The Championship is often referred to as the toughest league to get promoted from in the world and whilst this cannot be categorically proven, it is certainly an amazingly competitive division. Each season three teams will go up to the promised land of the Premier League but they face 46 games of intense, physical football before they can land that huge prize.
The Premier League is unpredictable and exciting but the Championship arguably takes that to the next level and the gap between the best and worst sides in England’s second tier can often seem negligible. This excitement means that the Championship attracts a good television audience and incredible live attendances, with a league average of almost 17,000 in 2021/22 putting it not far behind Serie A (18,171).
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The structure and format of English football’s highly regarded and hugely supported second tier are very similar to those of the other three top divisions in English football, and indeed many of Europe’s major leagues. That means teams are awarded three points for a win, one for a draw and none for a defeat. Goal difference, then goals scored, are the chief mechanisms by which sides on equal points are separated in the final reckoning.
Perhaps the key difference between the Championship and some of Europe’s highest-quality divisions, including the English Premier League (EPL) is the number of teams. Like Leagues One and Two beneath it, the Championship has 24 clubs, whereas most of the best leagues around the world tend to have 20, whilst some have even fewer.
With 24 teams following a very typical structure whereby they all meet one another twice, home and away, a Championship season consists of 552 games in total (versus 380 in the EPL). Each side plays a gruelling 46 games each, eight more matches than sides contest in the division above. This is just part of the reason why the Championship is considered by many to be the toughest league in the world.
The other main difference between the Championship (and also League One and League Two) and the Premier League is that the second tier offers the possibility of promotion. Relegation is a straightforward affair, with the bottom three sides at the end of the season going down into the third tier, League One. Promotion, however, is a little more complex.
The champions and the runners-up are automatically promoted, meaning the battle for the top two is the key prize in the Championship. Clubs of course want to win the division, as do their fans, but in truth few truly care all that much if they finish first or second because the glory and insane financial rewards of the Premier League are what really matters. However, miss out on the top two and sides can still gain access to all that filthy lucre, with a further spot available through the Championship play-offs.
The four sides that finish from third down (third to sixth inclusive) qualify for the play-offs, meaning further games on top of those 46 if they want to make it to the PL. The team that finishes third plays the lowest ranked (i.e. sixth-placed) side in one semi final, whilst fourth and fifth meet in the other. These games are played home and away over two legs, with the winner meeting in the crucial play-off finally, which normally takes place at Wembley.
This game is often dubbed the richest in football with various estimates about the value of winning and getting promoted. With the huge TV rights of the Premier League, all the associated extra commercial income, bigger crowds and the possibility of parachute payments if they get instantly relegated the following season, winning the play-off final is thought to be worth at least £140m. If a club can avoid going down after just one season that value increases to around £280m, so it is easy to see why this clash is so heavily hyped.
The play-off final normally takes place towards the end of May, on the Monday of the spring bank holiday. This allows the play-off semis to be played following the end of the normal season, the last game usually taking place in the early to the middle part of the month. As such, the Championship season keeps very similar dates to the PL and other major European competitions, though it often starts a week earlier than the English top flight.
Most games take place on a Saturday in the second tier, with fewer Sunday games than we see in the EPL. There are midweek games as well, most often on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, with the odd Friday game, as well.
History of the EFL Championship
The second tier has existed for well over 100 years, being founded in 1892, just four years after the Football League. Called the Second Division back then, it has undergone countless changes over the years. The biggest perhaps came when the Premier League was founded in 1992 but the second tier has only had the name of the Championship since 2004. In the intervening period it was known as the First Division, rather confusingly for the second-highest level of football in England.
Most alterations have been fairly minor though, including several name changes over the years, including for sponsorship reasons. Sky Bet have sponsored the league since 2013 and that agreement seems a natural fit, though could be forced to end if regulations regarding gambling sponsorship are tightened as seems likely at some point.
Fundamentally though not all that much of note has changed in terms of the structure of the league, certainly not in recent times. So, with that in mind, let us instead now focus on various Championship records and stats.
Finances & Attendances
The Championship is believed to be the richest non-top-tier football league in the world and by some reckoning it is the ninth wealthiest overall. The TV rights are sold beyond the UK and whilst the value of the domestic and international deals are tiny when compared to the EPL, they are still worth a very significant sum.
The most recent deal, signed in 2018 for five years, was worth almost £600m, a 35% increase on the previous arrangement. This covered games beyond the Championship but it is second-tier clubs who will receive most of the money.
Championship sides also see huge numbers of fans attending grounds and in terms of attendance, they fare very well. The league average varies very much according to which sides are in the Championship in a given season, with teams like Leeds, Newcastle, Sunderland, Aston Villa, Sheffield United, Sheffield Wednesday and others all giving it a decent boost when they are present.
In general though, over the past decade or so the Championship has seen attendances of around 18,000 on average. This is not that far behind the French and Italian top flights and as far as second tier football only Bundesliga 2 can rival the Championship.
As of 2022/23, 55 teams, including 13 of the current Premier League, have played in the Championship (meaning the second tier since it was rebranded). Cardiff and Derby have played in the division for 17 seasons in 19 years, with QPR and Reading both competing in 16 of those 19 campaigns.
A number of sides, in contrast, have featured in the division for just a single season. These are football minnows such as Yeovil, Southend and Gillingham, whilst West Ham and Newcastle have spent just two seasons in the Championship.
In terms of winning the Championship title, there are a number of clubs to have managed this feat on more than one occasion. Of course, clubs would rather win it just once and then never return but for the likes of Newcastle, Sunderland, Reading, Norwich and Wolves, relegation gave them another bite of the cherry and they have all won the Championship twice.
EFL Championship Trivia
If you want to impress your football-geek friends, or just fancy a little Championship trivia, here are five handy stats to keep at the back of your mind:
- Hot-Shot Mitro – Fulham’s Aleksandar Mitrovic holds the records for most goals in a Championship campaign with a massive 43 in 2021/22, 12 more than the next best.
- Howay the Lads – In 2016/17, Newcastle had an average attendance of 51,106 in the Championship – by far the highest in the division’s history.
- Second-Tier Kings – Looking at the wider picture of the second tier, no side has played at this level more often than Barnsley. They were the first club to play over 3,000 games and, prior to that, the first to achieve 1,000 wins.
- First Championship Champs – Sunderland won the first ever re-branded Championship title in 2004/05.
- Ton-Up Trio – Only three sides have managed to accrue 100 points in more in a Championship season: Reading lead the way with 106 in 2005/06, then came Newcastle United (2009/10) and Leicester City (2013/14) who both garnered 102 points.