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Chairman statement: A proposal for an equitable end to the EFL season in a time of crisis

26 May 2020

Tranmere Rovers is requesting the EFL Board to put a proposal forward for EFL Clubs to vote on.  We recognise that the proposal may need some additional work around the detail.  In our view that is something which should be done in collaboration with clubs. This would be routine stake-holder management and we see no reason why it would need to be a time-consuming exercise.

The proposal is that:

If a decision is taken by a division to end their season now (or indeed at some point in the future but before all of the fixtures are completed):

a) The league table is calculated using a simple PPG basis;
b) There is then applied to the table the statistical average actual margin for error over the last 3 years (being +6.3 or – 5.45%);
c) Teams in the automatic promotion spots even where the margin for error is applied, should be automatically promoted;
d) Teams in the play-off places or who could be in the play-off places where the margin for error is applied should be invited (but not compelled) to compete in a play-off tournament; and
e) There would either be no relegations, or relegations only of clubs who would be relegated even after the margin of error has been applied (see detailed explanation below).

Our rationale for the proposals is set out in this paper.

The existing EFL Board proposal

The EFL Board currently proposes to ask Clubs to vote on either continuing the football season or ending it on a raw points-per-game (PPG) basis, with relegation and promotion. 

Under the EFL proposals, the promotion would be automatic for the teams who finish in the promotion spots on a PPG basis, and the remaining promotion place would be determined through play-off games or, if these prove impossible to play, in an as yet undecided manner determined by the EFL Board.

Tranmere Rovers have been vocal in their desire to see an additional or alternative proposal put to clubs which we believe would be fairer, have more sporting integrity, and would inflict the least financial damage on clubs at a time of extraordinary difficulty.  Those proposals, and their rationale, are set out in this paper.  The paper is long because the issues are not simple, but getting to the right answer is not the same as getting to the most simple answer, so we make no apology for that.

What do the current rules say?

There is no provision in the regulations for cutting a season short. Therefore, unless the EFL’s rules are changed, the ONLY options legally available to it are to play the season to a conclusion of all of the fixtures (however long that might take), or to void the season.   

Both of these options are understandably unpopular with many clubs, which is why the EFL are asking clubs to vote on changing the rules.  If there is to be a compromise, the regulations of the EFL require it to be one that is fair to all clubs.

The difficulties with playing out the full season

At first glance, playing out the season should be the method of ending the season which has the most sporting integrity, but there are significant issues with it.

Playing out the season means playing behind closed doors unless there is a willingness to extend the season indefinitely (very likely until 2021).  The EFL Board and UEFA have both spoken out against an indefinite extension, the latter because of the knock on effect on other competitions.

Clubs who may be struggling financially (and frankly there are not many who aren’t in the present climate) are worried about the additional costs of playing their remaining games at a time when they would not get any gate income, and this is felt most keenly for the clubs who have little at stake in the remaining fixtures.  Opinions vary widely on how much it would cost clubs to play out the remaining fixtures behind closed doors and it will vary from club to club, but we believe it is widely accepted that in League 1 it would be in a range of between £250,000 - £600,000 per club.  This may be a cost worth bearing for those clubs who still have a good chance or promotion, or to avoid relegation, but for the remainder it will be an unwelcome cost that could in some cases tip them into bankruptcy/administration.  Some clubs who could afford to play out the games, and who have a vested interest in doing so, are nonetheless rightly very troubled about voting for something which they know is likely to imperil fellow clubs. 

Quite apart from the finances, other clubs have objections to playing out the season on sporting fairness grounds given the difficulty of working out what to do if players or playing staff are infected with the virus and what then happens to their squad for their remaining fixtures. 

Secondly, to play out the season would mean playing beyond 30th June, when roughly two thirds of all players come out of contract.  For a club with nothing to win and nothing to lose in the remaining fixtures, they are not likely to want to extend the contracts of those players whilst we have no idea when next season may start, and whether it will be behind closed doors.  This means that the mid-table teams (or teams who are already in major financial difficulty) will field weakened teams, bolstered with youth players.  The idea that there is any great sporting integrity in this situation is probably illusory.

The difficulties with voiding the season

Voiding a season which is around three quarters complete is an option which would be acceptable to those in or close to relegation positions or for teams with no chance of promotion, but is for understandable reasons, regarded as very harsh on those who are close to achieving promotion.

This is probably at its most clear when you look at the position of Leeds United and West Brom, who are 7 and 6 points clear of the play-off places respectively, and looked a strong bet for promotion to the Premier League before the crisis hit.

There are also likely to be financial ramifications of voiding the season, as that is the scenario in which it is most likely to impact on television revenues, on which the game is so reliant.  In short, if there are no more games it is likely that a proportion of the TV monies will need to be repaid, and there is also the possibility of sponsors also requesting refunds.

EFL Proposal

The EFL proposal is that if the season is not completed, it will be ended on a simple points-per-game basis, with relegations, automatic promotions and promotion play offs.

It is a compromise proposal being proposed for financial reasons – to enable divisions to end their season if they do not wish to continue playing.  Any compromise – particularly one being suggested for financial reasons – must be something which is fair to all clubs.

Of course to some degree fairness is in the eye of the beholder, but it is capable of being assessed by reference to statistical facts. 

There are, we believe, no clubs who could argue that it is unfair using PPG to relegate a club which was already assured of relegation had the season been allowed to run its course.  Equally, no-one could sensibly argue that a team who had already guaranteed promotion should be denied it.  However, with in most cases 9 or 10 games left to play, there are no teams in this position in the EFL, in any division. 

The beauty of football is its unpredictability.  Teams go on strong runs and on poor runs.  Some react well to pressure and some badly.  PPG reflects none of these.  It does not factor in form, the fixture list (some teams have a much harder run-in than others), nor squad changes.

 In League 1, only 8 points separate the top 8 teams.  In the Championship, only 8 points separate the bottom 8 teams.  What is a virtual certainty is that if the season was played to a conclusion, those which PPG puts in the relegation spots would not be those who are relegated, and those which PPG puts in the promotion spots would not be those who are promoted.

If you had ended League 1 at the same point last year, 4 teams would have been relegated, 3 of whom in reality managed to avoid relegation.  Wimbledon is the clearest example of this, having been [12] points adrift at the bottom of the table at the same point in the season last year, but going on a great run to secure safety in the last game of the season.

This season, PPG puts Charlton in a relegation place despite the fact that their last game was the only time this season they have occupied a relegation spot. Tranmere, who are only 3 points from safety with a game in hand, are similarly relegated on a PPG basis, when we seemed well placed to secure safety having won the last 3 games, having still to play the 4 teams ahead of us, and having significantly strengthened the squad in January.  We do not believe that any person who is interested in sporting integrity could say that in these circumstances it is reasonable to assume either team would have been relegated had the proper number of fixtures been completed.

We have done a statistical analysis of PPG going back 3 years, and it clearly demonstrates a margin for error based on actual outcomes.  This ranges from +25.9% at its most extreme (Newport in the 16/17 season), to -5.45 to +6.3% on average.  There are a number of other cubs who have outperformed their PPG prediction by more than 20% including Oxford in 18/19, Birmingham City and Swindon in 17/18. The statistical analysis also demonstrates that PPG has been a distinctly worse predictor of relegation places than of promotion places, presumably because to be close to the top of the table teams are more likely to be showing a degree of consistency, whereas those near the bottom are more inconsistent.

The statistical margin for error is of course a matter of concern not only for teams narrowly getting relegated, or missing out on automatic promotion, but also for those marginally missing out on a play off opportunity.

Another way of looking at the unfairness of PPG is to consider that a team such as Charlton or Tranmere, both marginally in their respective relegation zones, have around a 50:50 chance of staying up if the season continues, but will be completely denied the opportunity to take that chance.  Conversely, a team currently in the play-offs, who have around a 25% chance of promotion are given the opportunity to take that chance.  Worse still, the team being relegated will have their place taken by a team which is being given an opportunity they are denied.

We are firmly of the view that it is demonstrably unfair for any team to be automatically promoted or automatically relegated if they are within at least the average margin for error, and arguably the largest margin for error observed in the past 3 seasons.  The unfairness is more acute for the relegation spots both because PPG has been less accurate in predicting relegation outcomes but also because the consequence of relegation is clubs losing income.  It cannot be right that a mid-season rule change to aid the finances of the majority of clubs, with penalise other clubs.

Tranmere’s alternative proposals

There are two variants to our proposal, depending on what clubs feel is fairest. 

1. The first (what we will refer to as the “Inflation Option”) is that if a decision is taken by a division to end their season now (or indeed at some point in the future but before all of the fixtures are completed):

a)   The table is calculated using a simple PPG basis;
b)   There is then applied to the table the statistical average margin for error (being + or – []%);
c)   Teams in a clear automatic promotion spot even after the margin for error is applied, should be automatically promoted;
d)   Teams in the play-off places or who could be in the play-off places where the margin for error is applied should be invited (but not compelled) to compete in a play-off tournament; and
e)   No club would be relegated.

One of the consequences of this is that clubs who would currently miss out on the play-offs by a very marginal amount would get an opportunity to participate in them. However, no team would be compelled to take part in the play off tournament if they feel it would imperil their club to do so.

This proposal would also allow the Championship to play on if they so wish, and therefore to promote or relegate in the normal manner.

If the Championship chose to play on, then the Championship would be its usual size next year, but L1 would have 3 teams over the normal complement next season.  We do not believe this would be an insurmountable problem and the divisions size could be normalised over subsequent seasons, until numbers are back to normal. Any fixture congestion could be dealt with by perhaps suspending one of the minor trophies for one season, or altering the rules regarding replays.

League 2 would under this arrangement be 4 teams short next season but this could be remedied by allowing promotions from the National League of either 1, 2 or 3 teams, which would also ensure that the “no relegation” proposal does not in any way compromise movement in the pyramid between the EPL and the EFL, or between the EFL and the National League. 

We believe that any concerns that this proposal may cause the Premier League to choose not to relegate this year are unfounded.  In the face of material adverse financial consequences if they do curtail the season, the EPL has made it clear that they wish to play out their season, and in that context there can be no objection to relegations continuing.  Furthermore, although the Chairman of The FA has stated a view that relegations are integral to the Leagues, this was only in the context of leagues being played to their conclusion.

We do not believe that there would be any adverse consequences to clubs in playing in slightly larger divisions next year.  Indeed we believe that any loss caused by dilution of solidarity awards would be offset by both increased football inventory (gate money and sponsorship opportunity) and the savings resultant on no need to make parachute payments to relegated clubs.

For League 2, which would be playing with potentially one or two clubs fewer (depending on their arrangements with the National League promotions), then the reduced number of matches should be offset by the solidarity money being divided between fewer clubs, and the savings resultant on no need to make the significant parachute payment due to a club being relegated to the National League.

If the Championship choose not to play out their season, then the consequence is that it would be the Championship rather than League 1 which is enlarged by 3 teams next year.

We believe this proposal is fairer to clubs who currently just miss out on the play-offs due to the “raw” PPG scoring, as it gives them the opportunity to take their sporting chance of promotion in a manner settled on the pitch rather than by a computer.

For all of these reasons, we believe that this is a compromise proposal which is fair to all clubs.

2. The alternative version of our proposal (the “Limited Inflation Proposal”) does allow for relegations, but only where they do not fall within the statistical average margin for error of PPG.  Under this version:

a)   The table is calculated using a simple PPG basis;
b)   There is then applied to the table the average PPG margin for error (being + 6.3 or – 5.4%);
c)   Teams in a clear automatic promotion spot or automatic relegation spot even after the margin for error is applied, should be automatically promoted or relegated as applicable;
d)   Teams in the play-off places or who could be in the play-off places where the margin for error is applied should be invited (but not compelled) to compete in a play-off tournament; and
e)   No club only in the relegation zone within the margin for error, would be relegated.

The outcome of the Limited Inflation Proposal is very similar to the Inflation Proposals, save that  as there would be relegation of teams who are materially adrift from safety (depending on what margin for error is agreed), there would be less variation in division sizes next year.

We believe that either of these two variants of our proposal would enable each division to take its own decision now on whether to stop or to play on.  In the event that they play on but later have to terminate, there would be a clear basis for what happens next.

Our proposals result in no financial harm to any club.  Furthermore, they maximise the promotion opportunities for clubs on a sporting merit basis, and they take away some of the inherent unfairness in using a raw PPG calculation.

In circumstances when the season is being disrupted by circumstances entirely beyond everyone’s control, we respectfully submit that this represents the fairest way of ending the season, maintaining the integrity of the football pyramid and the financial stability of its clubs​.


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