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How good is the Championship?

Photo: Badgernet

Photo: Badgernet

This week at the Dealmakers in Sports conference in New York, the English Football League’s chief executive, Shaun Harvey, was asked where Major League Soccer clubs would place in his country’s soccer pyramid. He replied that the clubs would probably sit somewhere in the lower half of the Championship or the top of League One, in the second and third tiers respectively. But he added that MLS teams might have a hard time making it through a 46-game season that ran through the winter and would probably be “seen off” by most clubs under his purview.

I mostly agree with Harvey’s assessment. NYA uses league adjustments to predict how players might perform after a transfer from one competition to another. If we put differences in playing style aside, the overall adjustments line up with Harvey’s view. Several years ago, though, the same adjustments rated MLS clubs rather closer to their English and Welsh competitors. Has the gap actually widened?

Though it might come as a surprise to the folks across town at 420 Fifth Avenue, who are pretty sure that the quality of play in MLS has improved, the gap has indeed widened. I’ve seen MLS’s improvement in the numbers, at least in terms of attacking talent. But the Championship has simply gotten better, faster. In fact, it’s starting to open a gap with some notable first-tier competitions in continental Europe, like the Eredivisie in the Netherlands.

Part of the change stems from parachute payments. As Rob Wilson and his colleagues at Sheffield Hallam University have recently shown, total parachute payments among clubs in the Championship have risen much faster than any other form of income, going from £39m in 2006-07 to £219m in 2016-17, and they’re likely to rise close to £260m this season. That’s an average annual increase of 17%.

Clearly, the payments don’t benefit all clubs in the Championship. As Wilson et al write, without parachute payments, there’s only a small difference in average revenue between clubs that receive them and clubs that don’t. But adding in the parachute payments, the clubs that receive them have more than double the prior average revenue. Even if the parachute payments only benefit a third of the clubs in the competition, it’s still enough to increase the overall quality of play.

Moreover, the growing pot of gold in the Premier League has compelled many Championship clubs to spend well in excess of their revenue in order to make the jump to the big time. And let’s face it: most of them have already been there. Of the 24 clubs in the Championship this season, only five – Bristol City, Preston North End, Brentford, Rotherham, and Millwall – have never played in the Premier League. Many of the ones who did play in the top flight, even briefly, used their newfound wealth to invest in better training facilities and personnel that continue to benefit them in the Championship, too.

There’s no comparable pot of gold awaiting MLS teams or, for that matter, most of the clubs in the Netherlands. The CONCACAF Champions League is hardly a money-spinning tournament, and only four Dutch clubs have played in the UEFA Champions League – even in the qualifying rounds – since 2001. The number who make it to the group stage may shrink even further in the future, as last year the Eredivisie lost its only automatic qualifying spot.

So how big is the gap now? It can take time for league adjustments to update, since they’re usually based on historical data as well as the latest results. Still, the rise of the Championship is perceptible in public ratings as well as on NYA’s proprietary analytics platform. Our friends over at clubelo.com give the Championship an average rating of 1467; apart from the top five leagues, only the first tiers Russia (1550) and Portugal (1480) rank higher, and Belgium (1468) is within rounding error.

But here we have to keep in mind that the Championship has 24 teams. If we drop the bottom eight clubs in the current table to match the Russian Premier League and the Belgian Pro League, the Championship’s rating rises to 1485. If we drop the bottom six to match the Liga NOS in Portugal, we get 1494. As an alternative, if we drop teams based on their ratings at clubelo, the 18-team league has an average rating of 1487, and the 16-team league comes in at 1496.

So the Championship looks like the seventh-best domestic competition in Europe, after the top five leagues and the Russian Premier League. This may be cold comfort for most of the clubs, trundling along without parachute payments and an average annual revenue of about £15m. Yet with such a high-quality product, the opportunities for revenue growth ought to be strong. How long before we see the Championship launch its own OTT streaming deal, breaking away from the rest of the EFL? How long before a Championship club becomes one of the biggest in a foreign market, as tiny Eibar did by signing a Japanese player? If Championship owners open their minds to the possibilities, it probably won’t be long. Meanwhile, the pot of gold will just keep getting bigger.

UPDATE: Apart from the obvious effect on playing personnel, it’s worth noting that the quality of coaching in the Championship is likely rising as well. With so many respected non-UK managers in the Premier League, some good UK coaches may be pushed down into the Championship, and not just via relegation. Once you bring in Guardiola, Mourinho, Klopp, Sarri, Pochettino, Emery, Silva, Ranieri, Hasenhüttl, Benítez, Pellegrini, Nuno, Hughton, Puel… there are surely more than six good UK coaches to compete for the remaining spots, not to mention foreign coaches hoping to get noticed or promoted. This is probably as much a function of the “pot of gold” as the rising quality of players in the Championship.