Each May, two second-tier football clubs draw an 80,000-plus crowd to London’s Wembley stadium for a game billed as offering the richest prize in team sport.
At stake is a Golden Ticket to the riches of the Premier League. This is the Coca Cola Championship Play-Off, contested by the four teams which finish placed 3-6 in the league for a final chance to enter football’s Promised Land.
No matter that the team which comes third may have finished the season with a far better playing record than that which scrapes into sixth place on goal difference on the final day.
The Play-Offs are not about justice, they are about excitement. And they never fail to deliver.
More than any other sporting event, the drama of the Play-Offs is built around the close juxtaposition of overwhelming joy and sheer desolation.
The teams have been offered a shot at redemption from a season in which they were simply not good enough to win automatic promotion. But someone has to lose and when salvation turns sour the taste is bitter beyond belief. Fans cry, players weep, bank managers reach into the desk drawer for the revolver.
To the victor the spoils…a guarantee of at least £60 million of Premier League revenue.
The Play-Offs were an example of innovation by a sports body. They were introduced to keep the season alive by ensuring that as many clubs as possible have something to play for. It is not unusual, on the very last day of the season, for all but a handful of clubs to be fighting for a Play-Off spot or against the possibility of relegation.
The prize the Play-Offs offer is one of the reasons why England’s second-tier is so well supported. They are part of the landscape, and a return to the old order is simply inconceivable.
And now the Premier League itself is considering following suit.
A proposal currently on the table is for Play-Offs to determine the club which will take England’s fourth and final place in the UEFA Champions League.
This proposal has the potential to threaten the continuing dominance of England’s ‘Big Four’ clubs which have thrived partly on almost certain access to Champions League revenue. It would offer real hope to clubs which might emerge from the murkiness of the mid-table to deliver one season of real consistency. It would add greater excitement through to the end of the Premier League season and it could have a transformational effect on a group of clubs which is currently snapping at the heels of the Big Four but have, to date, been unable to catch them.
The impact of revenue from the Champions League is often played down by those who earn the most from it. Even in a successful season, it represents a relatively small proportion (between 8 and 13 per cent) of the revenue of Big Four clubs. But this is a comparative figure.
Any club which plays in the group stages of the Champions League is almost guaranteed to make around £13 million. That represents a higher percentage of the turnover of these challenger clubs and is a sum which could make a real difference to their future prospects, gradually helping the league become more competitive.
Add to that the global brand-building benefits of appearing in the world’s leading club competition and you begin to get an idea of what could be achieved.
Naturally the proposals have met with resistance from the clubs most likely to suffer as a result. To this resistance you have to factor in a range of practical difficulties, not the least being the fact that, for a number of reasons, England may not always have four Champions Leagues spots and therefore cannot guarantee there will automatically be a prize for its Premier Play-Off.
But no sports property can afford to stand still. They are under pressure from competitors in other sports and other areas of entertainment, and any initiative which creates additional excitement, interest and revenue deserves to be fully considered.
The Premier League has just completed a round of TV deals which will net it a record $1.6 billion, making it the most successful spots property outside its domestic market. But in a fast-changing world, even the Premier League has to keep moving on and considering ways of keeping its product fresh and ever more compelling.
Even if this notion never sees the light of day, the fact it is being considered is indicative of the commercially progressive attitude at the League.
Successful sports properties are about drama and unforgettable narrative, and that often results from the outsider winning. There’s evidence for this from the NFL where the Denver Broncos, Baltimore Ravens, Pittsburgh Steelers and New York Giants have all gone on to win the Super Bowl having qualified for the Play-Offs only by virtue of a Play-Off Wild Card. This is the stuff that dreams and sporting legend are made of.