Since 1871, English football teams have been competing for the FA Cup. It’s the oldest national football competition and the longest-running football competition in the world.

This Saturday, Chelsea and Manchester United will meet at Wembley Stadium to compete for the 137th FA Cup winner’s trophy. The winner will end the season with one of English football’s major trophies, but in reality it won’t mean all that much.

In days dominated by money, where clubs like Manchester City spend £286 million a year to all but guarantee Premier League success, winning the FA Cup means very little to the country’s top sides.

With teams unwilling to risk their star players in pursuit of the FA Cup, fans are beginning to suggest that the competition has lost its magic.

The disappearance of the FA Cup would be a huge loss to English football, but that is a real risk as Premier League and Champions League broadcasting rights continue to make the FA Cup less appealing to competing clubs.

How likely is that to happen?

As things stand, that doesn’t seem likely. Viewership figures show that, at least for fans, the FA Cup is still a major event in the sports calendar.

Over the last ten seasons, average viewership for the FA Cup final has sat around the seven million viewers mark.

Average viewership for the 2007/08 season was 7.3 million and, despite a blip between 2009 and 2012 when coverage moved from BBC to ITV, figures have since returned to normal.

Average viewership peaked in the 2010/11 season at nine million, but it has been between seven and eight million during the last four seasons since.

Generally, the top teams tend to reach the late stages of the tournament. In the last ten seasons, eight of the finals have featured a team that finished in the top four in the Premier League that same season. Likewise, 13 of the 20 finalists have been one of the so-called Big Six (Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester United, Manchester City, Arsenal and Tottenham).

The cup final tends to feature the best teams and, as a result, the best players, which will in turn continue to attract the fans.

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Sponsors seem confident that the FA Cup will continue to attract viewers. According to the FA website, the FA Cup currently has six partners, including Nike, Budweiser, EE and LG.

Likewise, the Emirates airline became the competitors firsts title sponsor earlier this year in a multi-million sponsorship deal that will run until 2021.

The FA Cup has been attracting sponsors with similar reputations for years. However, according to data provided by Sportcal, the competition has never been this popular with companies willing to hand over their money.

The market intelligence company lists seven deals agreed with the FA between 2004 and 2018, all of which have since expired.

Fans are happy enough, but are clubs?

Whichever team claims victory in Saturday’s FA Cup final 2018 will have made £3.4 million in prize money from the competition.

Having spent the week preparing for the final, Alexis Sanchez, Manchester United’s highest-paid player, will have made £350,000. That is more than the club made for winning their games in the third, fourth and fifth rounds of the tournament.

Should Manchester United take the trophy, the £3.4 million prize money won’t even cover Sanchez’s wages for the summer break.

All in all, it will pay for Manchester United’s £2.5 million weekly player wage bill for less than 10 days. The same goes for Chelsea, who would get 10.5 days of employment out of their playing squad.

£3.4 million may seem like no small sum, but to Premier League football clubs it is the equivalent of pocket change. Combined, these two clubs spent £380 million on player transfers alone during the 2017/18 season.

According to data provided by Sportcal, Manchester United signed three new sponsorship deals in 2018 that combined will bring in approximately £3 million annually regardless of performance. Likewise, Chelsea earns approximately £55 million annually for placing a Nike logo on its jerseys.

Of course, teams also earn gate receipts and television broadcasting money, but this hardly matches up to what teams can earn playing Premier League or Champions League football. According to Total Sportek, big clubs can generate upwards of £1 million from ticket sales for FA Cup games, with broadcasting rights worth up to £247,500 for televised games.

However, this is still very little compared to what Premier League and Champions league football offer.

How does the FA Cup compare to other tournaments?

The FA Cup isn’t the worst English cup competition. The League Cup offers a far smaller prize, with the winner receiving £232,000 for their entire cup run.

However, a run in the Champions League proves far more lucrative. Champions League competitors earn £11 million (€12.7 million) just for competing in the group stage.

English side Liverpool, who will face current holders Real Madrid in the Champions League final next week, will receive £38 million (€43.7 million) for their run, regardless of the result. Should they win, they will take home £42.1 million (€48.1 million).

While not a cup competition, champions Manchester City earned £39.8 million for winning the Premier League this season.

Stoke, on the other hand, finished last. They earned just £2 million for their efforts. Had they claimed one more victory during the campaign, they would have finished in 18th, earning £6 million.

Each position is worth an additional £2 million and the margins are always slim. This season, the gap between each team in the table was 3.5 points. However, this is largely skewed by Manchester City running away with the title.

The final table put the oil-rich club 19 points ahead of second-placed Manchester United. If Manchester City are removed from the average, the points between places drops to 2.6.

Essentially, one victory is the difference between a place in the table and a £2 million bonus. This means that winning the FA Cup is worth less to a Premier League side than winning two league matches in terms of prize money.

Dropped points

It’s possible to be successful in both competitions, as many teams have in the past. However, it isn’t uncommon to hear managers complain of packed schedules and dropped points as a result of the extra games that come with a cup run.

Looking at Chelsea’s run, the club failed to win in three of their five games that preceded an FA Cup tie this season. A third round draw with Norwich was followed by a draw with Arsenal in the EFL Cup.

Likewise, after beating Hull in the fifth round, they failed to get a crucial victory over Barcelona in the Champions League. A quarter-final win against Leicester City was followed by defeat to Tottenham in the Premier League.

With the club at the time chasing a top four finish, which would have seen them qualify for next season’s Champions League and ensure the many millions that come with it, that would have been a far bigger prize than what winning the FA Cup can even come close to offering.

Priorities

It’s impossible to say that playing in the FA Cup caused these poor results. However, it is likely that club manager Antonio Conte would have taken three points against Tottenham over Chelsea’s place in the FA Cup.

The manager’s priorities showed in his team selections throughout the competition. When Chelsea played Norwich in the FA Cup in January, seven of the 18 players named on the team sheet went on to play less than 10 Premier League games during the campaign.

Combined, that entire match squad made 259 league appearances throughout the season. However, in the following Premier League game, Conte named a far stronger team that combined played 488 league games throughout 2017/18. Just one player, reserve goalkeeper Willy Caballero, made less than 10 Premier League appearances throughout the campaign.

Conte opted for a similar approach in the fifth round tie with Hull City, playing a weakened side that made 270 league appearances between them throughout the season. Eight of them made less than 10 league appearances throughout the season.

In the Champions League clash with Barcelona that followed, the team sheet made 464 Premier League appearances between them, with just two failing to play ten league games.

Small clubs, big rewards

The FA Cup is unique in that it is open to all teams in the English football league system, from the Premier League right down to sides competing in low-level regional divisions.

While the money on offer means little to those at the top, those lower down the ladder can receive a huge boost.

The Football Association’s The Financial Impact of the FA Cup report, compiled in 2012 in collaboration with Deloitte, revealed just how much an FA Cup run can impact a low-division club’s finances.

According to the report, non-league side Havant & Waterlooville generated 70% of their total annual revenue from playing in the tournament in the 2007/08 season. On that occasion, the club reached the fourth round for the first time in its history and was rewarded with a trip to Premier League side Liverpool.

It isn’t uncommon for low-tier clubs to earn more from a single FA Cup game than they do from all other revenue streams throughout the season. Non-league side Sutton United made it to the fifth round last season, securing a game against Arsenal that generated £710,000, which was enough to pay the playing staff for an entire season.

However, these riches largely come from ticket sales and television rights. The FA Cup needs the big teams to put in the effort. Fans want to see the best players performing and, if that isn’t the case, viewership and attendance will inevitably fall, which could be catastrophic for the competition.

What’s the solution?

Money.

The FA has addressed this somewhat. From next season, the prize handed to the winning team will double to £3.6 million, meaning a winning run in the FA Cup will be worth £5.2 million. This may get the attention of some, teams in the middle of the Championship with little to play for, for example. But an additional £1.8 million will hardly convince Premier League sides – the ones attracting broadcasters and sponsors – to step up their efforts in the competition.

Some have suggested a drastic increase, with a figure of £40 million being floated around. This would undoubtedly appeal to clubs and, with the FA set to bring in £140 million each year from overseas television rights for the FA Cup alone from next season, the money is available.

Under the current prize breakdown, the winner takes around 24% of a total prize pool of $14.2 million. Were this to increase to £40 million, the winner would take £9.6 million. While still not anywhere close to what other competitions offer, this would provide some added incentive to mid-table Premier League sides.

Champions League qualification

Another option would be adding a place in the following season’s Champions League tournament to the prize.

This would award FA Cup winning teams at least £11.1 million for participating in the Champions League group stage, on top of their FA Cup winnings.

Offering the big teams a chance to qualify for the competition other than through the Premier League, this would likely increase their efforts. We have seen the likes of Manchester United and Arsenal make similar attempts in the Europa League, the Champions League’s sibling cup, in recent years.

Of course, this could end up having the opposite effect on the big teams. As English football is only guaranteed four places in the tournament each year, this would likely mean that one less team would qualify through their place in the Premier League table. Six or more teams would likely be competing for the top three Premier League places. This could cause teams to double down on their efforts to secure a high Premier League position, neglecting the cup competitions even more than they already do.

It’s difficult to know what the effect would be. However, what we do know is that the FA needs to do something if they are to halt the FA Cup’s slide towards irrelevance.