Football's Frail New World

Last updated : 14 October 2008 By Richard Oldroyd
West Ham - exposed to the Icelandic banking crisis
These are worrying times for football clubs, most of whom find themselves beholden to forces over which they have no control. Even those clubs who have wealthy backers have generally received that support in the form of loans or guarantees for commercial loans; it is not irredeemable support and the clubs know it.

Owning a football club has become the extreme version of a Chelsea Tractor: an ostentatious symbol of wealth and success in the prosperous times, but an unjustifiable and uneconomic drain on resources when the squeeze hits. Some of those backers simply cannot afford to sustain their involvement any longer, whilst others may well decide there are more sensible ways of spending their rather more limited funds.

It is not just those clubs who have placed their fates in the hands of often unknown third parties who are vulnerable. There are barely any clubs in English football who do not have debts of one form or another. If they are not owed to generous benefactors, they are owed to banks or other commercial institutions - and as those institutions become more reluctant to extend credit and as the cost of borrowing increases, it is inconceivable that football clubs will not suffer.

West Ham's exposure to the Icelandic banking crisis has provided the first case study in these impending problems, but it will not be the last and it is difficult to predict who else might suffer. All that can be said is that the list of English football clubs available for sale appears to grow longer by the day - at last count it included Newcastle, Everton, Portsmouth and perhaps Tottenham in addition to West Ham - whilst the list of prospective suitors appears to be confined to Newcastle's periodic flights of fantasy.

Amongst the really big clubs, the only one which appears truly secure is Arsenal. The level of Liverpool's debt is eye-watering - as, for all their revenue streams, is that of Manchester United - and Chelsea are wholly reliant upon loans provided by Roman Abramovich. It may seem fanciful to suggest that one of the world's biggest clubs could go bust, but then again a year ago few would have countenanced the collapse of several of the world's biggest banks.

The problem is that there is simply no textbook for modern football in the teeth of unfavourable economic conditions. The Premiership era began in 1992, just as the last prolonged period of uncertainty was coming to an end. Since then, ticket prices have risen at a rate which has far exceeded inflation; a season ticket now represents a much greater financial commitment for the majority of supporters than it did twenty years ago.

Corporate hospitality has been transformed from a useful sideline into a fundamental revenue stream for every club and a huge cash-cow for the Premier League. Likewise advertising, sponsorship and television revenues have helped transform the game and produce a yawning chasm between the Premier League and the rest.

Along with borrowed money, this explosion in revenue has contributed to the explosion in wages and transfer fees across the country (it is astonishing to remember that, 13 years ago, Blackburn 'bought' the Premier League title with Chris Sutton their most expensive signing at just £5 million - less than the fee for which Fulham signed Diomansy Kamara from West Bromwich Albion last season); it has helped build new stadia and produce a glamorous product for export around the world. For 15 years, football has ridden the coattails of the good times to expand itself into a multi-billion pound industry.

But for the majority of clubs, even those revenues have struggled to keep pace with the spiralling costs of competing - and now it must work out how to survive when times are not so good.

So what will happen? Television revenues will presumably hold up until the rights are next renegotiated, but thereafter the collapse in TV advertising income is likely to translate into markedly reduced rewards. Appetite for corporate hospitality will almost certainly reduce next season, and the boom in demand for match tickets at almost any price is unlikely to be maintained.

Clubs already living beyond their means are likely to find that the gap between their expenditure and income will get even greater; most of the few clubs who currently turn in a profit may find themselves struggling to do so again. And so, ironically, they will find themselves in ever greater need of benefactors at precisely the time when the number of those willing and able to get involved is diminishing.

Clubs who find themselves in trouble may look to the transfer market for comfort, but as all clubs tighten their belts, they are likely to find that the inflated transfer market of the past ten years has now peaked. The option of selling players to avert disaster hardly worked for Leeds United when times were easier: in twelve months time, it may be all but impossible.

What, then, of Burnley? We are as dependant as any club on the goodwill of benefactors, and so we must hope that Barry Kilby and in particular Brendan Flood are able to maintain their investment; the alternative is oblivion. But we can take comfort from the fact that a quick survey of the Championship reveals any number of clubs who look exceptionally vulnerable. Cardiff, their new stadium still in construction and with Peter Ridsdale presiding over heavy debts, have the spectre of Ridsdale's Leeds to keep their supporters awake at night. The former Premier League clubs such as Derby, Southampton and Watford may face a painful re-adjustment. The majority of other clubs are markedly unstable.

In the Premier League, the future is impossible to predict. Perhaps ever more clubs will find themselves surrendering to the arms of the only investors who retain the ready cash, those from the Middle and Far East, thereby accelerating the migration of that competition to foreign climes. By the same logic, perhaps Manchester City will emerge as a challenger to a more humble Manchester United or Chelsea, as the rest of the challenging pack falls victim to reality. It might accentuate the gap between those who have funds and those who don't, resulting in an even more unbalanced competition but improving the opportunity for newly promoted teams to establish themselves.

Alternatively, it is just about possible that English football will carry on just about as it has for the past 15 years and the insatiable desire for football will prove Triesman's fears groundless. But this much we can say: we are in uncertain territory, and no-one has brought a map.