With two matches left in the English Premier League (EPL) season, Cardiff has a 96% chance of being relegated back down to the Championship League (CL) in English football, according to FiveThirtyEight. Being relegated is an excruciating experience for a fanbase to endure, but being relegated after only one season is even more painful. Worse yet, unless there is a stunning set of late season results, fans of the Welsh club will go through the brutality of a one-and-done relegation for the second time in six years!
The prospect of Cardiff’s relegation feels particularly cruel given the genuine tragedy the team experienced this season: the death of newly signed striker Emiliano Sala. Sala, a 28 year-old Argentinian player, died en route to Cardiff in late January when his plane crashed over the English Channel. The city of Cardiff, the club, the players, and the fans all responded to Sala’s passing with a collective grace that earned the respect and sympathy of even their fiercest rivals. And, of course, decent human beings of all stripes felt deep sympathy for Sala’s family. For this reason, this year’s one-and-done relegation feels like a particularly unfair twist of fate.
Part of the reason Cardiff is likely to experience a one-and-done yet again is because, like most of the teams in the English football, they are stuck. As is the case for society more broadly, extreme inequality has swept through English football, with the wealthiest clubs scoring most of the goals and gobbling up most of the points. As inequality between clubs has increased, clubs have less mobility in terms of their overall position in English football. Teams like Manchester City, Liverpool, and Manchester United are stuck at the top. They spend sums on transfer fees to acquire world-class players that would make Elon Musk blush. While such spending doesn’t guarantee they’ll win the title, the correlation between wage bill spending and season point total is fairly strong.
In this system with extreme inequalities and little mobility, teams like Everton and Southampton are stuck in the middle. And clubs like Hull City, Burnley, and Cardiff are stuck making the jump back and forth between the CL and the EPL. One way to view these circumstances is that unlike, say, middle class, moribund Everton who have neither glory nor relegation to play for, supporters of clubs that are frequently promoted and relegated get to experience both the greatest agony and ecstasy on a regular basis. From this perspective, maybe it’s especially exciting to be a Bluebirds supporter.
But beyond the emotional life of a supporter, how bad neutral observers ought to feel for Cardiff depends, in part, on whether the franchise is worse off for having taken a one-year sojourn to the land of milk and big money that is the EPL. Do one-and-done clubs suffer an unofficial penalty for their short-lived EPL careers as they sort out how to shoulder the cost of players’ with EPL-level wages with only Championship-level revenues? Would Cardiff have been wiser to stick around in the CL for another few seasons, quietly gathering their resources until they could be promoted and stay up? Or does even a brief EPL stint benefit the club in the long term?
To answer this question, I examined all the 84 teams that were promoted or participated in the Championship League playoffs since the re-organization of the league in the 2004/05 season. In the CL, the two teams with the most points at the end of the regular season are automatically promoted to the EPL. The next four teams in the league table enter into playoffs to determine a third team to be promoted that season.
In Figure 1 below, we see the mobility experienced by those teams as they advance through the next five seasons. The y-axis is the overall rank in English football with #1 being the top team in the EPL and 50+ being in the middle of the third league down or worse (to read more about the structure of English league football, see here). Because I sampled playoff and promoted teams, they are necessarily compressed together in Year 0 (the year of the playoffs). In Year 1, half of the teams (the ones that were promoted) end up somewhere in the EPL standings (20 or better) and the rest end up somewhere in the CL standings (21-44). While there’s a fair amount of variation between teams, as we can see, the overall pattern over the next four seasons is a slight downward trend.
But looking at all the teams on a single plot hides three different trajectories: not promoted clubs, one-and-done clubs, and those teams that stayed up in the EPL for at least one year. Figure 2 starts in Year 2, after the one-and-done and the stayed up teams have parted ways. As we can see, among the not promoted teams, there are some teams that find their way into the EPL and others that fall off into lower leagues, but the general pattern is to hold steady around a position of 30, around the middle of the CL. Teams that manage to stay up are in a much better absolute position, but tend to decline over the next few years. Still, in Year 5, the average team that managed to stay up remains in the EPL. For the one-and-done clubs, the average trajectory is somewhat better than the not promoted teams and they tend to increase their position slightly over time. Most importantly, what we do not observe is any kind of long-term cost for a brief EPL stint. Five years out, even one-and-done teams tend to be doing modestly (but statistically significantly) better than not promoted teams.
One obvious explanation for why one-and-done teams are doing better five years later is that they tend to have been better teams in the first place. In their playoff season, not promoted teams amassed an average of 77.2 points in the league table with a goal difference of +20.2. By contrast, future one-and-done teams had an average of 85.8 points and a goal difference of +28.3. Teams that stayed up were better still.
To address this possibility, I ran a regression (with fixed effects on club) using not promoted/one-and-done/stayed up status (as dummy variables) to predict rank in Years 2-5, controlling for points in their playoff year. (Note: I ran the same analysis using goal difference and it produced similar results. I use points here because it is a slightly stronger predictor of long-term rank). In other words, holding constant the team’s performance in the playoff year (as measured by the points they amassed), do clubs that one-and-done or stay up in the EPL do better long-term than clubs that were not promoted?
Figure 3 shows a plot of the predicted ranks of clubs, controlling for playoff year performance. As we can see, teams that stayed up tend to lose ground over time, but stay in the EPL, on average, through Year 5. Controlling for performance in playoff year, there is no statistically significant difference between one-and-done teams and not promoted teams in Year 2, but afterwards, their paths tend to diverge. One-and-done have significantly higher positions than not promoted teams in Years 3-5. Whereas not promoted clubs tend to decline in the standings over time, the one-and-done teams tend to inch back toward the top of the CL table.
The models do take into account any stable features of the club over time (e.g., savvy owners) – that is, any unmeasured Cardiffness, Hullitude, or – God help us — Fulhamocity. However, these statuses – not promoted, one-and-done, stayed up – may be reflecting unmeasured time-varying aspects of club quality. If a team’s expected goals or other field statistics change over time, they would be confounded with the “EPL effects.” So, we need to be careful in reading too much into why such promoted teams tend to be better off.
One reason that even teams that experience one-and-dones might be better off are the “parachute payments” that they receive to soften the blow of relegation. At the same time, the costs teams incur in the EPL (from player contracts to stadium improvements) become a real liability and the payments don’t really cover it. Moreover, parachute payments have been scaled back in recent years both in terms of duration and the amount of the payments. So, the payments are surely part of the effect, but may not explain it altogether.
Regardless of why, what these results do suggest is that we shouldn’t feel too bad for Cardiff in the long-term. Perhaps, unsurprisingly, getting promoted is a good thing. Even if they experience another one-and-done relegation this season, they’re probably better off than they would’ve been. And, if history is any indicator, the Bluebirds will be back soon.
Updated April 27, 2019