Coventry City and Luton Town will make an unlikely duo when they compete for one of the biggest prizes in world sport on Saturday afternoon. The two football clubs have both put themselves in with a chance of clinching the last promotion spot to next season’s English Premier League on constrained budgets.
The winner of the sold-out play-off final, at the 90,000-capacity Wembley Stadium in London, will join Burnley and Sheffield United in winning promotion from the Championship, the second tier of the English game, to become part of 20 teams playing in the richest league in football.
It has been a remarkable journey on the cheap with both sides defying the odds against richer rivals. As recently as 2018, the two clubs were playing each other in League Two, the bottom rung of the English professional game. As recently as 2014, Luton were playing non-league football.
The financial rewards that await the winner are tantalising. A single season in the Premier League would result in a revenue uplift of at least £170mn over three seasons, roughly 10 times what Luton generated last year.
“It’s the greatest day of our lives,” Luton’s chief executive Gary Sweet told the Financial Times. “Potentially,” he added quickly, acknowledging there was no prize for losing.
Should Luton win, it would be the first time the club from the Bedfordshire town of 225,000 just north of London has played in the Premier League — having been relegated from the old Division One in the last season before the top tier of English football was replaced by the Premier League in 1992.
After that the club struggled in the lower divisions; it survived administration in 2007 but that precipitated a slide into non-league football two years later.
Coventry has been in the Premier League before, losing its status in 2001 after 34 consecutive years in top flight football, and like Luton, has made it to Wembley on a limited budget.
Although there is no hard financial data for this season, Kieran Maguire, a football finance academic at the University of Liverpool, said he did not expect either club to report a significant uplift in spending for this season.
“Both clubs have had relatively modest spending as far as the transfer market is concerned,” Maguire said.
The latest available financial data from the 2021/22 season shows Coventry’s revenues from match receipts, broadcasting and commercial totalled £18mn, just ahead of Luton’s £17.7mn, while the wage bills came in at £16mn and £18mn, respectively.
In contrast, Fulham, which won topped the Championship in the 2021/22 season, had revenues of £71mn and a wage bill of £90mn.
Moreover, neither club has spent big on bringing in new players for this season with recruitment based largely on free transfers or loans, according to Transfermarkt.
And unlike Burnley and Sheffield United, who won automatic promotion back to the Premier League after only very recently losing their top flight status, Luton and Coventry have not benefited from so-called parachute payments. The payouts, worth an estimated £40mn in the first year following relegation from the Premier League, according to Deloitte, are designed to cushion the blow.
Increasingly, the Championship has attracted a wave of big-spending owners who risk their fortunes trying to win a place in the Premier League. It is not uncommon for clubs to spend 125 per cent of their revenue on player salaries, and owners collectively spend the best part of £400mn a year covering the losses in the hunt for promotion.
Rick Parry, chair of the English Football League, which runs the Championship, has described the behaviour by many owners as like buying “the most expensive lottery ticket on the planet”.
When Derby County lost the play-off final in 2019 for instance, it kicked off a chain of events that included administration followed by owner Mel Morris losing control of the club.
“The one thing I love about the final on Saturday is that against all odds, you’ve got two relatively low spending football clubs that are trying to do it the right way,” Sweet said.
Coventry City owner Doug King, who only bought the club in January, said he wanted to forget about the potential windfall from winning promotion and focus on the match. “I don’t really think about the money. And I don’t think anybody should. It’s a game of football. And we’ve got to be totally focused and try to grab the opportunity and not be intimidated by it,” he said.
The victor will have little time to celebrate. Getting to the Premier League is only one step towards the tougher battle of staying there. The money on offer for any promoted club to survive its first season in the top league is even more alluring. Deloitte estimates staying in the Premier League beyond a single season takes the revenue uplift over three seasons to £290mn.
“I’ll take it any day of the week . . . breaking out of this league is a massive moment,” King said. “It’s a bit pointless to get up to the Premier League and then get yourself in trouble.”
Unusually, all three of last season’s promoted sides have managed to avoid relegation this season. But it came at a price. Nottingham Forest for example spent more than £180mn on new players this year, according to Transfermarkt.
In contrast, the most successful team to win promotion in the past decade is battling for survival: Leicester City won promotion from the Championship in 2014 and against all odds went on to clinch the Premier League title two years later. On Sunday, the club will be relegated unless it wins and the result of the Everton game goes in its favour.
A day earlier, Sweet will be urging the Luton players on to clinch a historic first for the club but whatever the result he hopes the winner can go on to demonstrate that success is not all about big budgets.
“It will be a huge day and I think what we’d like to do is to evidence the fact that really football clubs who do things the right way without just merely spending money can achieve it. They can get to the top and they can stay there.”