There is often the suggestion at this stage of a Premier League season that its players’ minds are drifting. Another summer is fast approaching and they can almost feel the sand between their toes. Flip-flop time is near.
At least nine Premier League clubs already have little substance to play for. Two – Norwich City and Watford – are already down, while seven others float mid-table without the realistic fear of relegation or hope of reaching Europe. From Brighton and Hove Albion to Southampton, life is easy.
In the meeting room of each of these clubs, however, the result of these final matches counts. There are millions and millions of merit payments that have yet to be decided and awarded. It’s no exaggeration to say that a few wins could be worth eight figures for any club coming home with a wet sail.
On a sliding scale from top to bottom, each Premier League spot is worth around £2.2m in prize money this season. Little is expected to change from last quarter in the final year of the broadcast cycle, meaning that eventual title winners will make around £38m in merit payments and the bottom team will take home just over £2m.
The Premier League’s bookends, the best and the worst teams, are almost set in stone with the end of the games. These clubs already know pretty much what awaits them when the final cake is cut. It is in the middle of the table that there is the greatest potential for fluctuation in the end of 2021-22 income.
Take Brighton as an example. Already assured of their best Premier League finish, they could still finish the season in eighth place if their last two games yield enough points to overtake Wolverhampton Wanderers. Still, losing their remaining matches, away to Leeds United and at home to West Ham United, could conceivably result in a drop to 14th.
The difference between the two places? In the region of £13million.
These aren’t transformative amounts for clubs guaranteed to earn at least £100m from the Premier League this season, but in the post-COVID era there will be an emphasis on making every position count.
“People can talk about these dead rubber games and teams having their feet on the ground, but from a financial perspective, that’s not the case,” says sports finance expert Dr Dan Plumley. and Senior Lecturer at Sheffield Hallam University.
“That £2million a place might not seem like a lot, but there is an incentive there to jump on the table. For mid to lower level clubs, this can make all the difference.
“If you could jump three or four places, you can calculate the multipliers and work on the margins. If you could earn another £8-10 million, that’s a big help.
“Clubs will never come out and talk about it in those terms – they’re talking about the integrity of the competition – but the owners and chairmen will also look at the possibility of earning extra money to play with the move to the club. ‘summer.”
The Premier League’s annual pot – all £2.5billion – is clinically split at the end of a season. The 20 clubs can expect the same central share of domestic and international television rights, as well as an equal reduction in central commercial revenue. Last season that was £84m per club.
Variables go into national setup fees — how often each team is televised live — and merit payments. This is where it all gets a bit Animal Farm; all clubs are equal but some are more equal than others.
Merit bonuses are the Premier League’s way of rewarding performance and success. The higher you finish in the league, the bigger your boon. No other division of English football currently takes the same approach, but it has been the Premier League’s way since its inception 30 years ago.
The importance of merit payments grew with each new television contract signed along the way and became even more valuable from 2019-20 when a new formula was agreed for the distribution of international broadcast revenues.
Existing levels of international revenue would continue to be split equally between the 20 clubs, but any increases would be split according to where a team finished in the standings. More, in other words, to those at the top. Manchester City, as title winners last season, took in a further £8.3m from the international merit payout pot and that figure will rise from next season as lucrative new TV deals at abroad will come into force.
“This new deal will continue that trend with a subtle change that further incentivizes success on the pitch and maintains the Premier League’s position as the fairest in Europe in terms of central revenue sharing,” the chief executive said. the then Richard Scudamore in 2018. By coming together and agreeing to this change, the clubs provided a platform for the future success of the League for many years to come.
It all led to this point, where finishing two places higher in the Premier League is worth more than what Liverpool or Chelsea will earn if they win the FA Cup on Saturday. The total prize money racked up by the side that lifted the big knockout trophy over the weekend will be just over £3.4million, compared to the £4.4million offered to move up a few places.
Such is life at the highest table in English football. Locations are important and especially for those below the Big Six.
Securing an additional £10m could cover the summer market transfer fee. Or the annual earnings of four players earning £50,000 a week. For mid-tier Premier League clubs, it’s the rough financial equivalent of two years of a shirt sponsorship deal.
This becomes all the more useful at a time when clubs are still recovering from the pandemic and a season played behind closed doors. Brighton’s annual turnover was £151m last season, but losses of £53m have been recorded. A first half would bring more than pride to a club that has never known such heights.
Crystal Palace, the 10th-placed team after back-to-back wins over Watford and Southampton, are another club keen to strengthen their hand. “We’re going to keep trying to take this club forward,” co-owner Steve Parish said when discussing the club’s financial health in 2020. “We need to finish as high as possible because it’s worth a lot of money, the positions where we finish in the league.
Every owner of these aspiring Premier League clubs is acutely aware of the importance attached to finishing well.
“The gap between the Big Six clubs and the others is so big these days that any little extra money you can get, in this case, deserves places, so that’s really helpful,” says Plumley.
“The higher you finish in the table, the more sponsors you also attract. You can take Palace as an example – the leverage a top half club gives you and how much people talk about you is valuable.
“If Palace finish in the top half, that’s a very good achievement for them. Add in reaching the FA Cup semi-final this season and it all plays into the leverage on your sponsorship opportunities as well.
“All of these clubs are still in recovery mode after COVID-19. It will be a few years before everything goes back to normal. It will happen because there is still growth in the market but it will still hurt clubs for a few more years. If you can earn a bit more from performance on the pitch, that’s a welcome boost for these clubs ahead of the summer.
At the end of a season which was to end on Sunday, five points currently separate six clubs from ninth to 14th. A win or two could make a huge difference.
Like Newcastle United last season – by winning three of their last four games they have gone from 17th place to an unlikely 12th time. That little push was effectively worth £11million in what turned out to be Mike Ashley’s final months in charge. Burnley, meanwhile, have lost £6.6million losing their last three games, falling from 14th to 17th.
Leicester City will inevitably feel the pinch of this disappointing Premier League season. Last year’s final ranking of fifth, which also opened routes to the Europa League and then the Conference League, saw them collect £34.5m in merit payments alone, or £12m more than when they had been crowned champions five years earlier.
That sum is expected to drop this season, but the final days of the campaign will decide how much. This, in turn, opens up the debate on the value of their exploits in Europe this season.
A further 14 games were played in the Europa League and European Conference League, with a run to the semi-finals of the latter bringing in around £10m in UEFA prize money. A finish in the bottom half of the Premier League, however, would still ensure that the shortfall in merit payments was unlikely to have been covered.
“Qualifying for this competition will not make up for a big drop in performance in the Premier League,” says Plumley. “The prize money of this competition struggles to cover the fall of four or five places in the Premier League, which Leicester might be considering.
“It will be difficult to come back, even if they reached the semi-finals. I think the run in this competition could earn them £10m, all things considered, and that will make it to the semi-finals.
There is no trophy for finishing ninth in the Premier League or glory for finishing 10th. But the financial implications of these late moves will become clear in the next 10 days.
(Photos: Getty Images; Graphic: Sam Richardson)