So here we are. It’s the FA Cup 3rd Round weekend; the round where David meets Goliath and everyone waxes lyrical about “romance” and “the Magic of the Cup” once again. Somewhat strangely, however, it’s also that time of year when people start talking about how the FA Cup has somehow lost its magic, and with the widespread prevelance of reserve teams, the cynics might just be on to something.
One of the central themes of the FA’s marketing campaign for the cup has been the idea that ‘anyone can play anyone’, when, in actual fact, they simply can’t. Due to the qualifying rounds that take place beforehand (both the qualifying rounds and, before that, the extra-preliminary rounds), there are a number of teams who are never making it to the 3rd Round (where they’d be put in the pot with the likes of Man Utd, Man City, Arsenal etc.), let alone to Wembley in May. After factoring in the qualifying rounds and the relevant teams receiving the relevant byes into their respective rounds, you have over 700 teams that will have played in the FA Cup at one stage or another.
Brackets, not draws
Now, with that mind, here is my proposition for how to give the FA Cup that little extra kick of magic. First off, get rid of all the qualifying rounds, and secondly, remove the byes and the televised draws every Monday night, and just go all in with one tournament drawn at the start of the year. In other words, put all the teams into a big pot (you might need to hire an aquarium, but I’ll leave the logistics to the TV executives), and draw every single team just the one time, then leave it as is for the remainder of the tournament. Anyone familar with March Madness, the annual NCAA single-elimination basketball tournament, will know precisely what I’m talking about (and for those of you who aren’t that way inclined, picture the old UEFA Cup).
What this does is provide teams at the bottom of the pyramid with the chance of drawing a team from any other league, including the top flight. Such a model would provide for a genuine ‘anyone can play anyone’ tournament, meaning that the team which usually plies its trade in front of 50 people each week has every chance of walking out at Old Trafford, or indeed the opportunity to invite Raheem Sterling & Kevin De Bruyne to play on a pitch that only has three corner flags due to budget constraints.
The trickle down effect
What you would also be getting is a much better distribution of the funds that accompany the FA Cup. If we do get the scenario where village teams travel to The Emirates or Old Trafford, considerable sums of money (and exposure) would go their way through ticket sales, possible TV deals, and prize money. The Cup’s revenue streams would thus trickle down throughout the football pyramid with unprecedented speed and efficiency. Consider the fact that a single draw against a big team could be enough to radically transform the financial fortunes of a struggling non-league club, potentially keeping it from insolvency.
Now let’s briefly shift focus to what this would mean for the big teams. We could find ourselves with scenarios where two Premier League teams would face off against each other right at the start of the year. Such clashes would not only be highly-anticipated affairs, but for one of the participants, their FA Cup commitments would be over before their league campaign has really begun. This would mean that when it comes to March and April, a number of Premier League sides would be able to concentrate fully on the league, relieving the growing fixture congestion issue.
If we are to get some of the non-believers in the FA Cup back on side, then a change in the structure of this grand old tournament is going to be necessary. The model I’ve outlined might just be worth considering.