England Preview: Price of Relegation

The term ''relegation'' once carried with it a foreboding sense of doom quite overstated, even in the hyperbolic, sometimes hysterical tone of sports coverage.

''Safety'' and ''survival'' were the rewards if ''the ax'' didn't fall and thus ''the drop'' could be avoided.

In ancient times, which date back at least three or four years, dropping out of the English Premier League meant sharp losses of revenue and prestige, yet a club's very existence was seldom at risk.

But the landscape has changed. Below the rich Premier League is a nether world of crisis.

Along with the competition provided by relegation and promotion now comes desperation borne of possible extinction.

The Nationwide League, the three-division conglomeration of 72 teams, has been nearly torn asunder by the collapse of ITV Digital, which had a $284 million TV deal with the league.

Bradford City, relegated to the First Division just three seasons ago, had piled up $59 million in debt. The Professional Footballers' Association loaned City more than $3 million to pay off players' back wages, and creditors accepted remuneration of 10 pence to the pound in a last-minute rescue.

Hundreds of players have been cut loose. As many as 18 other clubs have reportedly called in bankruptcy consultants. A TV deal with Sky Sports will pay the clubs approximately half of what the original deal would have provided.

Three teams move between the Premier League and First Division each season. The largest gap in English soccer is between those teams rich and powerful enough to stay in the top 10 of the EPL and those fighting to stay out of the bottom three.

Of the 29 teams that have been promoted since the Premier League began in 1992, 13 went straight back down the following season. Of those that stayed up the first season, three more went down the following year.

Bolton, Leicester, Sunderland, Crystal Palace, Nottingham Forest, Manchester City and Middlesbrough are the ''elevator'' teams of the modern era, having gone down and back up at least once in the past decade.

Last season was the first since the advent of the Premier League in which the three promoted teams stayed up. All three - Blackburn, Fulham and Bolton - flirted with the drop before finishing 10th, 13th and 16th, respectively.

Nottingham Forest, European Cup champion in 1979 and 1980, finished third in its first season after promotion but slipped to ninth the following year. Two seasons later, (1997-98) it was relegated and has not been able to climb back up.

Success in the EPL is no guarantee of long-term survival. Ipswich finished fifth in 2001 and qualified for the UEFA Cup after earning promotion the year before, but it plummeted to dead last in May.

The most glaring example is Blackburn, the last team other than Arsenal or Manchester United to win the title. Champion in 1995, Blackburn went down four years later and needed two seasons and the arrival of former Scottish international Graeme Souness as manager to go back up.

''The so-called experts used to say it cost at least 20 million pounds [$32 million] to be relegated, in TV money and sponsorships and what-have-you,'' says U.S. keeper Brad Friedel, whom Souness brought to Blackburn two years ago. ''But now the lower-division clubs won't get the TV money they were supposed to get, and a lot of them won't be able to pay their players. The Premier League deal is in place, but if you go down now, you could be in real trouble because a lot of fans won't go see First Division games, and the others won't pay Premier League prices.''

by Soccer America Senior Editor Ridge Mahoney

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