It’s everybody’s new favourite ‘footballism’. Expected goals, half spaces and inverted wing backs' are all still very popular with on-the-pitch footballisms, but a new word has cropped up when discussing off-field matters. Sustainability.
The way football is nowadays there aren’t many, if any, examples of a completely self-sustainable football club. Rather than setting a budget in accordance with the club’s income, there seems to be a growing acceptance across the footballing world that financial losses are as common for the game as goals, corners and throw-ins are.
As the old saying goes, the way to make a small fortune out of football is to start with a big one, and that’s never been truer than right now. Teams up and down the country, and from the Premier League through the football pyramid, are registering big financial losses that simply cannot be sustained long term.
There are worrying examples of financial mismanagement all over English football. The Glazers at Manchester United have been the most notable and controversial owners when it comes to media reporting, and whilst they’ve done far less evil than countless others it’s fair to say they’ve been running United pretty poorly.
Their controversial leveraged £790m buy out of the Red Devils in 2005 saw a huge loan taken out by the American businessmen in order to make the purchase, with that debt then being secured against the club. As of August 2022, the club were in roughly £600m of debt, and while the owners remain confident that doesn’t limit their spending power, as we’ve seen with the signings of Paul Pogba, Jadon Sancho, and Harry Maguire, it’s still an astronomical figure to have lurking in the background.
They’re also not the only member of the ‘big 6’ riddled with debt. Chelsea are well over £1billion in debt, around £800m of which has been racked up by new owner Todd Boehly according to Forbes (2023). Tottenham Hotspur find themselves in over £700m of debt, most of which is a result of their new stadium taking longer than expected to build.
It’s not just the so-called big boys in the Premier League that are riddled with debt. Brighton, Newcastle, Leicester, and West Ham are all reportedly well over £100 million in debt and whilst this doesn’t directly impact their ability to spend money, it’s still not a good look. The fact that clubs can operate under such a huge cloud of debt doesn’t sit too well with me, or many people for that matter.
The problem is the Premier League hoovers up the majority of the money in English football. The latest multi-platform TV deal is reportedly worth £1.5 billion per season, which offers a huge incentive to Championship teams to get promoted and start getting a bigger slice of the pie. The current Championship TV deal is only worth around £2.5 million per club, a monumental difference.
Naturally this disparity encourages teams to ‘gamble’ on promotion out of the second tier. We’ve seen so many examples of teams in recent years chucking a lot of money at the playing squad in the hope that it gets them promoted and brings in the big bucks in the Premiership. Wolves, Aston Villa and Leeds all spent big in their promotion campaigns and luckily for them it worked. For other clubs, things didn’t quite go to plan...
Derby and Sheffield Wednesday are the obvious examples as their financial mismanagement saw them receive huge points deductions that resulted in relegation.
Reading can also be added to that list given their relegation which was confirmed this week too, and Wigan Athletic who also received a deduction.
The problem doesn’t come as a result of spending money in search of promotion, it comes when you’re spending money you don’t actually have. Bristol City for example have been operating at huge losses in recent years but they at least acknowledge this and have a good process of player development that ensures they make a big sale every 18 months or so. Players like Adam Webster, Lloyd Kelly, Bobby Reid, Jon Kodja, Antoine Semenyo, and Josh Brownhill were all sold for over £10 million each by the Robins which has gone a long way in helping them stay afloat.
This is where recruitment has a huge impact on a club’s sustainability. Recruiting smartly can genuinely be the difference between a club falling into financial troubles or not. Just look at teams like Brentford and Luton, two teams that are really clever when it comes to selling at the peak time and replacing them with cheaper players who will also help make the club money later down the line.
My club Wigan Athletic have been guilty of doing the exact opposite of that recently. Throwing high wages at older players with no re-sale value is not the way to run a football club. There’s no surprise Latics operated at a £7.7 million loss in the 2021/22 season and have spent the entirety of the 2022/23 season plagued with financial issues.
The hope is that now so many clubs have shown themselves to be poorly run, and many have faced the consequence of relegation as a result of it, others will go about their business in a different way.
I’ve personally been pleased to see the success of Plymouth Argyle this season, another club who haven’t spent big in their pursuit of success and their owner believes they’ll be able to remain a self-sustainable club in the second tier. If that is the case, fair play to them!
The reality is even clubs that are seen as financially secure and ‘run in the right way’ are often operating at losses. The cost of running a football club in the UK has obviously been impacted by the current cost of living crisis in the UK. Evening games and the winter months that required floodlights have ramped up the costs and that’s something that seems to have impacted the way a lot of League One and Two clubs operate.
Equally the money is starting to trickle down from the Premier League into the Championship, and now into League One from the Championship. This means not only is it becoming an expensive business getting out of the second tier, getting into it is also costly! It won’t be long before that trickles down even further...
So, what is the point of this article? Firstly, it’s an issue close to my heart as my club Wigan Athletic have found themselves caught up in a lot of problems that have all stemmed from being run in a naïve way. I know for a fact there are other clubs up and down the country who find themselves in the same boat.
Wage caps are always mentioned but that seems unlikely, as is the argument of increasing the amount of money gifted to the lower leagues from the Premier League. There is no Robin Hood story here, the rich will not be getting robbed, and their funds donated to the poor!
Unfortunately, there is no such thing as a fully sustainable club anymore. Even if a club makes a profit during the season, the likelihood is they won’t be as successful as those spending bigger money and losing more money. I wish whoever is tased with changing that the very best of luck!