Game-changer: Sport Business Centre hosts launch of Play-Offs book

This post was contributed by Nick Eisen, Business Engagement Reporter, Birkbeck School of Business, Economics and Informatics

The Agony & The Ecstasy, A Comprehensive History Of The English Football League Play-Offs (book cover)

The Agony & The Ecstasy, A Comprehensive History Of The English Football League Play-Offs (book cover)

Birkbeck Sport Business Centre‘s public seminar series struck a more literary note in presenting the launch of author and journalist Richard Foster’s book, The Agony & The Ecstasy, A Comprehensive History Of The English Football League Play-Offs, at the British Medical Association on Monday 16 November.

As Foster explains in his book (the first to be written on the Play-Offs), the competition was introduced “as a system for deciding the last promotion slot for the three lower divisions of the Football League in the 1986/87 season”.

The richest sporting match in the world

When the competition began, it could be regarded as resembling one of its own participant underdog teams – unfancied and not expected to go far. But, as the author said, underdogs have defeated giants, providing some of the Play-Offs’ most memorable moments. Similarly, perhaps to a much greater degree, the competition itself has had an impact beyond all initial expectations.

The Play-Offs began as an interim attempt to reinvigorate a game in decline: attendances were falling and 1985 had seen several disasters, including the tragedy at Heysel Stadium, where dozens died and hundreds were injured when a wall collapsed.

In their first season, the Play-Offs received no television coverage. Now every match is televised live. In 1987 the monetary return on winning promotion to the top division was about £500,000. Now, winning is estimated to be worth more than £130 million. That figure could exceed £200 million when the 2016/2017 English Premier League television deal begins. The Football League Championship Play-Offs Final is the richest single sporting match in the world.

Room for improvement

With humour, energy and able backing from his support team, Foster communicated his expertise and passion for the Play-Offs to a large and appreciative audience, and brought to life his favourite memories from three decades of the competition.

As a staunch advocate for the Play-Offs, Foster nevertheless saw room for improvement and has acknowledged the competition’s critics, including those who have questioned its fairness as a way of deciding promotions.

An audience member also asked about the difficulties posed by the Premiership’s delayed-payments process for newly promoted clubs lacking the immediate cash resources of established rivals, and Foster pondered the possibilities of weighting payments towards poorer newcomers.

On balance, however, the author favoured the Play-Offs: his book describes the competition’s drama and spectacle re-engaging fans and clubs at a dismal time in the 1980s, and continuing to do so today.

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