As Newcastle United’s passionate supporters endure yet another frustrating season, it all seems a far cry from the days when they were known as “The Entertainers”. Mid-table mediocrity appears to be the pinnacle of the club’s ambition, while a cup run is to be frowned on, as it might weaken the chances of remaining in the top flight, where they can continue to benefit from the lucrative Premier League TV deal.
Most of the fans’ displeasure is aimed at owner Mike Ashley, a highly successful businessman who has turned around the club financially, but who clearly favours profit over performance. He has made a series of strange choices, such as hiring his mates Dennis Wise and Joe Kinnear, that have slowly drained the supporters’ spirits, leading to widespread protests and even an organised match boycott.
The stark contrast between the depressing displays on the pitch and what the club described as “strong results” off the pitch have not helped matters, as these only underline the lack of investment from the board. The accompanying statement from managing director Lee Charnley was hardly a battle cry: “I am pleased to report a positive set of results which confirms the healthy financial position the Club now finds itself in and is a reflection of the prudent and measured manner in which we operate.”
In any case, it was an impressive achievement for Newcastle to nearly double their profits from £9.9 million the previous season to £18.7 million in 2013/14, driven by record revenue of £130 million. The £34 million (35%) revenue increase was largely due to the additional money from the new Premier League TV deal, while there was also useful growth in commercial operations. Profits on player sales were £3 million higher at £14 million, mainly from the sale of Yohan Cabaye to Paris Saint-Germain in January 2014.
The revenue growth was partially offset by a £29 million increase in expenses, mainly due to player costs with the wage bill up £17 million to £78 million and player amortisation £7 million higher. Other expenses also rose £5 million.
Thanks to the new TV money, most Premier League clubs actually reported profits in 2013/14 with only five clubs making a loss. That said, Newcastle’s post-tax profit of £19 million was the fifth highest in England’s top tier, only surpassed by Tottenham Hotspur £65 million, Southampton £33 million, Everton £28 million and Manchester United £24 million.
This is nothing new for Newcastle, as the club’s stated objective is “to achieve a sustainable financial position, able to operate without reliance on external bank debt or additional long term financial support from our owner and meet UEFA’s Financial Fair Play requirements.”
In fact, this is the fourth consecutive year that Newcastle have made money and they have accumulated profits of £63 million since 2011. The first three years of the Ashley era saw losses between 2008 and 2010, but since then the club has been very firmly in the black.
Newcastle are one of only three Premier League clubs that have managed to report profits in each of the last four years (Arsenal and WBA being the other two). The Geordies’ aggregate profits of £63 million in that period are almost exactly the same as Arsenal, who have been the poster boy for financial success in the football world, and are only beaten by Tottenham, who have benefited from the mega sale of Gareth Bale to Real Madrid. It’s little wonder that supporters are enraged by this level of profit, especially when they compare it with the absolute poverty of the playing squad.
Newcastle’s profitability is further emphasised by their high profit margin (profit divided by revenue) of 14%, which is the fifth highest in the Premier League, only surpassed by Tottenham 36%, Southampton 32%, Everton 23% and Crystal Palace 20%.
In fact, Newcastle would actually be even higher in the profitability league if (once-off) player sales were excluded. Although Newcastle made £14 million from this activity in 2013/14, this was dwarfed by the profits on player sales made by Tottenham £104 million, Chelsea £65 million, Southampton £32 million and Everton £28 million. Without such substantial player sales, only Crystal Palace would have a higher profit margin than Newcastle.
That said, player sales have had a significant impact on Newcastle’s profits over the years, contributing £117 million since 2008 and £68 million in the last four years alone with Andy Carroll’s move to Liverpool being the standout transfer. Newcastle would have made small losses without this activity – until 2014.
Although these sales have helped Newcastle balance the books, they have clearly weakened a squad that is already small by Premier League standards. There appears to be a clear strategy of using Graham Carr’s scouting network to recruit younger players with potential and then placing them in the shop window before profitable sales to a larger club (or just one with more ambition). In fairness, this approach seemed to be working when Newcastle finished 5th in 2012, also qualifying for the Europa League, but there has been even less investment since those heady days.
This can be seen by Newcastle’s player amortisation of £20 million, which is one of the smallest in the Premier League. As a rule, this normally reflects low spending on player recruitment, though it should be acknowledged that Newcastle do tend to sign players on long-term contracts, which reduces the annual amortisation charge.
To clarify this point, transfer fees are not fully expensed in the year a player is purchased, with the cost being written-off evenly over the length of the player’s contract – even if the entire fee is paid upfront. As an example, Siem de Jong was bought for £6 million on a six-year deal, so the annual amortisation in the accounts for him is £1 million.
Even though player trading (and particularly profits from player sales) have had a sizeable impact on Newcastle’s figures, the improvement in the profitability of their core operations has also been important to their bottom line. This can be seen by looking at the club’s EBITDA (Earnings Before Interest, Taxation, Depreciation and Amortisation), which can be considered a proxy for the club’s profits excluding player trading. This was steadily declining from 2006 and was actually negative in 2009 and 2010, but since then it has been rising and jumped from £15 million to £27 million in 2013/14 alone.
That is not too bad, but is only the 11th highest in the Premier League and is a long way behind the top five, despite the far higher wage bills at those clubs: Manchester United £130 million, Manchester City £75 million, Arsenal £62 million, Liverpool £53 million and Chelsea £51 million. In other words, if player trading were to be excluded, Newcastle would not be one of the more profitable clubs in the Premier League, which might help to explain their somewhat prudent approach.
This is partly due to Newcastle’s seeming inability to growing revenue under Ashley. Before the big man arrived, Newcastle’s revenue was £87 million in 2007, which has since increased to £130 million in 2014. On paper a 49% (£43 million) growth is reasonably impressive, but the devil is in the detail, as this has been entirely driven by the centrally negotiated Premier League TV deals, which have helped produce a £52 million growth in this period. This can be seen by the leaps in 2008, 2011 and 2014 (2011 obviously also impacted by the promotion from the Championship).
The other revenue streams have actually fallen under Ashley’s command with match day revenue decreasing 23% (£8 million) from £34 million to £26 million and commercial income dropping 7% (£2 million) from £28 million to £26 million (though this was also impacted by the outsourcing of the club’s catering operation sin 2009). To be fair, commercial income has grown an impressive £86% in the last two years, but it still has not returned to the pre-Ashley levels.
Given Ashley’s reputation as a smooth commercial operator, this is highly embarrassing, especially as last year’s accounts included this gem: “Match day and commercial revenue is a key driver, because that’s where the club can compete with – and outperform – its competitors to enhance its spending capabilities.”
Newcastle’s revenue of £130 million is the 7th highest in England, which sounds great, but the problem is that it is a long way behind the other leading clubs: Manchester United £433 million, Manchester City £347 million, Chelsea £320 million, Arsenal £299 million, Liverpool £256 million and Tottenham £181 million. This massive financial disparity shows how difficult it is for Newcastle to challenge at the highest level, as interim manager John Carver acknowledged: “We can threaten the top teams, (but) we’re not going to win the Premier League.”
However, importantly, he added: “But if we invest right, why can’t we go after the European spots, the Champions League spots?” Some might argue that this is another example of Carver’s unfounded optimism, but he sort of has a point, given that Newcastle’s revenue is clearly the “best of the rest”, ahead of Everton £121 million, Aston Villa £117 million, West Ham £115 million and Southampton £106 million.
Newcastle actually went up six places in the Deloitte Money League to 19th, just behind Atletico Madrid (Champions League finalists, remember) £142 million, Napoli £138 million, Inter £137 million and Galatasaray £135 million, but here’s the thing: there are six English clubs ahead of them. In many ways, it would be better to have less income, but be higher placed in the domestic league, as the competition in England is much tougher from a financial perspective. From this season 14 of the Premier League clubs are in the top 30 worldwide by revenue, while all 20 clubs are in the top 40.
Broadcasting now accounts for 60% of Newcastle’s total revenue, up from 53% the previous season, with match day and commercial each worth 20%. As former manager Alan Pardew said, “The Premier League is the be all and end all, because of the TV money.”
The new three-year deal helped increase Newcastle’s share to increase by £32 million from £45 million to £77 million with further improvement coming from the merit payment, as Newcastle climbed six places in the league table. In fact, they received more money than two teams that finished above them in the league (Southampton and Stoke City), as they were shown live more often, which resulted in higher facility fees (25% of the domestic deal).
The only other variable element in the Premier League distribution is the merit payment (also 25% of the domestic deal), which depends on where you finish in the league. Interestingly, if Newcastle had managed to repeat their feat of finishing 5th in 2011/12 in the last two seasons, they would have banked around £18 million extra.
All other elements are equally distributed among the 20 Premier League clubs: the remaining 50% of the domestic deal, 100% of the overseas deals and central commercial revenue.
Of course, this is just the first year of the current Premier League TV deal and there will be even more money available when the next three-year cycle starts in 2016/17 with the recently signed extraordinary UK deals with Sky and BT producing a further 70% uplift. My estimates are that a club finishing 10th will receive around £118 million a season, which would represent an additional £41 million for Newcastle (assuming they can again reach these “heady heights”).
The Premier League television growth more than offset the loss of Europa League TV money, which was worth €5.3 million in 2012/13. However, that run to the quarter-final had also demonstrated the difficulties of operating with such a tiny squad, as Pardew’s stretched resources meant his team struggled in the league, plummeting to 16th place and flirting with relegation.
The reduced number of home fixtures from no European competition was also a factor in the 7% (£1.8 million) decrease in match day revenue from £27.8 million to £25.9 million. Newcastle’s match day revenue is the seventh best in England, but it is a long way behind Manchester United £109 million, Arsenal £100 million, Chelsea £71 million, Liverpool £51 million, Manchester City £47 million and Tottenham £44 million.
This is despite Newcastle having a supporter base that is the envy of almost every other club with an average attendance of over 50,000 being the third highest in the country, the mismatch with revenue being due to lower ticket prices and corporate hospitality. While the club does deserve praise for its “commitment to keeping ticket prices affordable for our supporters”, including freezing season ticket prices for next season, it is noticeable that most of the initiatives were only introduced after attendances fell, as the board attempted to once again fill the ground.
Either way, since the promotion back to the Premier League in 2010 attendances have been steadily rising and are once again over 50,000. The loyalty of the fan base was shown by the fact that Newcastle’s crowds were the fourth highest in England even when they played in the Championship, which is an incredible statistic.
Commercial revenue shot up 50% (£8.5 million) from £17.1 million to £25.6 million as a result of “lucrative” new deals with shirt sponsor Wonga and a long-term extension with kit supplier Puma. Charnley commented: “The most pleasing aspect in this set of accounts has been the growth in our commercial revenue and it has been our strongest year in that respect.”
It is indeed a fine performance, especially as it followed 24% growth the previous season, but it is worth noting two points: (a) commercial income is still lower than the £27.6 million that Ashley inherited seven years ago; (b) it still pales into insignificance compared to the commercial income at the top six clubs: Manchester United £189 million, Manchester City £166 million, Chelsea £109 million, Liverpool £104 million, Arsenal £77 million and Tottenham £45 million.
It might be argued that such comparisons are a tad unrealistic, but it’s a similar story if you lower your sights to the mid-tier clubs. Before Ashley arrived Newcastle’s commercial income was at the same level as Tottenham, but the North London club has grown this revenue stream by 47% while Newcastle have fallen by 7%. In the same period Aston Villa have caught up, while West Ham and Sunderland are much closer.
In fairness, Newcastle’s £6 million shirt sponsorship with Wonga is only surpassed by the deals made by the top six clubs, even though the association with a provider of payday loans at extortionate rates feels horribly cheap. That said, the disparity is again enormous with Manchester United earning £47 million a year from their Chevrolet deal and even Tottenham signing a £16 million agreement with AIA.
Even though the club said that it is working hard to add new sponsors, this is clearly challenging with the ubiquitous presence of Sports Direct advertising that surely puts off other potential partners. This policy reached its zenith when the famous St James’ Park stadium was officially renamed the Sports Direct Arena, as a temporary measure to “showcase the sponsorship opportunity to interested parties”. Although Wonga paid to have the name restored as part of their commercial agreement, the damage was done in most people’s eyes.
There was a significant 27% increase of £16.6 million in the wage bill from £61.7 million to £78.3 million, lowering the wages to turnover ratio from 64% to 60%. This surprisingly large rise is down to an additional six months wages for six players purchased in the January 2013 window plus bonus payments for finishing in the top ten of the Premier League.
Only now has the wage bill gone back above the 2009 level of £71 million. There has been just £7 million of wages growth in that time, while revenue has increased £44 million, though, in fairness, the 2009 wages to turnover ratio of 83% was unsustainable in the long-term.
Furthermore, although the current wages to turnover ratio of 60% is “within the club’s desired range”, it is still one of the highest in the Premier League, which is again a reflection of Newcastle’s low revenue growth.
Most clubs increased wages in 2013/14 as a result of the additional TV money, but Newcastle’s growth was higher than most, moving them up from 11th to 7th position in the wages league, which is where they should be based on their revenue. Of course, they are still miles behind the elite clubs: Manchester United £215 million, Manchester City £205 million, Chelsea £193 million, Arsenal £166 million, Liverpool £144 million and Tottenham £100 million.
However, if we compare Newcastle’s wages with their current rivals, we can see that back in 2008 they were ahead (in some cases a long way ahead), but the gap has dramatically closed over the last few years. Even after Newcastle’s substantial 2014 increase, only West Ham had lower growth in that period with the other clubs growing at a far higher rate. The 2014/15 wage bill is also likely to fall by at least £10 million, as the performance bonus is unlikely to be paid this season, which means that many clubs will converge on the £65-70 million level.
Specifically, Tottenham increased their wage bill by £47 million in that period, compared to Newcastle’s growth of just £8 million, meaning that a £17 million difference in Newcastle’s favour in 2008 has been converted to a £22 million shortfall in 2014 (and it was as high as £34 million the previous season).
Since Ashley’s arrival Newcastle have basically been a selling club with many years of net sales. Although the club had a net spend of £25 million in the two seasons following promotion, they have essentially broken-even in the last two years. In fact, they somehow managed to go 18 months without signing a full-time professional player, which is some going (and the height of optimism) in such a competitive league.
Unsurprisingly Newcastle’s net spend in the last two years is one of the lowest in England’s top flight, only “beaten” by Tottenham, whose figures were greatly boosted by the Bale sale. To place this into context, in the same period Crystal Palace had a net spend of £52 million, Hull City £50 million, Leicester City £20 million and even Sunderland £19 million – and none of these clubs is exactly rolling in cash.
John Carver believes that the club will spend big in the summer: “They have to invest in the team and I have had assurances they’re going to.” Given Ashley’s track record, the fans would be forgiving for treating this with a degree of scepticism and it may be that any spending is only funded by selling experienced players like Tim Krul, Cheick Tiote and Moussa Sissoko.
Net debt has been cut by £38.6 million from £133.5 million to £94.9 million, as the £4.5 million overdraft has been cleared and replaced by cash balances of £34.1 million. There is no longer any external bank debt with the remaining debt of £129 million being entirely owed to Ashley: £18 million repayable on demand and £111 million repayable after more than one year.
Gross debt has therefore been cut by £21 million from the peak of £150 million, but this is still £52 million higher than the £77 million debt Ashley inherited in 2007. To be fair, the switch from external to owner debt has saved a lot of money in annual interest payments (which were as high as £8 million in 2008), but it is striking that none of the debt has been converted into equity, as is the case with many football club owners, e.g. Ellis Short has capitalised around £100 million of loans at Sunderland.
Newcastle have adopted a policy of paying transfer fees upfront, rather than spreading payments over a number of years, so they owe other clubs less than £3 million. In some ways, this is an admirably prudent approach, but it does restrict Newcastle’s ability to spend more on bringing players in. There are also £2 million of contingent liabilities, but the club says that their criteria for payment are not expected to be met.
That said, Newcastle have been pretty good at generating cash in the last few years with £33 million from operating activities in 2014 alone, which was boosted by £8 million from player sales. After spending £3 million on fixed assets, they had £39 million positive net cash flow. Not only have Newcastle not required any additional financing for the last three years, but they actually made an £11 million repayment of Ashley’s loan in 2012.
Newcastle’s £34 million cash balance is one of the highest in the Premier League, but it is only just above Crystal Palace £27 million and Southampton £26 million. The difference is that it feels as if those clubs have a clear vision, while Newcastle’s strategy is much more limited.
The club have invested £29.8 million on six new players since these accounts were finalised (though have also recouped £12.6 million from player sales), but they have not really strengthened the squad if this season’s results are any guide. It is likely that the remainder of the funds will be spent on infrastructure such as the training ground.
Mike Ashley should be given some credit for stabilising Newcastle’s financial position with the club emphasising that the owner has not “taken any monies from the club”, which is not the case for many other owners who happily pay themselves salaries and dividends, not least the previous Hall and Shepherd regime at Newcastle.
Strictly speaking, it is accurate that Ashley does not directly benefit from his acquisition of Newcastle United, but there is substantial indirect benefit for his company. For example, the accounts note that the club purchased £2.8 million of goods from Sports Direct (up from £0.8 million), but more importantly the stadium is absolutely plastered with his company’s branding.
"Goodbye Krul World?"
In the past, the club has argued that this free advertising is worth less than the savings made from removing the requirement to pay bank interest, which may well be true, but the argument feels as tacky as, well, the products in Ashley’s retail outlets. Now it’s strictly business, so much so that they might as well be playing The Manic Street Preachers’ “You Stole the Sun from My Heart” over the stadium’s PA system.
Back in the dark days of the 2008/09 season Ashley twice tried to sell the club, but he no longer seems to be so keen to make an exit. Last year he said he would not sell “at any price” until 2016 at the earliest, but it’s difficult to believe that there isn’t a price that might tempt him.
He is certainly under no immediate financial pressure to sell, as his net worth was up to £3.75 billion, according to the 2014 Sunday Times Rich List. That said, the club is now a far more attractive prospect to potential investors, as it is more financially stable and has the bonus of the amazing new Premier League TV deal on the horizon.
"When we was Fab"
The financial improvement is no small achievement and supporters only need to look at Sunderland to see how big spending does not guarantee success, but there is the nagging feeling that Newcastle should aim higher. If they had ploughed back the £60+ million of profits made over the last four years into the playing squad, then they would have had a fighting chance of competing at the top end of the table instead of languishing among the also-rans. As The Ruts so memorably sang, when “you’re in a rut, you gotta get out of it.”
The ultimate goal of a football club is not to make profits, but to challenge for trophies. The Champions League might not be a realistic objective, but a club like Newcastle should be comfortably finishing in the top eight every season. Even if you consider Newcastle to be a purely business proposition, it is not enough to make profits without investing in your assets – and that means the playing squad, which requires a significant overhaul.
The former Newcastle board got many things wrong, but it is difficult to argue with the strategy expressed in their last annual report, which was “to secure the club’s position among the top teams in England and compete in Europe on a regular basis. Success on the pitch brings financial reward in terms of enhanced gate receipts and increased broadcasting and other revenues.”
The big question is whether Mike Ashley is the man to deliver this virtuous cycle?