Promotion to the Premier League is a momentous task, yet offers teams one of the most coveted prizes in world football. With the current Championship season coming to a conclusion – and in order to better understand ‘what it takes to get promoted’ – we’ve looked back and identified some of the common themes of teams that have successfully been promoted from the Championship over the last three seasons.
For Championship clubs financial upside is unquestionably the largest incentive for teams to reach the Premier League. In addition to the opportunity to play alongside some of the best teams and players in the world, there are also the significant financial benefits through eye-watering broadcasting and sponsorship deals. For example, in the 2021/22 season, each Premier League club reportedly earned an equal share of domestic and international broadcasting revenue equating to around £80.7m. Typically, Championship clubs can therefore expect to see their revenues almost double, with some smaller clubs revenues even increasing by over 5x (see image below for reference). With such financial gains up for grabs, it is unsurprising that several teams are taking significant financial risks to put themselves in a better position to compete for promotion.
In the past few years, we have generally seen three consistent ‘models’ that teams have used to gain promotion to the Premier League:
Parachute payment teams - teams that have recently been relegated from the Premier League receive parachute payments from the Premier League over the first three years in which they are outside of the top flight. These are calculated as a percentage of the equitably shared element of broadcasting rights each Premier League club receives: 55% in the first year, 45% in year two and, if the club was in the Premier League for more than one season before relegation, 20% in the third year. This gives the clubs receiving these payments a significant financial advantage over the rest of the league as a result (i.e. Fulham, Norwich, Watford). For example, since the introduction of parachute payments for teams relegated in the 2015/16 season, 28.6% of relegated teams earned instant promotion in the following year with that number dropping to 23.1% for relegated teams in year two. Only one team achieved promotion in year 3 of receiving parachute payments (Villa in 2018/19).
Ownership-backed teams - teams that have received significant financial backing from ownership, similarly allowing clubs to invest more into players and wages and giving an advantage over other teams in the league as a result (i.e. Nottingham Forest, Leeds).
Low spending, high-quality coach - a far less common and considerably more difficult method, teams who spend relatively low on their wage bill compared to the rest of the league but have had the influence of a head coach that was largely credited for the clubs success (i.e. Bournemouth's first promotion with Eddie Howe and Huddersfield’s promotion with David Wagner). However, it is worth noting that while these teams are usually spending relatively low on their wage bill they are still also spending 100%+ on their wage bill to revenue ratio.
While it is worth acknowledging these different high-level models, to gain a more thorough understanding of what it takes to get promoted we set out to understand what some of the common themes and attributes of promoted sides in the last 3 seasons were (2019/20, 2020/21 and 2021/22).
Spend vs Performance
One of the most consistent yet unsurprising findings from our analysis was the significant correlation between spend and success in the Championship. Our analysis across the last three seasons revealed that teams who spent the most on player wages were usually the teams that were promoted at the end of the season. To break these numbers down further:
In the last three seasons, the two highest-spending teams (on player and staff wages) received automatic promotion on two occasions with the first and third highest-spending teams achieving promotion in the other season.
No team outside of the top five highest-spending teams has been promoted in the last 3 seasons.
The lowest wage bill of a promoted team was Brentford (£41.4m) in 2020/21 and the highest wage bill was Fulham (£90.4m) in 2021/22. The average wage bill of a promoted side over these three seasons was £67.1m.
No promoted team in the last three seasons did so without exceeding a 100% wages-to-revenue ratio.
While the correlation between spend and promotion is evident, it is worth noting that spending in the Championship appears unsustainable. The majority of Championship teams are consistently exceeding their wage-to-revenue ratios by considerable margins in the hope of one day achieving a ‘golden ticket’ to the Premier League and its financial upsides. While the financial risk pays off for a select number of teams each year, there's a significant danger for the teams who are consistently spending beyond their means.
Since the 2016/17 season, new ‘Profitability and Sustainability’ rules have been introduced in the Championship in which clubs' finances are assessed over three consecutive seasons as opposed to one. The maximum loss a Championship side club can have is £13m per season or less than an average maximum loss of £39m over a three-year rolling period. For the clubs that fail to comply, there are numerous sporting and financial sanctions including significant fines, transfer embargos and point deductions. A recent and notable example of a club spending unsustainably is Derby County. During the 2021/22 season, Derby County were given a 21 points deduction for failing to adhere to the EFL’s P&S guidelines eventually leading to the club becoming relegated at the end of the season.
Ultimately it’s clear that you can, and must, spend above your means in order to achieve promotion but some key considerations for Championship clubs are:
How do we build headroom to allow for this level of spend? (i.e. grow revenues, minimize costs in non-critical areas)
How do we decide when is the best time to ‘go for it’? (i.e. when is the window of opportunity? What's the state of the competitive landscape?)
Sources of Talent
In addition to spending, another factor we investigated was the background of the last nine promotion teams squads in terms of looking at where ‘successful’ teams had acquired their players from.
Our analysis found that on average the Premier League (27%) was the predominant source of talent for promotion sides followed by other European leagues (25%).
The Championship (18%) itself was surprisingly only the 4th most popular source of talent despite the common narrative around the importance of Championship experience to success in the league.
It is worth highlighting that these numbers may be inflated slightly by teams who were relegated and instantly promoted again i.e. teams such as Fulham, Norwich, and Watford who would have been able to use parachute payments to retain core elements of their Premier League squad. However, it nonetheless demonstrates the importance of retaining or signing high-quality players in order to be successful in the league. For teams who don’t have parachute payments at their disposal, this also poses the question of how can we sign high-quality players that also allows us to compete?
Loan Market Utilisation
Following on from the previous question, a highly common theme from our analysis was the strategic decision by promoted sides to use young, high-quality loan players as a way to gain a competitive advantage over other teams in the league.
In the season of promotion, teams signed an average of 4 players on loan with an average age of 23, with 71% of these loanees joining from Premier League clubs.
For Championship clubs, the loaning of young Premier League-caliber players can be significant. It allows the club to bring in short-term high-quality players for the season on relatively low salaries which adds quality to the team but also reduces the financial risk (from an investment perspective) should the team fail to be promoted at the end of the season.
On average loanee signings already had an average of 1.5 years experience playing in the Championship.
Another noticeable element of these signings was previous Championship experience. The congested 46-game fixture list in the Championship means teams will frequently play in double-game weeks throughout the season. Therefore by signing young players that have already experienced the physical demands of the league, teams can have more confidence in a player's durability throughout the season.
Another factor we investigated was the importance of squad stability (in terms of the average number of seasons players had spent playing with the team prior to promotion) to success in the league. Previous research has usually found that the best-performing teams have much more stable squads than worse-performing teams. It is assumed that generally the longer a team spends together the better team chemistry will be.
Promotion teams in the last 3 seasons had spent an average of only 1.5 seasons playing together prior to promotion.
Promotion teams had a high influx of new players in the season of promotion, signing an average of 9 new players.
Promotion teams had an average of 3 new signings in their most used 11 players during the season of promotion.
In the main, our analysis found that squad stability was a relatively unimportant factor for promotion sides. Although high squad turnover from teams relegated and instantly promoted again may have heightened some of these numbers, our findings nevertheless demonstrate that squad stability was broadly not an important factor nor a competitive driver for promotion sides.
Squad Construction and Allocation of Minutes
Another area that we looked into was the general construction of promoted teams squads in terms of age brackets and the areas of the squad that the majority of minutes were being allocated to.
Promoted teams had an average squad size of 30 (including players who played in at least one regular season fixture) with an average age of 24.7.
Squads were almost evenly constructed by players in the age groups of 24-28 (36%) in their prime years and younger talented players between the ages of 19-23 (35%). Older, more experienced players (29+) were less favorable (22%).
In terms of allocating minutes by age groups, as would be expected there was a higher tendency to give the majority of minutes to players in their prime years between 24-28 (44%) followed by younger players aged between 19-23 (32%).
As previously mentioned, the Championship season has a long and intense fixture list compared to the majority of other European leagues. The high physical demands of the league would assume squad utilization would therefore be an important factor to success. To answer this we analyzed what proportion of minutes promotion sides were distributing throughout their squads in order to be successful.
On average, we found that promotion teams allocated a total of 87% of minutes to a core group of their 15 most used players (essentially half the squad) with only 13% of available minutes being used on the rest of the squad.
These numbers suggest that despite the intense fixture list, promotion sides still prioritized giving the majority of minutes to a core group of key players as opposed to rotating/disrupting the flow of the team throughout the season. This would indicate that squad utilization beyond the top 15 players was relatively insignificant to success.
Another characteristic we looked into were some of the commonalities between the nine managers who led their teams to promotion in the last three seasons…
Two thirds (6/9) of the Managers secured promotion in their first season in charge. The average time taken to be promoted by managers in the last three seasons was just 1.4 seasons*.
Only one Manager took more than two seasons to earn their first promotion (Thomas Frank at Brentford took 3 seasons but achieved a playoffs final in his second)
Eight out of nine managers were ex-players and only one was entering the job as Manager for the first time (Scott Parker for Fulham in 2019/20)
Prior experience coaching in the Championship (as an Assistant or Manager) wasn't an important factor. Four of the nine managers had never coached in the Championship prior to promotion and the nine managers combined had a total average of only 1.1 years experience coaching in the Championship.
Our findings would indicate that having experience coaching in the Championship wasn't an important factor for success. From a high-level perspective, the fact that two-thirds of managers achieved promotion in just their first season as manager would suggest that the influence of a high-quality manager can be significant, and getting this decision right is imperative.
*Refers to time taken to achieve first promotion (i.e. Daniel Farke coached Norwich City to promotion twice)
There are undoubtedly several components that contribute towards ‘success’ in the Championship, some more controllable and influential than others. Our analysis aimed to provide some top-level insights into some of the factors that have been evident amongst the teams that have been successful in their pursuit of promotion in recent years. To recap some of our findings:
Whilst not possible for every team, teams that spend the most on staff wages are typically the ones promoted come the end of the season.
The competitive dynamics in the league require a high-risk approach when it comes to spending on player wages, however, teams can mitigate this by developing long-term strategies to build financial headroom and identify the best opportunities to compete.
The loan market is an effective method used by promotion clubs to gain a competitive edge whilst reducing financial risks.
Squad stability was generally not important for promotion sides with the preference being for impactful, shorter-term high-quality players.
Players in their prime years were the most used by promotion sides, supplemented by young talented players as opposed to more experienced.
Promotion squads found success by allocating the majority of minutes to predominantly just half of their squad (top 15 players).
‘Successful’ managers in the last three seasons typically achieved promotion within their first two seasons.