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SPORTS

Leeds and Southampton Seek Immediate Return to Premier League in Soccer’s Richest One-off Game

One club has a U.S. ownership group that contains a couple of major-winning golfers.

The other is run by a Serbian media mogul.

Both are seeking a return to the Premier League after just one season away.

The Championship playoff final between Leeds and Southampton is hardly one for the romantics but still retains an interesting narrative, not least because it remains the richest one-off match in soccer.

A guaranteed revenue uplift of 140 million pounds ($180 million) is on offer, according to soccer finance experts at Deloitte, for the winner of Sunday’s game at Wembley Stadium. Picking that winner is anyone’s guess.

The teams were separated by just three points by the end of the regular season — Leeds finished in third place and Southampton was fourth — before delivering dominant home wins in the second legs of the playoff semifinals to advance.

West Bromwich Albion manager Carlos Corberan , centre, gestures during the English Football League Championship play-off, semi-final, first leg soccer match between West Bromwich Albion and Southampton, at The Hawthorns, in West Bromwich, England, Sunday May 12, 2024. (Jacob King/PA via AP)

Leeds might be the favorite because, aside from being the bigger club historically as a three-time English champion, it has a promotion specialist for a manager in Daniel Farke and a squad filled with players who were at the club in the Premier League in the 2022-23 season. The 4-0 thrashing of Norwich in the playoff semifinals showed the levels it can reach.

Yet, the team from Yorkshire finished the regular season badly, winning only one of its last six games to allow Ipswich to snatch the second automatic promotion spot behind Leicester.

Southampton will also gain confidence from having beaten Leeds in both of their meetings this season, the second coming at Leeds in the final round of games on May 4.

And then there’s this stat: Leeds has failed to win promotion via the playoffs in its five previous attempts.

It’s why the San Francisco-based 49ers Enterprises ownership group, which took full control of Leeds last July and whose shareholders include American golfers Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas, will be wary.

“It’s not a normal game,” said Leeds left back Junior Firpo, who joined the club from Barcelona in 2021. “It’s not every day you can play in a final. It doesn’t matter if it’s a playoff final or whatever.

“It’s a final. It’s 90 minutes. It will be a nervy game, a difficult game I think, but if I have to pick one team in the final, I pick us.”

The money on offer heightens the stakes.

The $180 million figure from Deloitte’s sports business group takes into account the projected increases in matchday, broadcast and commercial revenue that comes with playing in the Premier League. Deloitte said the figure could rise to more than 300 million pounds ($380 million) if the winner on Sunday survives its first season back in the Premier League.

Britain’s Prime Minister Rishi Sunak gestures in the stands during the Sky Bet Championship play-off, semi-final, second leg match between West Bromwich Albion and Southampton at St Mary’s Stadium in Southampton, Friday May 17, 2024. (Adam Davy/PA via AP)

It would be a third promotion to the Premier League for Farke, who led Norwich to the Championship title in 2019 and 2021.

His opposite number at Southampton is Russell Martin, a former Scotland international who only took over as manager in June last year after a playing career that included a season under Farke at Norwich.

Martin has got Southampton playing a possession-based, easy-on-the-eye style and has proved to be a shrewd appointment by Sport Republic, an investment firm in the sports and entertainment industry fronted by Dragan Solak — the founder of eastern European telecommunications giant United Group.

Solak bought a majority share of Southampton in January 2022, only for the club to be relegated from the Premier League in the first full season under his ownership. It ended an 11-year run in the top division that was notable for the academy players Southampton churned out, following in the footsteps of the likes of Gareth Bale and Theo Walcott.

Southampton is also the team of British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who has described himself as a “massive football fan” despite making embarrassing gaffes when speaking about the sport in public engagements in recent years.

Sunak, the leader of the Conservative party, called a national election this week that will determine who governs the U.K, so it remains to be seen if he has the time to attend his soccer team’s big day at Wembley.

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By STEVE DOUGLAS AP Sports Writer

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