The Premier League's relegation battle is celebrated by fans but the consequences for those who fall are dire
The most remarkable aspect of the enormous financial gap between the Premier League and the rest of football is that, at the end of every season, it is celebrated rather than reviled. The chasm which has caused so much financial trauma, causing relegated clubs to collapse leaving trails of unpaid creditors and fans worried for their club's future is still the result of the First Division sides breaking away from the Football League's other three divisions 19 years ago.
For 104 years before 1992, since it was formed as the world's first such competition in 1888, the Football League entrenched the principle of money being shared. Gate receipts were split with the away club until that levelling of the playing field was scrapped under pressure from the big clubs, as recently as 1983. When the league did its first TV deal, £5,000 from the BBC in 1965, the 92 clubs in all four divisions shared it equally.
The First Division clubs, with justification, argued it was they – Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool – fans wanted to watch, so they lobbied for a greater share until, on the threshold of the first satellite TV bonanza, the Football Association, fatefully and inexcusably, supported the top clubs' complete breakaway.
Instead of the football world collectively railing against this ill-gotten gap, which produced insolvencies at Wimbledon, Leicester City, Leeds United, Ipswich Town, Bradford City, Southampton, Crystal Palace and severe financial difficulties for many others, the Championship play-off final, and Sunday's relegation nail-biters, are heralded as incomparable sporting theatre.
The gap is greater than ever, given the Premier League's £3.3bn TV deal from 2010-13, which delivers on average £40m TV money to each Premier League club, while those in the Championship receive £3m. Parachute payments, introduced as a self-preservation measure by the breakaway clubs to ease the landing into the Football League, are now £48m in total, paid over four seasons.
Hence the play-off final is hyped as a £90m match, and the traditional last-day relegation dramas are that richest match in reverse, with a huge financial reward to whichever of Blackburn Rovers, Birmingham City, Wolves and Blackpool manage to stay up. Potential calamity, as well as a sporting heartache, awaits the two which, at the end of Sunday, will be down.
The inflated parachute payments are designed to ease the crash to the Championship but nevertheless, the impact is likely to follow the time-honoured pattern. For the two clubs who are established in the Premier League, Blackburn, whose wage bill last year was £47m, and Wigan, paying wages of £39m, 91% of their turnover, relegation will be more financially hazardous. Birmingham have been up for two seasons, but the club's own financial accounts state they have a shortfall of £17.15m even if they stay up, so they could fall into serious trouble if their match at White Hart Lane, coupled with the results elsewhere, go against them.
Wolves, one season up and with a £9m profit, £25m cash in the bank and no debt, are budgeting to flourish whether they stay up or go down, in which case the players are contracted to take pay cuts, not be paid in Premier League quantities regardless of the club's fate. Blackpool, too, who have conspicuously not allowed Ian Holloway access to the £40m fruits of promotion, will be cushioned by multi-millions if they are not still in the Premier League after their match at the champions Manchester United.
Wigan are the creation of their owner, Dave Whelan, who decided as recently as 1995 that his hometown club were not going to be bottom-division feeders at the old Springfield Park, and has since spent £100m of his JJB Sports fortune spiriting them up. Now 74, Whelan has attained an improbable six seasons of Premier League football for Wigan at his DW Stadium, but the club is wholly reliant on his benefaction. If Wigan are relegated at Stoke, and lose the TV money which is by far the largest proportion of the club's turnover, £43m last year, the pensioner-owner's resources will be stretched trying to prevent the downward spiral into which clubs such as Sheffield Wednesday, Sheffield United and Charlton have tumbled.
Were the worst to happen to Blackburn, in the equivalent of a survival play-off against Wolves at Molineux, it will represent hubris on a mountainous scale for Venky's, the Indian chicken company that sacked Sam Allardyce as manager shortly after buying the club because he did not embrace their "vision" to finish fifth.
Venky's has not obviously put any money into Rovers yet, and its vision never included the fortunes it will cost if its club is relegated from the internationally coveted, billion-pound Premier League, to real life in the Championship.