Stoke City finished in a highly creditable ninth place in the Premier League in the 2015/16 season, the third year in a row that the club from the Potteries had ended up ninth under manager Mark Hughes. Although this highlighted the fact that Stoke have become an established member of the Premier League, their traditional underdog spirit was underlined in their annual report by chairman Peter Coates describing this feat as merely ensuring that “the club will play a ninth consecutive year in the top league during the 2016/17 season.”
They were also agonisingly close to reaching the Capital One cup final, only being eliminated in the semi-finals by Liverpool after a penalty shoot-out. This would have reminded older fans of the time that Stoke won their only major trophy, namely the League Cup, when they overcame favourites Chelsea at Wembley back in 1972.
Stoke were promoted from the Championship in 2008 under Tony Pulis, playing a type of football that could reasonably be described as “pragmatic”, but Hughes has introduced a more sophisticated, almost continental system. His side attacks with much more flair, featuring talented internationals such as Xherdan Shaqiri, Marko Arnautovic, Ibrahim Afellay and Bojan Krkic, though it is also true that some of his predecessor’s defensive solidity has been diminished.
As Coates explained, “We are attracting great players to the club now, because we are progressing on and off the pitch and they are excited by the challenge here.”
"Strength of Character"
This is a testament to how well run Stoke are, though less generous observers might argue that this is what you get for £100 million, as this is the amount of money that chairman Peter Coates has put into his local club, making good use of the wealth accumulated from his family’s online gambling company, bet365.
Coates is ten years into his second spell as chairman, having left in 1997 after a series of poor results led to him being subjected to fan protests. However, after an unhappy time under the new Icelandic owners, Coates was invited to take the reins once again.
Things have been much better this time around, as Coates explained: “'It feels like a different world now. I did feel as though there was unfinished business for me and the difference this time was that my company was doing well and I knew we had the resources to help the club to progress.”
That said, Stoke’s strategy has been a bit subtler than Coates simply pumping in money, as the club has combined this with a healthy degree of financial prudence, as well as obviously benefiting from its benefactor’s generosity.
In fact, Stoke’s rise can be split into three distinct phases: first substantial owner financing; then a move towards sustainability; finally a return to spending, built on growing TV money.
Initially the owner did indeed put his hand deep into his pocket to help Stoke’s push for promotion and then fund a fairly big outlay on building a decent squad, which was essential if Stoke were to achieve their main objective of securing their presence in the Premier League.
As Coates explained in 2011, “The huge investment in the playing squad over the last four years has been in my view necessary to enable Tony Pulis to assemble a group of players capable of competing at this level.”
After financing this period of consolidation, Stoke have sought self-sufficiency with a slowdown in transfer spend, though allowing the wage bill to grow. This process has been facilitated by a combination of the increasing Premier League television deals and the introduction of Financial Fair Play (FFP) regulations, which have dampened down inflationary cost pressures, meaning the drive towards break-even has been made somewhat easier.
Of course, a football club can never stand still, so Stoke have had to spend in the last two campaigns to ensure that they are not overtaken. Indeed, transfer spending in 2015/16 shot up to £51 million, which included the purchases of Shaqiri from Inter for £12 million and Giannelli Imbula from Porto for £18 million, both club record signings at the time they were made.
This summer saw another big money purchase when playmaker Joe Allen was signed from Liverpool for £13 million after some very impressive displays for Wales in the Euros.
Given this major expenditure, Stoke’s poor start to the 2016/17 season has been very disappointing, though the team’s form has picked up recently. Coates does not seem overly concerned, “Mark has been around the block. He knows what it takes to get results in the Premier League.”
Certainly, the club enjoyed “another successful year” off the pitch in 2015/16, as revenue broke the £100 million barrier for the first time, helping Stoke to make a profit for the third consecutive season, though profit before tax fell by £3.2 million from £5.2 million to £2.0 million.
Revenue rose £4.6 million (5%) from £99.6 million to £104.2 million with all three categories contributing to the growth. Broadcasting income was £2.1 million (3%) higher at £79.5 million, while commercial income rose £1.7 million (12%) to £16.3 million. Gate receipts increased by £0.8 million (11%) to £8.4 million, partly due to higher attendances.
Stoke’s figures were further boosted by profit on layer sales rising by £12.6 million to £14.3 million, mainly thanks to the sales of Asmir Begovic to Chelsea, Steven N’Zonzi to Sevilla and Robert Huth to Leicester City.
On the other hand, there was another steep increase in the wage bill of £15.3 million (23%) from £67.0 million to £82.3 million, taking the wages to turnover ratio up to a hefty 79%. This reflected the arrival of expensive new signings, as did player amortisation, which rose £5.1 million (41%) to £17.6 million.
As a technical aside, the implementation of accounting standard FRS 102 meant that the prior year comparative was restated with a £0.5 million reduction in the reported profit figure.
Of course, most Premier League football clubs make money these days, largely on the back of the TV deals, so it is no surprise that all five clubs that have to date published their 2015/16 accounts have posted profits.
As Coates said, “To have the richest league in the world and these losses, that’s got to be pretty stupid by any yardstick. So it’s good it’s turned round, so it should and so it should remain.”
That said, Stoke’s profit of £2 million was only just above break-even, as was Arsenal’s £3 million, while others have registered much better financial results: Manchester United £49 million, Manchester City £20 million and Norwich City £13 million.
In itself, Stoke’s relatively low profit is not overly concerning, but it should be pointed out that that they did benefit from £14 million of once-off player sales in 2015/16. As a comparison, Arsenal only made £2 million from this activity, but were still more profitable.
Profit from player sales can have a major influence on a football club’s bottom line, as best shown in 2014/15 by Liverpool, whose numbers were boosted by £56 million from this activity, largely due to the sale of Luis Suarez to Barcelona. In 2015/16 Norwich City and Manchester City both made £21 million from player disposals.
In fairness, it should be remembered that Stoke have only recently moved to profitability. Their figures have been transformed since a £31 million loss in 2012/13.
In fact, in the eight seasons leading up to 2013/14 the club had made cumulative losses of £64 million. That year profit was the first time that the club had made a profit since 2008/09, when they registered a small surplus of £0.5 million in their first season back in the top flight.
However, they have now made profits in each of the last three seasons, which Coates described as “a big turnaround”.
Many clubs have effectively been subsidising their underlying business with profitable player sales, but this has not really been the case at Stoke, at least until 2015/16. Without the £14 million from player sales, Stoke would have reported a £12 million loss.
This is very different from the preceding 10 years, when the club only made £13 million in total from player disposals, which could either be considered as a sign that the club has tried to keep its squad together – or that it had no players that other clubs wished to buy.
Next year looks like a return to low player sales, unless someone is sold for big money in the January window, as the accounts state that the club has received sales proceeds of £2 million for players sold since the accounts closed with net book value of £0.2 million, implying profits of just £1.8 million.
To get an idea of underlying profitability and how much cash is generated, football clubs often look at EBITDA (Earnings Before Interest, Depreciation and Amortisation), as this metric strips out player trading and non-cash items. In Stoke’s case this clearly demonstrates their challenge, as it has declined in the last two years from £23 million to £6 million.
That’s one of the lowest in the Premier League, £186 million below Manchester United’s astonishing £192 million. United may be out of sight, but a more realistic comparison might be Norwich City, whose 2015/16 EBITDA was almost three times as much as Stoke’s at £17 million – though we should point out that the Canaries might have avoided relegation if they had spent a bit more.
Stoke’s revenue has grown by £38 million (57%) from £66 million in 2013 to £104 million in 2016, though virtually all of that increase is attributable to the TV deals, as broadcasting is up £33 million (72%) to just under £80 million. In the same period, commercial income has risen by £3.5 million (27%), while gate receipts have only grown by £1.0 million (13%).
Stoke’s achievement in finishing 9th in the Premier League is really put into perspective when you compare their revenue to other clubs: in 2014/15 their revenue of £100 million was the 16th highest in the top tier, only ahead of the three relegated clubs (QPR, Burnley and Hull City) plus West Bromwich Albion.
Things are unlikely to be any better in 2015/16, as Stoke’s revenue growth of £5 million is one of the smallest reported to date: Manchester United £120 million, Manchester City £40 million and Arsenal £21 million.
Furthermore, Stoke’s revenue of £104 million is still a lot lower than the clubs former England manager Sam Allardyce used to call “the big boys”. In fact, the top three clubs all earn at least £350 million: Manchester United £515 million, Manchester City £392 million and Arsenal £351 million.
In other words, United have over £400 million more to play with each season than Stoke, which either highlights how well Stoke are run or how badly United have messed things up, depending on your perspective.
On the bright side, Stoke now have the 27th highest revenue in the world, according to the Deloitte Money League. 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 Stoke much domestically, as no fewer than 17 Premier League clubs feature in the top 30 clubs worldwide by revenue. As Coates pointed out, “You can argue which league in Europe is the best, but ours is the most competitive.”
Even so, Stoke generate more revenue than famous clubs like Napoli, Valencia, Sevilla, Hamburg, Stuttgart, Lazio, Fiorentina, Marseille, Lyon, Ajax, PSV Eindhoven, Porto, Benfica and Celtic.
Clearly, all that lovely TV money is the main driver behind Stoke’s new standing, contributing an incredible 76% of the club’s total revenue. Commercial income accounts for 16%, while gate receipts are worth only 8%, down from 13% five years ago.
This might sound a little worrying, but it is fairly common business model in the Premier League. For example, in 2014/15 four clubs actually had a greater reliance on TV money than Stoke, with Burnley getting an incredible 85% of its revenue from broadcasting.
In 2015/16 Stoke’s share of the Premier League TV money rose 2% (£2 million) from £78 million to £80 million, largely due to a rise in the overseas rights. The distribution of these funds is based on a fairly equitable methodology with the top club (Arsenal) receiving £101 million, while the bottom club (Aston Villa) got £67 million.
Most of the money is allocated equally to each club, which means 50% of the domestic rights (£21.9 million in 2015/16), 100% of the overseas rights (£29.4 million) and 100% of the commercial revenue (£4.5 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.
In this way, Stoke were disadvantaged by being shown live just nine times, which was only more than two promoted clubs (Watford and Bournemouth), and less than many clubs that finished below them in the league.
As an example, Newcastle were relegated in 18th place, but were broadcast live 18 times, which “earned” them £13.3 million of facility fees, i.e. £4.5 million more than Stoke’s £8.8 million (the minimum guaranteed to any club, regardless of whether they are on TV fewer than 10 times).
As Coates put it, “We suffer from being what I would call an unfashionable club.” This seems particularly harsh, given some of the attractive football played by Stoke last season, including the televised demolition of Manchester United last December.
"Upstairs at Erik's"
Nevertheless, Stoke’s financial recovery has clearly been fueled by TV money. This is even before the increases from the mega Premier League TV deal in 2016/17. Based on the contracted 70% increase in the domestic deal and an estimated 40% increase in the overseas deals, the top four clubs will receive around £150 million, while even the bottom club would trouser around £95 million.
This is making the Premier League even more of a battle, as every club now has the financial capacity to compete and buy good players. As former Everton manager Roberto Martinez noted, “You look at the resources available to all clubs now because of the money coming in. Stoke can make signings such as Xherdan Shaqiri and take their level much higher.”
Stoke might also reasonably target European qualification, which could bring in additional revenue. That might feel a touch unrealistic, but the players have raised this as a possibility. Bojan wondered, “Imagine if we play Champions League football in five years. It can happen”; while Shaqiri added, “Look at Leicester for what is possible.”
Moreover, Stoke actually did qualify for the Europa League in 2011/12 as losing finalists to Manchester City in the FA Cup, when they were the only British club to make it out of the group stage before being eliminated by Valencia.
That adventure only produced €3.5 million in prize money, though Everton did earn €7.5 million last season for reaching the last 16, and money has increased in the latest cycle, due to higher prize money and significant growth in the TV (market) pool, thanks to BT Sports paying more than Sky/ITV for live games.
Gate receipts rose by £0.8 million (11%) from £7.6 million to £8.4 million, though still remained one of the lowest in the Premier League, despite the average attendance rising from 27,081 to 27,534.
At the other end of the spectrum, Arsenal and Manchester United both earn over £100 million of match day revenue, which works out to around £3.7 million a match. In other words, they generate more than Stoke’s annual gate receipts in just three matches.
The low revenue is actually a reflection of Stoke’s laudable approach to ticket prices, which have been held at the same level since promotion to the Premier League in 2008. In fact, Stoke have the cheapest season ticket in the top flight at just £294. Not only that, but the most commonly purchased season ticket is £344, which works out at just £18 per match.
In addition, Stoke were the first club to offer free coach travel to all Premier League away games. Furthermore, Stoke have introduced season tickets for under 11s that equate to £2 per match, rising to £8.90 for under 17s, while the City 7s scheme helps children to develop an affinity with their local club. As a result, 25% of Stoke’s crowds are under 21, establishing the club’s future support base.
Stoke’s policy was outlined by chief executive Tony Scholes: “We make no secret of the fact that our aim is to keep football at the Britannia Stadium as affordable as possible. In an ideal world we never want price to be the reason why supporters cannot attend our home matches”
Following the steady rise in attendances, which have increased by almost two-thirds (10,700) since promotion, the club has announced plans to develop the stadium by filling in the scoreboard corner, thereby creating an extra 1,800 seats and raising the capacity to 30,000.
As Scholes explained, “Planning permission has been in place for some time, but it was important we carried out the work when we felt the club was ready for an increase in seat capacity.” Work will be completed in time for the start of the 2017/18 season.
Last season, Stoke’s attendance was one of the lowest in the top flight, only ahead of six clubs. Although they were held back by the limited capacity of the stadium, the planned increase will not significantly improve their place in the attendance league (or indeed gate receipts).
Commercial income rose 12% (£1.7 million) to £16.3 million, largely due to growth in sponsorship and advertising (£1.4 million to £8.9 million), though there were also small increases in retail and merchandising (£0.3 million to £2.6 million) and other operating income (£0.1 million to £1.2 million). Conferencing and hospitality dropped slightly by £0.1 million to £3.6 million.
Again, Stoke’s commercial income is dwarfed by the leading clubs, e.g. the two Manchester clubs grew their commercial revenue again in 2015/16: United to an astonishing £268 million and City to £178 million. That said, Stoke’s £16 million is only £4 million below league champions Leicester City’s £20 million, though that figure may well have risen following last season’s achievements.
There are signs that Stoke are beginning to raise their game commercially, though much of this is linked to their relationship with the club’s owners, bet365, who announced earlier this year a six-year stadium naming rights deal, while extending the shirt sponsorship by a further three years. As a result, the stadium has been renamed from the Britannia to the bet365 from the 2016/17 season.
Scholes explained, “The Premier League is constantly evolving and to ensure that Stoke City remain as competitive as possible, it’s important we explore as many ways as possible of generating revenue.”
Figures are undisclosed, though the total agreement is reportedly worth £5 million a year, of which £3.2 million has been ascribed to the shirt sponsorship. Some have questioned whether this deal is fair market value, given the relationship with the owners, but the club have stated, “We are comfortable we will continue to comply with FFP rules.”
Of course, this deal is a long way behind the elite, e.g. Manchester United – Chevrolet £56 million; Chelsea – Yokohama Rubber £40 million; and Arsenal – Emirates £30 million. It is also around the same as Crystal Palace and Swansea City, so there are unlikely to be any FFP ramifications.
After just one year with New Balance, Stoke have signed a new five-year kit deal with Macron from 2016/17. Scholes described the partnership as “by far the biggest agreement with a kit supplier we’ve ever signed” with some media reports suggesting that it was worth £3 million a season. Of course, still nowhere near as much as the top clubs, e.g. United's deal with Adidas is worth a cool £75 million a season.
Wages surged by 23% (£15 million) from £67 million to £82 million, leading to the wages to turnover ratio worsening from 67% to 79%. This is the second year in a row that has seen a large rise in the wage bill, which has grown by £22 million since 2014. In fairness, this has been funded by the increased TV money, but the growth has been notable.
In particular, the number of employees has risen from 264 to 290 in this period, even though playing staff has fallen from 69 to 67, due to the high growth in other staff from 195 to 223.
In addition, the amount paid to the highest paid director, believed to be chief executive Tony Scholes, has increased from £773,000 in 2014 to £934,000 in 2016.
Although Stoke’s wages to turnover ratio has improved from the 91% peak in 2013, 79% is likely to be one of the highest in the Premier League in 2015/16, as the only two clubs that reported worse ratios in 2014/15 were in the Championship that season (Bournemouth and Watford).
That said, this highlights Stoke’s tricky balancing act, as they need to increase their wage bill, given that there is normally a very close correlation between wages and success on the pitch.
Even after Stoke’s significant increase, to place this into context, it is still miles behind the leading clubs, who all pay around £200 million: Manchester United £232 million, Chelsea £216 million, Manchester City £198 million and Arsenal £195 million.
Stoke have broken out of the bunch of clubs in the £60-70 million wages range, though they are the first of the “mid-tier” clubs to publish their 2015/16 accounts. Given the need to compete, it is entirely possible that the other clubs also grew their wages last season.
However, all these clubs need to consider the Premier League’s Short Term Cost controls, which restrict the annual player wage cost increases to £7 million a year for the three years up to 2018/19 – except if funded by increases in revenue from sources other than Premier League broadcasting contracts.
This will be a challenge for Stoke, as it essentially places pressure on them to grow commercial revenue, unless they raise ticket prices – or sell players. It should be noted that these controls do not apply if the 2016/17 player wage bill is under £67 million and we do not know how much of Stoke’s bill applies to player wages.
Although there is a natural focus on wages, other expenses can also account for a fair part of the budget, though Stoke’s remained unchanged at £16 million in 2015/16. These cover the costs of running the stadium, staging home games, supporting commercial partnerships, travel, medical expenses, insurance, retail costs, etc.
Another cost that can have a major impact on the profit and loss account is player amortisation, which reflects investment in transfers. Basically the more that a club spends, the higher its player amortisation.
In this way, Stoke’s player amortisation surged from just £1 million in 2007 to a £22 million peak in 2013, reflecting the years of big spending in the transfer market, but then fell back in the last two years to £12 million as the taps were turned off, but the recent return to buying saw this bounce back up to £18 million in 2016.
Over the years Stoke’s financial results have also been influenced by the £13 million of impairment charges they have booked since 2009. This happens when the directors assess a player’s achievable sales price as less than the value in the accounts.
The accounting for player trading is fairly technical, but it is important to grasp how it works to really understand a football club’s accounts. The fundamental point is that when a club purchases a player the transfer fee is not fully expensed in the year of purchase, but the cost is written-off evenly over the length of the player’s contract, e.g. Shaqiri was bought for £12 million on a five-year deal, so the annual amortisation in the accounts for him is £2.4 million.
Nevertheless, Stoke’s player amortisation of £18 million is one of the lowest in the Premier League and is obviously miles behind the really big spenders like Manchester City (£94 million), Manchester United (£88 million) and Chelsea (£69 million, though it should further increase next year following this summer’s acquisitions.
Stoke’s three-stage strategy since their return to the Premier League is evidenced by their transfer spend. In the initial five years between 2008/09 and 2012/13 they averaged annual net spend of £18 million, as they built a competitive squad, splashing out on the likes of Peter Crouch, Kenwyne Jones, Wilson Palacios and Cameron Jerome.
They then slammed on the brakes in the following two seasons, making a number of free transfer signings (Phil Bardsley, Steve Sidwell, Mame Biram Diouf, Stephen Ireland and Marc Muniesa), resulting in average net spend plummeting to just £2 million.
However, the average net spend has gone up to £19 million in the last two seasons (Imbula, Allen, Shaqiri, Joselu and Egyptian winger Ramadan Sobhi), though this was offset by the sales of Begovic, N’Zonzi and Huth, so the gross spend was the highest ever at £29 million. Stoke also took Wilfried Bony from Manchester City and Bruno Martins Indi from Porto on loan. As a result of this investment, Coates has proclaimed, “We have a good squad, the best we’ve had in the Premier League.”
Even so, Stoke’s total net spend of £38 million over the last two seasons is still firmly in the bottom half of the top tier. Obviously, nobody would expect Stoke to spend at the same level as clubs like Manchester City, Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea, but it must be galling for Stoke fans to be outspent by the likes of Watford £64 million, Sunderland £50 million, Bournemouth £48 million and Watford £48 million – though it should be recognised that promoted clubs have to spend big when they arrive in the Premier League.
Net debt rose by £14 million from £33 million to £47 million, though this was entirely due to cash balances falling from £26 million to £13 million, as gross debt was unchanged at £59 million.
The good news is that this is all owed to Stoke City Holdings Ltd, which is ultimately owned by bet365. In other words, Stoke City have no external debt with banks, but the friendliest of “in house” debt to their owners in the form of interest-free loans with no fixed repayment term.
The fact that Stoke pay no interest on their loans is a major advantage compared to some of their rivals, e.g. Sunderland and West Ham both pay £6 million a year, but is not uncommon with benefactor owners.
Stoke’s £59 million gross debt is only around mid-table in the Premier League. In fact, there were actually four clubs with debt above £100 million, namely Manchester United £490 million, Arsenal £233 million, Sunderland £141 million and Newcastle United £129 million.
It is worth noting that Stoke also owe large sums on outstanding transfer fees. These have not been disclosed, but were given as a reason for the increases in trade creditors of £16 million and accruals of £6.5 million.
The club also had £3 million of contingent liabilities (dependent on the success of the football club or players making a certain number of club or international appearances). On top of that, there will be a further £19 million of transfer fees for players purchased after the accounts closed.
Stoke’s improved finances are reflected in the cash flow statement, as 2016 was the first year that the club did not require any financing from the owners. Even though they made net investment in players of £36 million, this was funded by £22 million of cash from operating activities (facilitated by a large increase in creditors) and dipping into the cash balance.
Over the years, bet365’s ongoing investment and support has been crucial to the club’s development. Although cash flow from operating activities has been positive, the money required to fund investment in players has only been covered by “the family making huge cash injections every year.” In fact, since bet365 took control in May 2006, the owners have put in around £100 million (£98 million of loans and £2 million of share capital).
Not only have they provided this funding, but they have also written-off £32 million by converting some of the loans to equity, and disposed of an investment in a subsidiary in 2010. In fairness, they can probably afford it, as the Sunday Times Rich List revealed that they had become the UK’s first betting billionaires.
It is instructive to review how the club has operated since 2008. In that period, Stoke had cash of £179 million available to use, which came from two sources: (a) £90 million from owners’ loans; (b) £89 million from operating activities. Almost all of this has been used to improve the squad with £160 million (89%) spent on player investment.
All external loans have been repaid (£3 million), while there has only been £5 million of capital expenditure, though this is a little misleading, as most of the club’s infrastructure investment is made via Stoke City (Property) Limited.
At the supporters’ “Meet the Chairman” event, Coates said, “We are spending £4.8 million on football pitches, with that work being carried out at the moment, whilst in the last five years we have spent £8 million on the stadium to keep it up to standard.”
Stoke had a healthy cash balance of £13 million, though this is still a long way behind the leaders, e.g. Manchester United £299 million, Arsenal £226 million and Manchester City £56 million.
Although Stoke have moved towards self-sufficiency, much of their success has still been due to the backing of the Coates family, which is likely to be required in the future (albeit to a lesser extent), especially if the club wishes to reach the proverbial next level. As club captain Ryan Shawcross observed, “A lot of credit has to go to the chairman.”
These days, Peter Coates is something of an exception in the Premier League: a locally born chairman, who is a passionate supporter of the club. In contrast to some owners, he has never looked for a return on his investment: “Me and my family, we don’t look at Stoke as a business. For us it’s something important for the area and something we want to do.”
"Life of Surprises"
Indeed, the family connection was strengthened in the summer when his son John became vice-chairman. As Coates explained, “Whenever I stop being chairman, and there’s no plan at the moment, John would be the obvious successor.”
Their commitment has been reinforced by the investment in the Academy and training facilities, though Stoke have to date struggled to develop players for the first team, as Coates admitted: “We are desperate to bring young players through. I would like to see half-a-dozen players on the bench who are Academy products. But we are not there yet.”
Stoke’s progress has been impressive, as they have operated a sensible business model, backed by solid owner investment to become a fixture in the top half of the Premier League.
It will be difficult for Stoke to go much further, given the vast wealth of the leading clubs, but a period of consolidation might not be so bad. As Coates put it, “This is a historical club and we’ve punched above our weight for a long time now.”