The richest game in soccer took place on Saturday.
No, not the Champions League final between Real and Atletico Madrid in Lisbon, but the English Championship playoff final between Queens Park Rangers (QPR) and Derby County at Wembley Stadium.
It’s quite a title to give a game between two teams who finished third and fourth in England’s second division, but for the victor the rewards can change the entire club.
With promotion to the Premier League comes the promise of millions of pounds of prize money, television revenue and a worldwide audience for the brands that soccer clubs now are.
Finishing bottom of the Premier League is enough to net a club £60m in television money thanks to the £3bn rights deal that the league has signed with media organisations around the world.
Then there’s the boost in merchandise and season ticket sales that comes with a successful soccer club, plus the guarantee of ‘parachute payments’ if the club is relegated straight back to the Championship.
To soften the blow of relegation, clubs finishing in the bottom three receive £72m over the following four seasons to help ensure that they can continue running in the same way as before.
The mere promotion for either side is worth an estimated £120m before the thought of relegation payments can even enter the minds of the owners of the respective sides.
QPR are no strangers to this sort of money, thanks to their multi-millionaire ownership duo of Malaysian Tony Fernandes and Indian Amit Bhatia, son-in-law of Britain’s fourth richest man Lakshmi Mittal and a very wealthy man in his own right.
Two summers ago the QPR board allowed then manager to spend wildly, paying large transfer fees and high wages to players like Esteban Granero from Real Madrid, who, most of the time, looked like he didn’t really want to be there.
That season QPR finished bottom of the Premier League with just four wins in 38 games and a meagre 25 points left them 14 points off safety.
Back in the Championship this season, and with a budget significantly higher than any other team in the league, Rangers looked good money to go straight back up to the Premier League via the automatic promotion spots (first and second).
But the loss of leading striker Charlie Austin to injury midseason saw a turn in fortunes for the West London club as they stuttered to a fourth-place finish behind Leicester City, Burnley and yesterday’s opponents Derby.
Derby, managed by former England national team boss Steve McClaren, are owned by Detroit-based General Sports and Entertainment, run by former Detroit Pistons senior VP Andrew Appleby.
All season the Midlands club have slipped under many people’s radars, slowly going about their business.
And going into the big game at Wembley yesterday I was backing them to win and return to the Premier League for the first time since 2008, when they recorded just one win and their 11 points from 38 games is a league low.
But it seemed as though the script was written before the final kicked off, with Derby dominating the possession in a fairly drab first opening 89 minutes.
QPR’s only shot on target came in the 90th minute, when veteran striker Bobby Zamora’s strike sailed past Derby goalkeeper Lee Grant to give the Hoops a dramatic victory.
It was tough on Derby, but with QPR back among the money men, Fernandes will be hoping that his millions will be better spent this summer to give the Londoners a better chance of staying in the league for longer than one season.