The Richest Prize in Sport

Football player with ball on field of stadium

Last Saturday, substitute Patrick Bamford scored what might turn out to be one of the most crucial goals in the history of Middlesbrough Football Club. With his team losing 2-1 at Ipswich and time fast running out, Bamford scored the equalizer, ensuring that his team finished fifth rather than sixth in the championship table.

What’s so significant about finishing fifth, apart from a small increase in prize money? In this case, it means that Middlesbrough will play Aston Villa instead of Fulham in the end of season playoffs and statistically will have a marginally better chance of being promoted to the promised land of the Premier League than if they’d finished sixth.

What are the playoffs?

First introduced in 1987 the playoffs determine the final promotion place in the English football league. If we take this year’s Sky Bet Championship as an example, three teams will be promoted to the Premier League. Wolves and Cardiff have already won promotion by finishing first and second, but the third promotion place won’t go to the team that finished third (Fulham); it will go to the winner of the playoffs, in which Fulham will play Derby and Middlesbrough will take on Aston Villa. The winners of the semi-finals will meet at Wembley on Saturday, May 26, for the richest prize in sport.

Estimates vary on how much promotion to the Premier League is worth, but increased sponsorship revenues, increased gate receipts, and a huge increase in TV revenues mean that the winners will benefit by at least £150m ($203m). It is, by some distance, the richest prize in sport and an awful lot of money to be resting on 90 minutes of soccer. Or 120 minutes and then penalties.

Surely Fulham will win?

Some people still argue that the playoffs are a lottery and the team that finishes third should go up automatically. They might have a point: Fulham finished the season with 88 points, 13 ahead of Derby. They scored more goals and won more games – but now they have to beat Derby over two legs if they are to progress to Wembley.

On the face of it, no, it’s not fair, but all the teams know the rules before the season starts and the playoffs unquestionably add a lot of interest to the closing weeks of the season. Teams like Preston, Brentford, and Millwall had little realistic hope of automatic promotion or finishing in the top three. But they had a chance of sneaking into the playoffs until the very last weeks of the season and there’s nothing a football fan needs more than hope.

But is Fulham now a certainty to win the playoffs? Over the course of the season, they were clearly the third-best team in the league, and the bookmakers have them as 2.75 favorites to go up, ahead of Middlesbrough and Aston Villa at 4.00 and Derby at a best-priced 6.50.

Looking at the statistics

Over the last few seasons, Watford, Nottingham Forest, and Ipswich have all failed to win promotion after finishing third in the championship. But overall, the stats make good reading for Fulham: 39.5% of teams who have finished in the top playoff position in the championship, League One, and League Two have been promoted. Recent omens are also good. Last year, Huddersfield finished third in the championship and won promotion to the Premier League, but not without significantly increasing their supporters’ blood pressure, as they won both the semi-final and final 4-3 on penalties.

Despite finishing fourth, the outlook for Aston Villa looks a lot less promising. Statistically, the team in fourth has no better chance of promotion than the team that finishes sixth. Teams finishing fifth have a better record than either of them, which on May 26 may show why Bamford’s goal was so important.

League One is unpredictable

If we look at playoff history, the really unpredictable league is League One. This year third-place Shrewsbury takes on Charlton, while Rotherham meets Scunthorpe in the other semi-final. But third-place teams in League One only go up 33% of the time. It is a much better outlook for Exeter City in League Two, where the top placed playoff team goes up nearly 50% of the time – not that the stats will deter supporters of Coventry, Notts County, and Lincoln City.

Where’s the money going?

But the real excitement is in the championship and, for the online sports betting companies, that is where the vast majority of the bets will be placed. On the UK betting exchange, Betfair, eight times as much money has been staked on the championship playoffs as on League One and League Two combined, and six times as much as on the Champions League final between Real Madrid and Liverpool.

The bookmakers report that the best-backed team so far is Aston Villa, but that is probably more reflective of their wider fan base than it is of informed opinion.

But it won’t be only the bookmakers and their customers who are on high alert when the championship play-off kicks off. As we reported yesterday, online betting companies were the main target for ransomware and DDOS attacks in 2017. The richest prize in sport is an obvious target. It will see the companies’ security teams working overtime, as we find out just how important Patrick Bamford’s goal really was.

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