There’s not just one League in England anymore, there are two leagues. Symbiotic leagues which feed off each other, enrich each other, and ultimately enrich the billionaires and millionaires who own, operate, and play in those leagues.
In The League you have 20 teams who play each other home and away, are awarded points for wins and draws, and the club with the most points at the end of the season wins a trophy. That League trophy is one of the most difficult things to get your hands on. In the 20 years that the League has existed just 5 teams have won: Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea, Blackburn Rovers, and Manchester City.
In addition to winners, there are losers: and while the winners get a trophy, the losers get kicked out of the League.
There’s also prize money awarded to each team in this League. Each place that a team finishes up the table in the League earns £755,062 cumulative. The winners receive £15m and the losers just £755,000. Already the seeds of inequality are planted. Not only do the losers get kicked out of the League but they receive a pittance in prize money.
This League has, however, a soft spot. There are lucrative domestic and foreign television contracts which are divided equally among all 20 teams to the tune of £32.5m.² In addition, all 20 teams are guaranteed that 10 of their games will be played live on television and thus earn them an additional £5.8m.
Among all of their various prize monies, television contracts, and other awards, the bare minimum that a League team will earn is £39m and the maximum which a team could earn is around £61m.
And if a team is booted out of that League, there’s a “parachute payment” of £15m which is given to teams to help them fight their way back into the League. That parachute payment is reduced the year after their first year of relegation and reduced further the year after that but is still a massive payment considering the fact that the league below The League only pays out an average of £1m in prize monies.
For many teams just being in this League is considered a huge achievement. There are two other competitions, cup competitions, that teams play in at the same time as they participate in the League: the Football Association Cup and the League Cup but more important than winning either of those two competitions is staying in the League. It’s even referred to as “survival” when a team avoids relegation because it’s the difference between life and death for some clubs.
This doesn’t mean that winning the FA Cup or the League Cup is completely without merit. Rather that those trophies are considered “stepping stones” to larger, more important trophies such as winning the League. Winning the FA Cup is a stepping stone, staying in the League is survival.
It’s simple math. The difference between surviving relegation from the League and winning the FA Cup is £25m. That’s £25m the club can spend on upgrading their stadium, on buying players, on training grounds, and on making their club better.
But there’s a second league above this League. A super league if you will. And unlike the League, it’s not friendly, things aren’t shared equally, and there are no parachute payments for relegated teams. It is pure capitalism: the rich get richer, the poor get poorer, and the have-nots are left to rot in the gutter.
Unlike the League, there are 32 teams from the leagues all over Europe and there is no egalitarian home and away play round robin to decide the winners and losers. Teams are only guaranteed 6 games and £6m. In those six guaranteed games there are bonuses that go to teams who win (£700,000 per) or even draw (£350,000 per). Those six games are used to determine who will go into the next round with the top two teams from each group selected to the round of 16. After that, it’s a knockout competition.
Making it to that round of 16 guarantees an additional £2.64m. That round’s prize money alone is more valuable than winning the FA Cup.
The next round is worth £3.3m.
The next round is worth £3.7m.
And if you win, the prize is £7.9m.
The total prize money up for grabs is £363,440,000. But there’s a hidden prize. One more valuable than the prize money. And completely determined by how powerful your league is. This is what this “Champions League” refers to as the “Market Pool”.
That Market Pool prize money is worth £300m and nearly 25% of that money goes to the four teams from The League. And the League winner, the best team in the best league in all the world? The Champions League pays them 8% of the Market Pool money, or nearly £24m. Just for showing up.
All totaled, if a team were to win all 13 of their games in the Champions League and if they were the champions from The League the payout would be £51,477,360.¹ Give or take a few pennies here and there.
Only the top three teams from The League are guaranteed admission to the Champions League. The fourth placed team has to survive a promotion battle between another similarly placed team from a different league in Europe. This is almost exactly the same system that teams from the league below the League use to get into The League.
For a club like Arsenal, who don’t have the backing of a man who is willing to spend £1bn to win the League, achieving third place and thus securing Champions League football is crucial, financially, to ensuring that Arsenal are even remotely competitive in the League. People wonder why Arsene Wenger prioritizes the Champions League over the FA Cup and even more so over the League Cup but it’s really quite simple.
As I illustrated above, almost no team in England would take an FA Cup trophy if it mean that they were relegated from the League because it’s financial suicide. The same applies to the Champions League, except in an even more direct, more cut-throat, more capitalist way: there are no parachute payments to help a team get back into the Champions League.
That’s why Liverpool have struggled for three years to get back in to the Champions League. That’s why Kenny Dalglish was fired. Winning the League Cup is meaningless if you finish 8th to a team like Liverpool who have aspirations of winning the League and getting back into the Champions League. That’s why Arsenal’s 15 consecutive years of Champions League football is a massive achievement. And that is why Arsene Wenger sat on the bench last Saturday, clutching Pat Rice, and looking like a manager whose team was on the verge of relegation.
Because they were.
Times have changed in The League. The old days when winning the FA Cup meant something have all but disappeared. At most it’s seen as a stepping stone to bigger and better things as Manchester City used it last year. But a manager would certainly never risk relegation from the Champions League places to win it.
Remember that next time someone tells you they would rather finish 8th and win the FA Cup: 8th place is relegation.