“Good old Sussex by the sea, Good old Sussex by the sea, Oh we’re going up….”
Brighton and Hove Albion’s famous song goes on to refer to winning the cup, but these days the Seagulls are firmly focused on going up to the Premier League. The club has transformed itself from relegation candidates in a “disappointing” 2014/15 to viable promotion contenders this season.
Indeed, the Albion currently sit proudly on top of the table and after 19 games are the only remaining unbeaten side among the 92 Football League clubs. As chairman Tony Bloom commented, this represents “a tremendous improvement and progress in the past 12 months.”
Under the guidance of manager Chris Hughton, who replaced Sami Hyypia on New Year’s Eve after the Finn had finally been “binned”, Brighton are once again playing some effective football.
The proverbial “safe pair of hands”, the knowledgeable Hughton first ensured that Brighton stayed up and has since “reshaped the squad into one capable of competing at the top end of the Championship.” As Hughton said, “We knew it was going to be a big recruitment summer. We lost nine players and knew we had to bring in nine, which is really too many.”
Nevertheless, they have recruited well, signing a good blend of experience and youth including Liam Rosenior, Jamie Murphy, Uwe Hünemeier, Gaetan Bong, Tomer Hemed, Niki Mäenpää, Elvis Manu and Connor Goldson. They also captured James Harper, the promising “kid from Madrid”, and delivered the icing on the cake in the form of returning hero Bobby Zamora.
Last season was particularly frustrating after the club’s development over the past few years. Following promotion from League One in 2011, Brighton had qualified for the Championship play-offs two years in succession in 2013 and 2014.
The recent success tastes all the sweeter when the many years of adversity are considered. In the early 90s the Goldstone Ground was sold to property developers, ostensibly to pay off the club’s debts, though the vast majority of fans considered this to be a blatant act of asset-stripping by the reviled chairman, Bill Archer, and his partner-in-crime, chief executive David Bellotti.
In 1997 Brighton avoided relegation out of the Football League to the Conference by the skin of their teeth, as a 1-1 draw at Hereford United condemned their opponents to the dreaded drop, but there then followed years of struggle, exacerbated by the problems of finding a suitable ground.
"Let's get serious"
First came exile to Kent, where a ground share with Gillingham meant a 140-mile round-trip for Albion fans to attend their “home” games. After two long years the club made its weary way back to Brighton in 1999, but the destination was Withdean, an old council-owned athletics stadium where the facilities were far from ideal. Largely open to the elements, the “theatre of trees” was arguably the worst stadium in the whole of the Football League with totally inadequate facilities, but at least chairman Dick Knight had brought the club back home.
It took 12 years, but finally Brighton moved to the magnificent new Amex stadium in Falmer. The major investment required to build the stadium (and indeed a superb new training centre) was financed by Tony Bloom, a lifelong fan who became chairman with Knight taking the role of life president.
It is now a realistic aspiration for Brighton to seek promotion. Although the club has never been in the Premier League, it did play in the old First Division, which was then the top tier of English football, for four seasons between 1979 and 1983, when they also came within a kick of beating the mighty Manchester United in the 1983 FA Cup Final (“and Smith must score”).
So the club has made great strides off the pitch in the past few years, but the financial results for the 2014/15 season “reflected a difficult season”, though the £10.4 million loss was a slight improvement on the previous year’s £10.6 million.
There was a small decrease in turnover of £0.3 million (1%) from £24.0 million to £23.7 million. Although there was solid growth of £0.7 million (8%) in commercial income to £8.9 million, as a result of the sponsorship of the American Express Elite Football Performance Centre and the Academy grant increasing from £0.5 million to £0.9 million for Category 1 status, the other revenue streams fell.
Gate receipts were £0.6 million (5%) lower in line with the fall in attendances, while broadcasting income dropped £0.5 million (9%), as the club featured less on live TV.
On top of that, all cost lines were higher. Wages rose £0.3 million (2%) to £20.6 million, while other expenses surged £2.3 million (19%) to £15.0 million. There were also increases in the non-cash expenses, as depreciation was up £1.4 million (41%) and player amortisation rose £0.3 million (14%) to £2.4 million.
The deterioration in ongoing revenue and costs was compensated by a significant £4.9 million increase in profits on player sales from £3.8 million to £8.7 million, largely due to the sales of Leo Ulloa to Leicester City and Will Buckley to Sunderland.
To be fair to Brighton, almost all clubs in the Championship lose money and are reliant on owners’ funding. In 2013/14, the last season when all clubs have published their accounts, losses were reported by 21 of the 24 clubs – in stark contrast to the Premier League where the new TV deal, allied with wage controls, has led to a surge in profitability. The only clubs to make money in the Championship were Blackpool (and their model is not one to be recommended), Wigan Athletic and Yeovil Town.
As Bloom noted, “Any Championship club wishing to compete for promotion will inevitably make significant losses, so it remains a delicate balancing act for the board, recruitment team and manager as we strive to achieve our ultimate aim.”
That said, Brighton’s loss of £11 million in 2013/14 was one of the highest in the league, only surpassed by six clubs: Blackburn Rovers £42 million, Nottingham Forest £23 million, Leicester City £21 million, Middlesbrough £20 million, Leeds United £20 million and Millwall £12 million.
This was despite Brighton making a fair amount from profits on player sales with only three clubs generating more money from this activity in 2013/14. Again, Championship clubs rarely sell players for big bucks, at least compared to the Premier League, but this has become increasingly important to Brighton, rising from £3.8 million to £8.7 million in 2014/15.
It is believed that Brighton have received additional payments of around £2 million for Ulloa and Buckley helping their clubs stay up. Although it is not completely clear whether these payments were included in the 2014/15 accounts, the contingent receivables on transfers have fallen from £4.3 million to £2.1 million, so it is a reasonable assumption that they have been booked.
Of course, losses are nothing new for Brighton. The last time that they made a profit was back in 2007/08 – and that was less than £1 million and only arose because of a £3.6 million exceptional credit, due to a change in the accounting for the Falmer stadium expenses incurred to date.
Since then, the club has made cumulative losses of £62 million. In fact, their losses have increased as the stakes have got higher, i.e. targeting promotion to England’s top flight, where the financial rewards are enormous. This has produced £46 million of losses in the four years since promotion to the Championship, averaging more than £11 million a season. As Tony Bloom put it, “most Championship clubs are currently loss-making as a means of supporting their own ambitions.”
As we have seen, the 2014/15 figures were flattered by hefty profits on player sales. Traditionally Brighton have made very little from the transfer market until 2013/14 when the club sold Liam Bridcutt to Sunderland and Ashley Barnes to Burnley.
Next year’s accounts will be interesting, as no major sales were made this summer. In fact, Brighton demonstrated their ambition by resisting Fulham’s offer of £4-5 million for central defender Lewis Dunk, who is not even guaranteed a starting place.
That said, Bloom admitted, “It would be ridiculous for me or any owner to say that a player is never for sale. There’s always a price for any player.” In particular, Brighton have a number of players that could attract tempting bids from bigger clubs, e.g. Solly March, Dale Stephens, Beram Kayal and that man Dunk.
Brighton’s strategy is more clearly seen by the club’s alternative presentation of the profit and loss account, which highlights the increase in the football budget last season, funded by making the administrative and operational costs more efficient plus improvements in player trading.
This has been driven by chief executive Paul Barber, who explained the approach in this way, “I’m obsessive about reducing our operational costs, cutting waste, getting better supplier deals, and making the club more efficient, because it's the only way that we can maintain a competitive playing budget without breaking Financial Fair Play (FFP) regulations.”
Finance director David Jones added, “We have continued to increase our investment in football, and in particular player wages, in order to give ourselves the best possible chance of success on the pitch.” This enabled Brighton to invest an additional £3 million in the club’s football budget in 2014/15.
In fact, Brighton’s managers have benefited from a significant increase in this football budget of around 80% since 2012, as it has grown from £13.1 million to £23.7 million.
This was a notable achievement, especially in a season that Barber described as “unexpectedly difficult”. He added, “Ticket sales fell, merchandising sales fell and, on top of that, our Football League income fell too. Against such a backdrop, keeping our turnover ticking over was the first priority. Give or take, we managed to keep our overall income static, despite reductions in key areas.”
To put this into perspective, Brighton’s revenue has grown by almost 500% since 2009, surging from £4 million to £24 million, largely due to what can de described as the "Amex effect", though the promotion from League One to the Championship in 2011 has obviously also helped. Following the move from Withdean, gate receipts are more than four time higher, increasing from £2.3 million to £9.8 million.
In addition, the new stadium has brought more commercial opportunities, leading to income climbing from £3.1 million to £8.9 million. The club could negotiate better deals with sponsors in the higher division (up from £0.8 million to £5.6 million), increase retail sales, e.g. from the stadium megastore (up from £0.5 million to £1.2 million) and make more from catering, i.e. pies and the famous Harveys beer (up from £35k to £1.0 million).
In 2013/14 Brighton’s revenue of £24 million was the 8th highest in the Championship, but the clubs with the three highest revenues (QPR, Reading and Wigan Athletic) were more than 50% higher with £37-39 million.
Money often talks in football, so it is no surprise that two of the four clubs with the highest revenue were promoted that season: QPR and Leicester City. The exception to the rule was Burnley, who had the 11th largest revenue, £4 million less than Brighton, so it is still possible to get out of the Championship on a modest budget.
Of course, these revenue figures are distorted by the parachute payments made to those clubs relegated from the Premier League, e.g. in 2013/14 the first year of relegation was worth £24 million. If we were to exclude this “disparity” (as Barber calls it), then Brighton’s revenue would have been the 3rd highest in the Championship, only behind Leicester City and Leeds United.
As Barber observed, “Championship clubs need to be spending the sort of money we are spending to be competitive, but it is certainly easier to do this if you have higher incomes supported by parachute payments.”
Following last season’s movements, the club’s revenue mix has also changed, though the majority (41%) still comes from gate receipts (down from 43%). Commercial income’s share has increased from 34% to 38%, while broadcasting has reduced from 23% to 21%. This is a not untypical mix for Championship clubs, as opposed to the Premier League where TV is by far the largest source of income – up to 80% for some clubs.
Clearly, Brighton are more reliant on match day income than most clubs. In fact, in 2013/14 only two clubs were more dependent on this revenue stream: Charlton Athletic 50% and Nottingham Forest 44%.
However, Brighton’s gate receipts fell 5% (£0.6 million) from £10.4 million to £9.8 million in 2014/15, driven by a decrease in average attendance from 27,110 to 25,649 and one less cup game being staged at the Amex. Despite the reduction, this is still likely to be the highest match day revenue in the Championship, as they were far ahead of the closest challengers the previous season (Leeds United £8.6 million and Nottingham Forest £7.2 million), partly due to the transport levy paid to rail and bus companies.
After having the highest attendances in the Championship for two seasons in a row, Brighton fell back to 3rd place in 2014/15, behind Derby County 29,232 and Norwich City 26,343.
Since the move to the Amex, attendances had been steadily rising from the 7,352 at Withdean, as the new stadium finally met latent local demand for tickets. Capacity has been increased twice since the original move: in July 2012 it grew from 22,500 to 27,444 after the Upper tier of the East Stand was extended; and in March 2013 there was a further increase to 30,750 after all four corners were completed.
Although the reduction in attendances must be of concern, Brighton’s potential was highlighted by a new record crowd of 30,278 being set in the FA Cup 4th round tie against Arsenal in January 2015.
Ticket prices are among the highest in the Championship. According to the BBC’s Price of Football survey, Brighton have the second highest cheapest season ticket (only below Hull City) and the fifth highest most expensive season ticket (behind Fulham, Ipswich, Sheffield Wednesday and QPR).
However, Barber argued: “Once the cost of travel is deducted, our average ticket price is very much in line with the Championship and wider Football League average prices.” He also pointed to the magnificent facilities that are second to none, including free wifi and VIP padded seats,
In 2014/15 Barber “kept season ticket prices as low as possible”, which meant an average increase of 3%, though there was a price freeze for juniors. The good news is that in 2015/16 the club froze season ticket prices, extended the subsidised travel zone and introduced a new age bracket for fans under 21.
Brighton’s broadcasting revenue fell from £5.4 million to £4.9 million in 2014/15, which was attributed to the club being shown less on live TV, but was also due to not appearing in the play-offs. In the Championship most clubs receive the same annual sum for TV, regardless of where they finish in the league, amounting to just £4 million of central distributions: £1.7 million from the Football League pool and a £2.3 million solidarity payment from the Premier League.
However, the clear importance of parachute payments is once again highlighted in this revenue stream, greatly influencing the top eight earners, though it should be noted that clubs receiving parachute payments do not also receive solidarity payments.
Looking at the television distributions in the top flight, the massive financial disparity between England’s top two leagues becomes evident with Premier League clubs receiving between £65 million and £99 million, compared to the £4 million in the Championship. In other words, it would take a Championship club more than 15 years to earn the same amount as the bottom placed club in the Premier League.
As we have seen, parachute payments make a significant difference to a club’s revenue and therefore its spending power in the Championship. Up to now, these have been worth £65 million over four years: year 1 £25 million, year 2 £20 million and £10 million in each of years 3 and 4.
However, the Premier League has recently announced changes to this structure, whereby from 2016/17 clubs will only receive parachute payments for three seasons after relegation, although the amounts will be higher (my estimate is £75 million, based on the advised percentages of the equal share paid to Premier League clubs: year 1 55%, year 2 45% and year 3 20%).
There are some arguments in favour of these payments, namely that it encourages clubs promoted to the Premier League to invest to compete, safe in the knowledge that if the worst happens and they do end up relegated at the end of the season, then there is a safety net. However, they do undoubtedly create a significant revenue advantage compared to clubs like Brighton.
If Brighton were to gain promotion, the financial prize for returning to the Premier League would be immense, exacerbated by the recent blockbuster Premier League deal that starts in 2016/17, which Barber described as “astonishing”. I have estimated this be worth an additional £30-50 million for Premier League clubs, depending on where they finish in the table, though my assumption for overseas deals may prove to be a little conservative.
Even if a team were to finish last in their first season and go straight back down, their TV revenue would increase by an amazing £87 million (£92 million less £5 million) and they would also receive a further £64 million in parachute payments (restricted for clubs only in the Premier League for one season), giving additional funds of around £150 million. The size of the prize helps explain the loss-making behaviour of many Championship clubs.
Of course, Brighton would also have to spend more to improve their playing squad, but the net impact on the club’s finances would undoubtedly be positive, as evidenced by the clubs promoted in the past few seasons.
Commercial income was the most impressive revenue performer in 2014/15, rising 8% (£0.7 million) from £8.2 million to £8.9 million, comprising commercial sponsorship and advertising £5.6 million, retail £1.2 million, catering and events £0.9 million and academy grant £0.9 million.
In the new world of FFP, Bloom said that the club “had to adapt and move quickly to establish a sharper commercial focus. We had to focus on the inherent value of our brand.” The club’s success in this area is reflected by Brighton having the 3rd highest commercial revenue in the Championship, only behind Leicester City (boosted by a “friendly” marketing deal with Trestellar Limited) and Leeds United, as befitting their fine history.
This is despite the fact that Brighton now only report the net catering commission in revenue, whereas in previous seasons all the gross revenue was included in revenue with the expenses shown in costs.
"Tell me when my light turns green"
What has been particularly impressive is the increase in sponsorship. American Express are not only shirt sponsors, but also naming rights partner for the stadium and the training ground. This multi-year agreement, signed in March 2013, was described by Barber as “the biggest in the club’s history.”
Similarly, Barber said that the 2014/15 Nike deal, replacing Errea after 15 years as the club’s kit supplier, represented “a significant increase on our existing commercial arrangement.”
Interestingly, the club has applied for planning permission for a 150 room hotel alongside the stadium through its subsidiary, The Community Stadium Ltd, with a planned opening in summer 2017. This would enable the club to host more events like the two rugby World Cup matches in September.
Brighton’s total wage bill rose by 2% (£0.3 million) from £20.3 million to £20.6 million, though this was still lower then the 2013 peak of £21.1 million. It is worth noting that since 2012, the first year back in the Championship, the wage bill has grown by £6 million (41%), while revenue has only increased by £1.5 million (7%).
Furthermore, given the significant reduction in administrative and operational expenses, it is likely that the players wage bill has increased by a healthy amount.
Despite this growth, Brighton’s wage bill is still only the 8th highest in the Championship, thus outside the top six, as noted by Hughton, so promotion would indeed be a fine achievement. It was significantly lower than the likes of Leicester City, Reading, Blackburn Rovers and Wigan Athletic, whose wages were all above £30 million. QPR were even higher at £75 million, but that was simply ridiculous in the second tier.
The remuneration for the highest paid director, who is not named, but is surely Paul Barber, has decreased from £652k to £558k, almost certainly due to the previous season including a large bonus for the chief executive’s success in cutting operational expenses and renegotiating many of the sponsorships.
Although Brighton’s wages to turnover ratio increased from 85% to 87%, which is not exactly great, it is by no means one of the highest in the Championship. No fewer than 10 clubs “boasted” a wages to turnover ratio above 100% in 2013/14 with the worst offenders being QPR 195%, Bournemouth 172% and Nottingham Forest 165%.
The (relatively) prudent approach is evidently the one that Brighton want to follow, especially in a FFP world, as noted by Bloom: “While we do want to play at the highest level, we cannot simply open our cheque book and start spending without care or attention.”
Other expenses rose by 19% (£2.3 million) from £12.6 million to £15.0 million, which are the 2nd highest in the Championship, only behind Leeds United. These represent the other side of the coin of moving to the Amex, as the club noted: “The operational and administrative costs of running a state of the art stadium are significant.”
Depreciation increased by 41% (£1.4 million) from £3.5 million to £4.9 million, which is by far the most in the Championship, the next highest being Derby County £2.1 million. This represents the annual charge of writing-off the cost of the stadium and (for the first time in 2014/15) the training ground. These are depreciated over 50 years, i.e. 2% of cost per annum.
Player amortisation was 14% (£0.3 million) higher at £2.4 million, but this is strictly mid-table in the Championship. To put this into perspective, the highest player amortisation in 2013/14 was at QPR £16.6 million, Blackburn Rovers £7.2 million, Wigan Athletic £6.8 million and Nottingham Forest £5.7 million.
The way that football clubs account for player trading can be confusing, but the fundamental point is that when a club purchases a player the costs are spread over a few years, but any profit made from selling players is immediately booked to the accounts.
So, when a club buys a player, it does not show the full transfer fee in the accounts in that year, but writes-down the cost (evenly) over the length of the player’s contract. Therefore, if Brighton were to spend £10 million (if only) on a new player with a 5-year contract, the annual expense would be only £2 million (£10 million divided by 5 years) in player amortisation (on top of wages).
However, when that player is sold, the club reports the profit on player sales straight away. This essentially equals sales proceeds less any remaining value in the accounts. In our example, if the player were to be sold 3 years later for £13 million, the cash profit would be £3 million (£13 million less £10 million), but the accounting profit would be higher at £9 million, as the club would have already booked £6 million of amortisation (3 years at £2 million).
Over the years, Brighton have not been a big player in the transfer market, often registering net sales, though they have increased their gross spend recently, averaging £4.4 million in the last two seasons, compared to just £0.5 million over the previous eight seasons.
However, it is apparent that Brighton have not gone overboard in terms of spending, especially compared to some of their principal rivals who are really “going for it”. To illustrate this, in the last two seasons Brighton had net sales of £2 million, while four clubs had net spend above £10 million: Middlesbrough £15 million, Burnley £14 million, Derby County £14 million and Hull City £12 million.
To be fair, this comparison has to be treated with some caution, as the figures are distorted by clubs that were in the Premier League the previous season, either because of high spend when they were in the top flight or large sales following their relegation. Furthermore, many deals are “undisclosed” in the Championship, so might have no reported value.
That said, it is clear that Brighton have been comfortably outspent by many other clubs. As Hughton observed, “There are big spenders in the Championship. We aimed to put ourselves in a challenge for the play-off positions – no-one would have put us as favourites. But let's keep surprising people.”
Therefore, Brighton have to box clever. They have made extensive use of the loan system, although arguably too much, as at one stage last season they had six loanees, one more than the maximum permitted in a match day squad – and who could forget Leon Best, the most inappropriately named player since Dennis Wise.
Fortunately, this season’s loan signings looks more promising, especially the talented James Wilson from Manchester United, while Barber has said money is available for permanent transfers: “we have some funds to invest in January – but as ever we will do it in the right way, for the right player, at the right price.”
Brighton’s net debt rose by £14 million from £127 million to £141 million with the £17 million increase in gross debt to £147 million slightly offset by cash also rising by £3 million to £7 million. Debt has been rising over the past few years, but it is almost entirely owed to Bloom and can be regarded as the friendliest of debt, being interest-free and repayable after more than one year.
This means that Brighton have one of the largest debts in the Championship, though it is still not as high as Bolton’s £195 million in 2013/14. The other difference is that Brighton’s borrowings can be considered as “good” debt, having been largely used to fund the new stadium and training ground, as opposed to other clubs, whose debt is more to fund over-spending on players and agents.
Brighton also have £2.3 million of contingent liabilities in regard of transfers, which could be payable if certain defined performance criteria are met, e.g. number of appearances.
Although Brighton’s finances are pretty robust (for the Championship), the support of Tony Bloom remains incredibly important, as Barber acknowledged: “In football, people talk about spending – or losing – millions of pounds almost flippantly. It's still very important to remember that Tony Bloom is covering our annual losses of £10.4 million – and as a result we are not under pressure to sell players. Tony has incredibly deep pockets but we don’t ever take his incredible generosity towards our club for granted.”
As well as the £17 million increase in his loans, Bloom also invested a further £11 million in shares subsequent to the year-end. It is not clear whether this is new capital or equity conversion, but it does not detract from the fundamental point, which is that Bloom has put in a massive amount of funding.
As at the 2014/15 accounts, I estimate that this amounts to £217 million, split between the current £147 million of debt, £11 million converted to equity and £58 million of share capital. That may not be the precise figure, but, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, we don’t need to know the price of everything, as the value of the owner’s contribution is crystal clear.
Looking at how Brighton have used these funds since Bloom took charge, the majority (£153 million, or 72%) has gone on investment into infrastructure (including £103 million on the stadium and £32 million on the training centre), while £45 million (21%) has been used to cover operating losses. Any spending on new players has essentially been self-funded in this period by player sales.
Being so dependent on one individual can be a concern, but Bloom comes from a family of Brighton supporters: “I have absolutely no intention of selling. I think I will be here for many years to come.”
He continued: “Our ambition remains for the club’s teams, both men and women, to play at the highest level possible – and as chairman (and a lifelong supporter of the club) I will do everything I possibly can to achieve that and I remain fully committed to that goal.”
Bloom is seriously wealthy from his property and investment portfolio (plus money earned from poker and other forms of gambling), but he would not be able to simply buy success, even if he wanted to, as Brighton will need to continue to comply with the Financial Fair Play (FFP) regulations. Under the previous rules, clubs were only allowed a maximum annual loss of £8 million (assuming that any losses in excess of £3 million are covered by injecting equity).
It should be noted that FFP losses are not the same as the published accounts, as clubs are permitted to exclude some costs, such as youth development, community schemes, promotion-related bonuses and depreciation on fixed assets. In any case, Brighton have complied with FFP for the 2014/15 season.
"One better Dale"
The current rules will continue to apply for the 2014/15 and 2015/16 seasons (though the maximum allowed loss is increased to £13 million from the second season), but will change from the 2016/17 season to be more aligned with the Premier League’s regulations, e.g. the losses will be calculated over a three-year period up to a maximum of £39 million.
Although Bloom said that the club was “not entirely happy” with the increase, he did concede that the change “does provide us with greater flexibility and the option to compete with those clubs benefiting from parachute payments.”
FFP encourages clubs to invest in youth development, which is an area of focus for Brighton. The splendid new training centre (“the best I’ve ever worked in”, according to Hughton) has resulted in the awarding of the important Category 1 academy status and will ultimately help develop players that can push for the first team.
"Long may you run"
Brighton can only be applauded for their efforts off the pitch, which have produced a remarkable transformation. As Hughton said, “There is no doubt that in the ambition the club have shown in the infrastructure, the stadium and the training ground, this can be a Premier League club.”
However, he pointed out that the Championship is “an incredibly demanding division”, so it was good to see that the owner is also acutely aware of this fact: “We have had a very good start to the current season, but we all know how competitive and tough the Championship is year after year, so it’s important we do not become complacent.”
Are Brighton Premier League ready? Absolutely, but they still have to do it on the pitch and there’s a long way to go yet. Nobody on the South coast is counting their chickens before they’ve hatched, but the Albion have put themselves in a great position to realise Bloom’s dream.