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Why the FA Cup, amid declining relevance, will always be an English football staple

The FA Cup trophy sits pitchside for a match at AFC Fylde. The non-league side almost reached the third round, but fell to Wigan Athletic in a second-round replay. (Getty)

What determines the importance of a soccer competition?

The answer, as frightened of it as some may be, is revenue. Money. Cold, hard cash.

The importance of a competition such as the FA Cup, whose fourth round kicks off Friday, is inextricably linked to financial incentives, as so many things in professional sports are. Clubs need reasons to care. And there are no better reasons than fiscal health and, by extension, survival.

Which is why you’ve likely heard talk of the declining relevance of the world’s oldest soccer competition. It is increasingly home to squad rotation and reserve teams rather than its fabled magic.

And that’s not an accident. It’s a product of football’s new age. But even in that new age, the FA Cup is, and will be, integral. It will always carry value. The value is simply spread across England’s vast sporting landscape differently.

Why the FA Cup is on the decline

Relevance is linked to revenue, but revenue, of course, is tied to other factors. Chief among them is product.

The causality chain here is a vicious cycle. A better product will attract more broadcasters and sponsors. More broadcasters and sponsors mean more revenue, which is shared among a competition’s participants. Those revenue shares are linked to performance. That creates incentive to perform. It makes clubs care. The more clubs prioritize a competition, the better its on-field product will be.

The FA Cup’s product has always paled in comparison to those of the Premier League and Champions League. So when TV rights fees began to explode, first around the turn of the century, and then again over the past five years, the gap between Premier League revenue and FA Cup revenue widened.

Nowadays, it’s wider than ever before. The 2017-18 FA Cup will hand down roughly $25-30 million in total to over 100 clubs throughout England and Wales. The Premier League divvies up $3.4 billion between 20 clubs. The Champions League doles out a total of $1.6 billion to 32 clubs.

Arsenal, for example, brought in less than $6 million – plus 45 percent of ticket revenue for all its matches, home or away – along its run to the 2017 FA Cup title. Meanwhile, it made $197.6 million for a disappointing fifth-place finish in the Premier League.

At the other end of the top-flight spectrum, the Premier League awarded 15th-place Swansea $146.1 million; an FA Cup third-round exit earned it zilch outside of its share of revenue from 6,608 tickets sold at Hull City’s KCOM Stadium.

Viewed in terms of the marginal benefits of a single game, winning an FA Cup fourth-round tie is worth $127,410, plus a shot at further prizes from the fifth round and beyond. A single place in the Premier League table was worth $2.8 million last year. And toward the middle of that table, 10 teams were separated by six points. Every win was crucial.

At the very top and bottom, potential rewards and pitfalls are even greater due to the perks of European football and the threat of relegation. It therefore makes little sense for any top-flight club to prioritize the FA Cup. The product, therefore, suffers.

Why the FA Cup matters: supporting the pyramid

The beauty of the FA Cup, though, is its inclusivity. The vast majority of its participants aren’t swimming in Premier League cash. The “fourth round” is actually the 10th of 14 rounds, and even it features more lower-division sides than Premier League ones this season.

For that majority, the thousands of dollars gleaned from each successive round are a big deal. Perhaps not to clubs from the second-tier Championship, but certainly to those further down. Third-tier Leyton Orient’s run to the fifth round in 2011-12 accounted for 30 percent of its annual revenue. Non-league Havant & Waterlooville’s journey to the fourth round in 2007-08 accounted for 70 percent of its turnover that year.

For proper minnows, a mere appearance in the third round can ensure economic stability for years. Not every club is that fortunate. But, again, the financial incentive tied to every win makes every match massively important. The possibility of the big payday encourages investment down at the lower levels of English football’s pyramid. And it fosters the tooth-and-nail battles from underdogs that still, to this day, make the FA Cup what it is.

Why the FA Cup matters: a chance at a trophy

The problem the FA Cup runs into is that no team with a realistic chance to win it has significant financial incentive to try to do so. But at some point, financial incentive gives way to something bigger; to the ultimate purpose of a club, which is to entertain and make thousands, if not millions of people happy by winning.

Winning, at its extreme, means winning trophies. With the gap between haves and have nots as wide as ever, and still widening, only six clubs harbor realistic hopes of taking home England’s top prize. Over a 38-game season, West Hams and Bournemouths can’t win the Premier League.

But in a series of one-off games, anything can happen. The FA Cup, therefore, allows every single English football fan to enter a season with dreams of silverware. And it always will.

And as long as those dreams represent the pinnacle (or something close to it) for all but six or so clubs, the FA Cup will retain some value; it might not thrive, but it will do far more than simply survive; it will remain a staple of the sport.

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Henry Bushnell covers global soccer, and occasionally other ball games, for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at henrydbushnell@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell.