The English Football League Championship’s playoff final is often referred to as the “richest game in soccer” because of the substantial windfall its winner receives upon joining the Premier League. Through a mix of guaranteed shareholder profits and broadcast money, newly promoted teams stand to make hundreds of millions more per season in the Premier League than they otherwise would in the Championship. It’s not a bad incentive for clubs grinding it out in the second tier of the English pyramid — arguably the most physically demanding league in the world — especially since most of them operate on razor-thin margins even in the best of times. (And these are certainly not the best of times.)
Last season, the Championship playoff final was won by Nottingham Forest, a former giant of European soccer. Forest was a dominant force in the late 1970s and into the 1980s — it was the champion of England for the 1977-78 season and won consecutive Champions League titles (yes, that Champions League)1 in 1978-79 and 1979-80. But the past three decades haven’t been as kind to the Tricky Trees, who’ve mostly languished in the second or third tier of English soccer. Before this season, players wearing Forest’s iconic red jerseys last kicked a ball in the Premier League in 1999.
Now that Forest is finally back in the Premier League, it will benefit from the cash injection that comes with its regained status — and it’s already trying to leverage that in order to stay at the top tier of the sport. But will it work?
Because of the riches associated with Premier League soccer, clubs that earn promotion to the big-time would do almost anything to stay there — which mainly means spending gaudy sums in the transfer market on better players. In that sense, Forest is no different than its newly promoted predecessors. Since the summer transfer window opened in June, Forest has spent a net amount north of $155 million2 to strengthen its squad — the second-biggest outlay in Premier League history for a newly promoted team after adjusting for inflation. And there are indications that it might not be done shopping just yet. (Forest has until Sept. 1 to buy more players. The window next opens in 2023 for the entire month of January.)
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This is part of a steady trend of growing spending for newly promoted clubs. Since the dawn of the Premier League era,3 they have, on average, spent roughly $32 million (all figures are adjusted for inflation) in the transfer market to prepare for the season following promotion. But that number rose sharply — to an average of more than $47 million — in the latter half of this period, from the 2007-08 season onward. There were just three instances of newly promoted clubs spending $40 million or more on transfers from 1992-93 to 2006-07; there have been 21 instances since then, including 13 of a team spending at least $60 million. Forest may be an outlier — they’re only the second newly promoted club in league history to eclipse the $150 million mark — but given the way things are trending, it might not be for very long.
To be fair to Forest, it didn’t really have a choice but to spend big. Four of the club’s starting 11 from the EFL Championship final were at the club on loan deals and left after the season ended. Roster depth is key to success in the Premier League, especially now that clubs are allowed five substitutions per match. Plus, Forest might still be traumatized by the 1998-99 season, when it entered the Premier League with a negative net spend — meaning they actually sold more in the transfer market than they bought — and were promptly relegated again after finishing dead last.
Also feeding that fear could be that 45 percent of newly promoted teams have been relegated at the end of their first season back in the Premier League. But the good news for Forest is that spending big seems to protect newly promoted clubs. Out of seven newly promoted teams to spend $90 million or more in the transfer market, just one — Fulham in 2018-19 — was relegated after its first season back in the EPL. And 82 percent of newly promoted teams that spent more than $50 million stayed up in Year 1, too.
Still, just as money can’t buy history,4 it also doesn’t guarantee success. Forest’s illustrious past means it isn’t worried about the former. The latter remains to be seen — though you can’t say it's not trying.
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