. The team from the Midlands provides a stark warning for QPR of the dangers of failure to quickly get back to the Premier League.
Worryingly, there are far egregious recent examples; chief among being Leeds United. Just 13 years ago the Yorkshire club was one game away from being in the same rarified air as the two Madrid clubs will inhabit on Saturday. The problem was that their rise had been built on a house of cards -- loans that, when money from the Champions League and then Premier League disappeared, they couldn’t repay, leading to financial meltdown and an ignominious trip down to the third tier of English soccer. Despite being one of England’s traditional big clubs, they have yet to get back to the Premier League and remain in deep financial trouble.
After a long period of cutting costs and waiting for expensive contracts to expire, before the briefest of returns to the top flight in 2007, Derby, now under the charge of former England coach Steve McClaren, have recovered and progressed steadily in recent years. Still, having invested £41.6 million ($70 million), according to figures from The Guardian, it is clear the club’s owners are striving toward the financial boon brought by promotion to the Premier League, which would dramatically increase the club’s value overnight.
Derby’s squad, in contrast to QPR’s team of -- in large part -- aging former Premier League players on bloated contracts, is highlighted by young players on loan from Premier League clubs and their own youth products. Key to their chances of victory on Saturday will be the performance of England Under-21 starlet Will Hughes. The price of failure to win promotion for Derby could well be the poaching of the talented 19-year-old by one of England’s big guns. It is an illustration of how difficult it is to compete in a sport where finances having taken over.
Thankfully for purists, examples to the contrary still remain. Atletico Madrid has proved this season, as did last year’s beaten Champions League finalists Borussia Dortmund, how prudence and good coaching can still, at least temporarily, subvert the dominant financial order. For whichever team triumphs at Wembley on Saturday, that lesson would be wise to take on board when they get their hands on soccer’s ultimate windfall.