The story of the season is undoubtedly Leicester City. The Foxes spent five months at the bottom of the Premier League last year before an amazing resurgence that included seven wins in their last nine games that took them to safety in a respectable 14th place. However, it is fair to say that nobody predicted that they would be leading the table with every chance of winning the title.
Their success is all the more extraordinary, given that they changed manager in the summer, bringing in Claudio Ranieri after Nigel Pearson was dismissed for a series of what might be loosely termed as “PR misdemeanours”. Although a popular figure, Ranieri’s appointment was widely ridiculed, despite his solid track record at clubs like Valencia and Chelsea, though it looks like the Italian will have the last laugh after a season that the club itself has described as “remarkable”.
That description is spot on, given that Leicester were in League One, the third tier of English football, as recently as 2009, and they were only promoted to the Premier League in 2014 (after a 10-year absence from the top flight).
It’s been a long journey back, though the seeds of improvement were sown in August 2010 when the current Thai owners, King Power International and the Srivaddhanapraba family, bought the club from Milan Mandaric for £39 million.
"Keep the party going"
There is no doubt that Leicester’s success has been largely built on the ongoing support from the owners, whose wealth comes from having an effective monopoly in duty-free rights at all airports in Thailand. According to the club, this meant implementing “a significantly enhanced football strategy to challenge for promotion as well as significantly in the infrastructure of the club.”
In plain English, the owners followed a strategy of funding hefty losses in the Championship in order to gain promotion as soon as possible to the Premier League (with all its associated riches). That might sound all too simple, but it’s easier said than done, as supporters of Nottingham Forest and Derby County (among others) would surely testify.
In particular, Leicester’s owners have exhibited a winning blend of patience in continuing to finance the club even after a series of frustrating near-misses, but also the requisite degree of ruthlessness, as shown by the dismissals of Paulo Sousa, with the team “not gelling” under his leadership, and Sven Goran Eriksson, who was fired after failing to achieve promotion and an inconsistent start to the following season.
The owners have certainly put their money where their mouth is, most evidently by converting over £100 million of outstanding loans into equity and purchasing the stadium from Teachers, an American pension fund manager. These were rightly described as “momentous gestures of their commitment” by chief executive, Susan Whelan, as they have dramatically improved the club’s financial security.
It is now hard to believe that Leicester City went into administration in 2002 with debts of £30 million, following the collapse of ITV Digital and after incurring substantial costs for building the new stadium, and had to be effectively bailed out by its fans.
The club’s ambitions are altogether different these days. Indeed, following promotion to the Premier League in 2014, chairman Vichai Srivaddhanapraba outlined his plans for Leicester to reach the top five. He said: "It will take a huge amount of money, possibly £180m, to get there. That doesn't put us off. I am asking for three years, and we'll be there.”
At the time, that looked like a ridiculous statement, but the reality is that his club has achieved this objective in less time and after spending significantly less money.
"Wes One (shine on me)"
In fact, Leicester’s performance off the pitch has been every bit as good as that on the pitch, as seen by the 2014/15 accounts, which revealed record revenue of £104 million and a pre-tax profit of £26 million. After adding a tax credit of £5 million, the profit after tax was even higher at £31 million. Unsurprisingly, the club called this “the most successful financial year in the club’s recent history.”
The previous season in the Championship produced a loss of £21 million, so the year-on-year improvement was a massive £47 million. As Whelan put it, “Promotion to the Premier League and the subsequent retention of that status in May 2015 has transformed the financial performance of the club.”
Revenue more than tripled from £31 million to £104 million with the vast majority of the £73 million growth coming from the much higher TV deal in the Premier League, which was worth an additional £68 million.
Match receipts also rose £3.7 million (53%) from £7.0 million to £10.7 million, as “the effect of Premier League status drove attendances.” Similarly, commercial income was £1.5 million (8%) higher at £20.1 million, as the club’s fan base grew.
As would be expected in the top flight, the wage bill increased by £21 million (58%) from £36 million to £57 million, reflecting new signings and contract extensions for a number of key players, though in context this growth still merited the club’s assessment of “prudent cost control”.
Player amortisation also rose by £4 million to £7 million, while profit on player sales was £1 million lower. Depreciation and other expenses were £3 million higher.
On the other hand, net interest payable was reduced by £2.5 million from £4.1 million to £1.6 million following the conversion of all outstanding shareholder loans into share capital.
As a sign of Leicester’s progress, their profit before tax of £26 million is the second highest reported to date for the 2014/15 season, only surpassed by Liverpool’s £60 million, but ahead of Arsenal £25 million and Southampton £15 million.
Even though the Premier League these days is a largely profitable environment with only four clubs losing money so far in 2014/15, thanks to the increasing TV deals allied with Financial Fair Play (FFP), it is still possible for clubs to lose a lot of money in the top flight. Just ask Aston Villa, who posted a £28 million deficit.
That said, it is far from unusual for Premier League clubs to report lower profits in the second year of the television deal’s three-year cycle, as there are limited possibilities for revenue growth, while wage bills continue to grow apace. In fact, half of the clubs that have announced 2014/15 figures have reported lower profits, which makes Leicester’s £47 million growth all the more impressive, though in fairness most of this was driven by the single event of promotion.
What is impressive is that hardly any of Leicester’s profit (only £135k) came from player sales, as these can have a major influence on a football club’s bottom line, especially at Liverpool, whose numbers were boosted by £56 million from this activity in 2014/15, largely due to the sale of Luis Suarez to Barcelona.
In the same way, Arsenal and Southampton, the closest challengers in the profit league to Leicester, would actually have reported losses without the benefit of once-off profits from player sales (£29 million and £44 million respectively).
The transformational impact of promotion is underlined by the 2015 profit being the first that Leicester have made since 2006. In the four previous seasons following the King Power takeover, the club had aggregate losses of around £100 million. In other words, the owners absorbed average losses of £25 million a year to fund promotion.
On the one hand, some might look unfavourably on this as a form of financial “doping”; on the other hand, the owners should be praised for not reducing their spending when things did not go immediately to plan.
Football clubs often subsidise underlying losses by selling players, but that has not been the case at Leicester, as they have only made a total of £12 million profit from this activity in the last decade. Uncharitably, this might be considered as a sign that they had nobody worth buying, but the main reason is that they have retained players to build a squad that could make a challenge, initially in the Championship, then in the Premier League.
It will be interesting to see if that remains the case now that their talent has effectively been in the shop window all season.
Even though Leicester have not been prolific in this area, it is worth exploring how football clubs account for transfers, given that it can have such a major impact on reported profits. 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. To illustrate how this works, if Leicester were to pay £10 million for a new player with a five-year contract, the annual expense would only be £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 as sales proceeds less any remaining value in the accounts. In our example, if the player were to be sold three years later for £15 million, the cash profit would be £5 million (£15 million less £10 million), but the accounting profit would be much higher at £11 million, as the club would have already booked £6 million of amortisation (3 years at £2 million).
Notwithstanding the accounting treatment, basically the more that a club spends on buying players, the higher its player amortisation. Thus, Leicester’s player amortisation more than doubled from £3.2 million to £7.3 million following promotion in 2014, reflecting the purchases of Leo Ulloa, Danny Simpson and Tom Lawrence. It should be even higher next year, as this figure does not include last summer’s relatively high spending.
Leicester also booked an impairment charge of £5.2 million in 2012/13, as the directors considered the value of some players to be lower than that in the accounts, which was one of the reasons that Leicester reported a record loss of £34 million that season.
Impairment reduces player amortisation charges in future years, which therefore has the impact of improving profitability going forward. It was clearly a good idea for Leicester to do this in 2012/13, as the Football League implemented the Championship FFP rules the following season.
Despite the 2015 increase, Leicester’s player amortisation of £7 million is still one of the lowest in the Premier League, only ahead of West Bromwich Albion and Burnley. Of course, it is way behind the really big spenders like Manchester United, whose massive outlay under Moyes and van Gaal has driven their annual expense up to £100 million, Manchester City £70 million and Chelsea £69 million, but it is also lower than the likes of Crystal Palace £11 million and Stoke City £12 million.
The other side of the player trading coin is player values, which shot up from £5.5 million to £23.2 million in 2015, partly due to an increase in the squad size from 25 to 34. This will further rise next year following this season’s expenditure.
Interestingly, Leicester are one of the few clubs that provide a directors’ assessment of the market value of their players. This now stands at £64.6 million or £41.4 million more than the value in the books, which would roughly equate to the potential profit from player sales.
As a result of all this accounting fancy footwork, clubs often look at EBITDA (Earnings Before Interest, Depreciation and Amortisation) for a better idea of underlying profitability. After many years of negative EBITDA, Leicester’s has risen to an impressive £38 million in 2015.
This is actually the fifth best in the Premier League, only behind four clubs with substantially higher revenue-generating capacity, namely Manchester United £120 million, Manchester City £83 million, Liverpool £73 million and Arsenal £63 million. This is evidence of Leicester’s ability to control their costs and goes a long way towards explaining their profitability.
Leicester have come a long way since their one season in League One, not least in terms of revenue, which has increased from just £11 million in 2009 to £104 million. Clearly, most of this “exponential” revenue growth is down to promotion to the Premier League, where it is indeed a whole new ball game, but there was also a strong increase in the promotion season itself, largely due to the “groundbreaking 5-year international marketing and licencing deal with Trestellar Limited”.
Any other growth in the Championship was basically due to success on the pitch, e.g. for reaching the play-offs in 2010 and 2013 or the run to the sixth round of the FA Cup in 2012. In addition, £0.8 million was generated in 2012 from a lucrative pre-season friendly with Real Madrid.
Even after the explosive revenue growth in 2015, Leicester’s £104 million is still only the 12th highest in the Premier League, so theoretically they should not be able to compete with the financial might of the elite clubs, who earn at least £200 million more than them: Manchester United £395 million, Manchester City £352 million, Arsenal £329 million, Chelsea £314 million and Liverpool £298 million.
Perhaps a more relevant (Midlands) comparison would be Aston Villa, who earn £12 million more than Leicester, but have performed woefully. In their very different ways, both clubs have shown this season that money is not the sole indicator of success.
In fact, the growing TV money in the Premier League has produced a much more even playing field with many of the so-called mid-tier clubs proving a considerable threat this season. The relative increase in wealth compared to other countries means that it is now easier to bring in higher quality players.
Although the leading English clubs still have a major financial advantage over clubs like Leicester, a combination of limits on squad size and FFP restrictions means that they cannot sign all the quality players available.
This phenomenon was noted by no less an authority than Arsène Wenger: “The Leicester example will happen more and more. Because the English clubs will get £100 million from television next year, they can buy anywhere in the world what they want. So I think the fact that the league will be more level is a necessity.”
To back-up this assertion, Leicester made their debut in the Money League last season in 24th place, along with Crystal Palace and West Brom. As Deloitte observed, “This is again testament to the phenomenal broadcast success of the English Premier League and the relative equality of its distributions, giving its non-Champions League clubs particularly a considerable advantage internationally.”
That’s obviously a fine accomplishment, but it does not really help Leicester domestically, as no fewer than 17 Premier League clubs feature in the top 30 clubs worldwide by revenue.
Nevertheless, Leicester now generate more revenue than famous clubs like Napoli, Valencia, Seville, Hamburg, Stuttgart, Lazio, Fiorentina, Marseille, Lyon, Ajax, PSV Eindhoven, Porto, Benfica and Celtic.
The vast majority (71%) of Leicester’s revenue in the Premier League came from television with just 19% from commercial income and 10% from gate receipts. This was very different to the mix in the Championship with commercial leading the way with 60%, followed by match day 22% and broadcasting 18%.
In 2014/15 Leicester’s share of the Premier League TV money was £71.6 million, compared to just £4.2 million in the Championship (£1.9 million from the Football League pool and a £2.3 million solidarity payment from the Premier League).
The distribution of these funds is based on a fairly equitable methodology with the top club (Chelsea) receiving £99 million, while the bottom club (QPR) got £65 million. Most of the money is allocated equally to each club, which means 50% of the domestic rights (£22.0 million in 2014/15), 100% of the overseas rights (£27.8 million) and 100% of the commercial revenue (£4.4 million).
However, merit payments (25% of domestic rights) are worth £1.2 million per place in the league table and facility fees (25% of domestic rights) depend on how many times each club is broadcast live. This means that Leicester will receive significantly more money this season (probably around £90 million), as they will finish much higher in the league and have been shown live many more times than the eight games in 2014/15.
As the club accounts state, “the new Premier League TV deal will increase once again significantly” in 2016/17. My estimates suggest that a top four place would receive an additional £50 million under the new contract, so, if Leicester could repeat their fine efforts next season, their TV revenue would rise to around £140 million.
If that sounds good, their revenue will get another major boost if they qualify for the Champions League. This was worth an average of €39 million to the four English clubs in 2014/15 in TV money alone, excluding additional gate receipts and higher sponsorship deals.
In fact, this understates the potential revenue, as the new Champions League TV deal that started this season is worth an additional 40-50% for participation bonuses and prize money with further significant growth in the market pool thanks to BT Sports paying more than Sky/ITV for live games.
It is also worth noting the importance of the TV (market) pool to the Champions League distributions. Half of the payment depends on how far a club progresses in the Champions League, but the other half is based on where the club finished in the previous season’s Premier League, so if Leicester do manage to win the league, they would get a 40% share of that element (2nd 30%, 3rd 20%, 4th 10%).
Match receipts climbed by 53% (£3.7 million) from £7.0 million to £10.7 million in 2014/15, thanks mainly to the average attendance rising from 25,003 to 31,697. Ticket prices also rose by around 3%, which was not too bad after promotion to the Premier League, though there were obviously four fewer home matches in the top flight.
Other clubs have hiked prices by much more in such circumstances, but Susan Whelan outlined the club’s ticketing approach, namely “to reward those fans that have been loyal to us, to make supporting Leicester City more accessible to everyone and to fill the King Power Stadium on a regular basis.”
In this way, Leicester’s match receipts of £10.7 million are among the lowest in the Premier League, around the same level as Crystal Palace. Their cheapest season ticket is the third cheapest in the Premier League, contributing to the stadium being filled to 98.5% of its capacity.
Furthermore, the club froze ticket prices for the 2015/16 season. As a result of this approach, Leicester sold out its 23,000 season tickets. Club ambassador Alan Birchenall commented: “The stadium is fantastic, it’s always full of noisy fans and the atmosphere is brilliant.”
Leicester’s average league attendance of around 32,000 was the 12th highest in the Premier League, just behind Aston Villa. Not only does this compare very favourably with other clubs, but it has actually grown by over 9,000 (40%) in the last two seasons.
To be fair, Leicester have always been very well supported, with the third highest attendance in the Championship in the promotion season. They also managed to attract over 20,000 in League One.
Given the club’s upward trajectory, there has been some talk about extending the stadium capacity to 41,000 by adding a new tier to the East and Family Stands, though there appear to be no immediate plans to do so. Importantly, Leicester at least have this option now after the owners purchased the stadium.
Commercial revenue rose £1.5 million (8%) from £18.6 million to £20.1 million in 2014/15. Although a long way below clubs like Manchester United £197 million and Manchester City £173 million, this is above clubs like Sunderland £17 million, Stoke City £15 million, Crystal Palace £12 million and Southampton £11 million.
Leicester attributed the rise to the marketing and licencing deal with Trestellar Limited, which had already driven a substantial increase in commercial income in 2013/14 from £5.2 million to £16.1 million. There has been a fair amount of scepticism about this deal, largely due to the fact that Trestellar was a hitherto unknown tiny company located on an industrial estate in Sheffield.
"Born to run"
The accusation is that the 2014 increase in revenue conveniently allowed Leicester to meet its Financial Fair Play targets in the Championship, thus evading a transfer embargo or fine, but the club is adamant that it is above board: “This deal allows the club to exploit and monetise its unique brand in both the traditional UK market and even more excitingly the Far East where the club’s ownership and profile allow it to generate exceptional growth.”
Trestellar does seem a somewhat unlikely choice as the club’s marketing partner, though its directors do include the son of Sir Dave Richards, the former chairman of the Premier League. Its abbreviated accounts do not reveal much, though its retained profit increased by £800k in 2015, implying that it did make a profit even after the payment to Leicester, while its cash balance rose by £4.2 million.
The deal was further explained in Leicester’s 2015 accounts: “King Power entered into sponsorship agreements with Trestellar Limited in relation to the acquisition of sponsorship and marketing inventory including the front of shirt sponsorship and the stadium naming rights.”
Previously, media reports, including the respected SportingIntelligence website, had estimated the annual value of the King Power shirt sponsorship as £1 million, making it one of the smallest in the Premier League.
In May 2015 Leicester extended the multi-year kit supplier deal with Puma, but the terms were undisclosed.
As might have been predicted, Leicester’s wage bill rose by £21 million (58%) from £31 million to £57 million following promotion, due to the increase in the size of the squad, the higher level of remuneration payable to players in the Premier League and several players signing new contracts.
However, the wages to turnover ratio fell significantly from 117% to 55%, one of the lowest (best) in the Premier League. To place that into perspective, Aston Villa’s ratio was considerably higher at 75%, despite higher revenue.
Very sensibly, Leicester have implemented “a strategy of performance-related pay whereby salary costs will fluctuate in line with income generated and on-field performance.” In this way, the 2015 figures included £5-6 million for avoiding relegation, while the 2014 wages were inflated by a £9.4 million promotion bonus.
That said, Leicester’s wage bill of £55 million was still one of the lowest in the Premier League, only above Hull City and Burnley in 2014/15. This makes their feats this year all the more astonishing, especially when you compare the wages at the leading clubs: Chelsea £216 million, Manchester United £203 million, Manchester City £194 million and Arsenal £192 million.
Some clubs manage to punch above their weight, but the scale of Leicester's outperformance of their wage bill this season has been truly astonishing, given the historic correlation between wages and league position.
However, the story was very different in the Championship, as explained by Susan Whelan: “The club’s strategy of investing in a strong squad to fight for a promotion place has led to increases in staff costs.” You can say that again, as the wage bill rocketed up from £14.5 million to £36.3 million in that division.
In fact, in 2013/14 Leicester benefited from the second highest wage bill in the Championship, only behind QPR’s ridiculous numbers. Even after excluding the bonus payment, the net figure of £27 million was still among the highest with those clubs paying more having the benefit of parachute payments (which Leicester did not).
On the other hand, Leicester have not spent excessively in the transfer market, making good use of free transfers, such as Esteban Cambiasso and Matty Upson, while their highly effective scouting network, led by head of recruitment Steve Walsh, has found some hidden gems for incredibly low fees, including Jamie Vardy (Fleetwood Town), Riyad Mahrez (Le Havre) and N’Golo Kante (Caen).
Since their return to the top flight, Leicester have obviously increased their expenditure, splashing out £55 million (£49 million net) in the last two seasons. Some of this is on younger players with an eye to the future, e.g. Demarai Gray from Birmingham City and Daniel Amartey from FC Copenhagen.
What’s more, Leicester’s net spend in this period is actually the eighth highest in the Premier League, just behind Liverpool £52 million and West Ham £54 million, which might surprise a few people. Obviously, it’s still miles behind Manchester City £151 million and Manchester United £132 million, but it’s a fair old chunk of cash.
Net debt fell by £4.3 million from £19.0 million to £14.7 million with gross debt rising £1.5 million from £27.4 million to £28.9 million, more than offset by cash climbing by £5.8 million from £8.4 million to £14.2 million. Note: the debt figure reported in the club accounts is £8.8 million lower, as it excludes loans owed to group companies fro some reason.
In any case, the key point here is that virtually all of the outstanding debt is owed to the parent company: £19.9 million in finance leases taken over when the stadium was purchased and £8.8 million for accrued management fees, interest and travel costs.
Moreover, Leicester’s debt has been significantly cut following the conversion of £103.4 million of shareholder loans into equity in November 2013. This comprised around £77 million of loans from King Power plus £26 million inherited from the Mandaric era.
As the club put it, this was “the biggest step towards self-sufficiency in recent memory”, adding that it has “strengthened the clubs balance sheet and ensures the historic interest charge in the accounts is removed.” Not only that, but it also allowed Leicester to make an £8 million FFP loss – the maximum permitted under the Championship FFP rules.
In addition, Leicester had £8.8 million of net transfer liabilities, up from £0.9 million the previous season, while the net impact of player purchases and sales after the accounts closed is £33.7 million.
Leicester’s financial debt of £29 million is now one of the smallest in the Premier League, just behind Aston Villa £31 million, and much less than Manchester United, who still have £444 million of borrowings even after all the Glazers’ various re-financings, and Arsenal, whose £232 million debt effectively comprises the “mortgage” on the Emirates stadium.
Given the club’s current financial strength, some have observed that it would a magnificent gesture if it could now settle some of the debts owed to local businesses when the club went into administration.
As a result of the debt conversion, Leicester’s interest payable has been steadily reducing, from £7.2 million in 2013 to £1.6 million in 2015. As a comparison of what might have been with a different kind of overseas owner, Manchester United incurred £35 million of interest costs last season as the price of their leveraged buy-out.
The cash flow statement further underlines Leicester’s improvement. After many years of cash losses, in 2014/15 they generated an impressive £29 million from operating activities, allowing a substantial increase in expenditure on player registrations and infrastructure. In addition, there was no need for additional owner funding last season.
In the previous four years, the owners had to put in £80 million. Little wonder that Whelan praised the Srivaddhanapraba family for their “remarkable support”. However, the strategy must have always been for the club to stand on its own feet as soon as possible.
Unlike some other overseas owners, Leicester’s cannot be accused of hoarding cash. While they have a healthy balance of £14 million, this is much less than Arsenal £228 million and Manchester United £156 million.
The only potential blot on the horizon is Financial Fair Play. Although Leicester clearly have no issues in the Premier League, their 2013/14 submission has still not been accepted by the Football League.
According to the club, it has “submitted a compliant FFP return in relation to the 2013/14 season. The Football league has subsequently requested certain clarifications which have been provided. The Directors are confident that the club has complied with the regulations and that no material liability will arise from this process.”
"Something in the water"
On the face of it, Leicester should be fine, even though their accounting loss of £20.8 million was above the maximum permitted of £8 million, as they could exclude exempt expenditure such as the promotion bonus (£9.4 million) and Academy costs. However, the Football League is clearly investigating the substance of the Trestellar marketing deal.
If the decision goes against Leicester, they would face a fine, according to a tariff which increases in line with the amount of the overspend, but this would clearly not be as much of a problem now that Leicester have the riches in the Premier League. The Football League would only comment, “The League and Leicester City remain in an ongoing dialogue.”
Whatever the outcome, it probably should not detract from the overall feel good factor in the narrative. As Whelan said, their efforts over the last few seasons have “put Leicester City in a very strong position to move forward. Our commitment to delivering success on a continuous basis is foremost in our planning.”
"You can't handle the Huth"
Much will depend on the club’s ability to hang on to its talent. Marc Albrighton, the energetic winger, acknowledged that players like Vardy, Mahrez and Kante would be wanted men, but gave a good argument for them staying: “Their dream must be to play for one of the biggest teams in Europe, as every player’s is, but why would you want to leave this club at the moment? It's building something special. We are establishing ourselves as a top-four team and they are a massive part of this.”
His view is backed-up from a financial perspective, as there is no longer any compelling need for clubs like Leicester to sell their prize assets. In particular, Leicester will see a significant increase in revenue, based initially on their Premier League success this season, then the new TV deal in 2016/17 plus big money from the Champions League.
For those keen to see a club break through the glass ceiling, Leicester have been a breath of fresh air this season. It’s impossible to say whether Leicester will be a one-hit wonder, but they have certainly demonstrated the ambition for consistent success, both on and off the pitch. To paraphrase the mighty Neil Young, “Long may they run.”