As we look to kick on to the next level, there’s no more important issue facing the club than its financial situation. But the reality of FFP and the neglect of the Ashley years dictate that money can’t just be pumped in. In the most detailed analysis of our financial reality you’ll read anywhere, Andy Trobe explains how we’ve reached this situation and what we can do to change it.
“Newcastle have got 20 years to catch up with the brands of [the big 6] in the Premier League. As a global commercial operation, they are miles behind Chelsea, Man City, Liverpool, Arsenal, Spurs and Manchester United. And I don’t care how many Geordies want to spit at me for saying so. You’re a big club. But only in Newcastle, not on the global stage”. Simon Jordan 16/2/23.
“…If you disagree with Simon, call TalkSport on this premium rate telephone number….!”
And there will, of course, be dozens of us that do. But the uncomfortable truth is that Jordan was absolutely right. We are miles behind. In fact, I’d say we are light years behind.
How far behind exactly? How did we get into that position? How can we close the gap? Why is it so important? Let’s take a look at these questions.
Firstly, how far exactly are NUFC behind in terms of income?
Deloittes helpfully provides a snapshot of the income for Europe’s top clubs. The latest figures available are for the year 21/22 (NUFC haven’t even released their accounts for that year yet!). Having bought the club on 7/10/21, this was the first (part) season under the new owners.
NUFC are ranked 20th with an income of €212.3 (£189m). This is €518.7m (or £461.6m) behind Man City who top the world’s income league (all legally generated obviously). We generate less than a third of City’s income.
Whilst we are light years behind City, it should also be noted that we also generated less income than mid-ranking PL clubs like West Ham, Leicester, Leeds and Everton last season. However, this is actually a significant jump from Ashley’s final full season of NUFC ownership (20/21) when the club was 29th in the rankings (£151.3m turnover).
This wasn’t always the case. As recent as 98/99, NUFC had the 5th highest income in the world. Higher than AC Milan, Barcelona and Liverpool. When Mike Ashley bought the club in 2007, the club were ranked 14th only £10m behind the 10th ranked club. The gap since then has spiralled as shown by the graph below.
So how did NUFC tumble down the rankings so badly? Most people would naturally assume the answer to that question to be very simple.
And the numbers do little to diminish this view. The table below gives a breakdown of NUFC’s income mix over Ashley’s tenure.
The only income stream that saw any growth was the centrally negotiated media income. Of the £89m growth between 06/07 and 18/19 (the last year undistorted by the Covid epidemic), media income accounted for £98m! Mercifully, it wasn’t Ashley or his inept team who was responsible for negotiating the TV deals.
What Ashley was responsible for was negotiating commercial deals. Despite the explosion of Premier League exposure across the globe, his team (uniquely) somehow failed to grow commercial income over an 11 year period.
Why? Some of the drop (about £6m) can be explained by the outsourcing of the club’s catering operations in 2009. But the prime reason is that Newcastle became a toxic brand under Ashley. Sponsors / kit manufacturers / advertisers were reluctant to pay a premium to have their product associated with Newcastle. And why would you want to be linked with a club in a perennial relegation battle?
Reportedly, NUFC’s Commercial Department was cut to the bone. The new owners claimed that NUFC didn’t receive any sponsorship from Ashley for Sports Direct stadium advertising for the last three seasons preceding the takeover. Whilst other owners were coming up with new and innovative ways to bend FFP rules and get their money into clubs, Ashley was doing his level best to deny NUFC even legitimate income.
It’s no surprise that they were unable to grow commercial income. The surprise is how far they fell behind the big 6 as the graph below illustrates. The last decade has been boomtime for PL clubs. The exception was Mike Ashley’s NUFC. What a wasted 14 years.
Whilst commercial income stagnated, matchday income was even worse under Ashley. In 2007, matchday income totalled £34m. By 2019, this had crashed to £25m. The average attendance was actually higher in 2019 but matchday income still declined due to a combination of lower pricing initiatives (to keep the ground near capacity) and reduced corporate receipts.
Ashley inherited a ground with the 3rd highest capacity in England. Whilst other clubs still had to go through the considerable expense of ground redevelopment (or building), Ashley inherited a huge asset completed for a relatively low cost.
One of his first decisions in 2007 was to shelve Freddy Shepherd’s plans to extend the stadium by 8,000 seats. This should have triggered alarm bells about Ashley’s ambitions for NUFC. It soon became apparent that investment in infrastructure would all but grind to a halt. By the time Ashley sold the club, NUFC had the 7th biggest capacity in the PL and the 8th highest matchday income.
The table below shows that in 2007, NUFC had broadly the same matchday income as Liverpool and Spurs and a far higher income than Man City. In 2019 (the last season not impacted by Covid), matchday income was £30m below Man City, £57m below Spurs and £59m below Liverpool.
So how can the club close the gap?
As Simon Jordan observed, it’s going to take time but he is confident that NUFC will do it.
The first quick win will be to increase commercial revenue. The PL lifted their temporary ban on owner linked sponsorship deals in December 2021 but they now need to represent “fair value”. What constitutes fair value remains to be seen but owner linked sponsorship deals are now likely to attract huge scrutiny. Under the new rules, it will be interesting to see if NUFC can replicate the massive increases that Man City have seen. City’s commercial income is of course now under huge scrutiny with over 100 alleged breaches of the PL’s Financial Fair Play rules over a 9 year period.
The new owners have already started.
Newcastle announced a “record-breaking £7.5million partnership” with Noon.com. It’s revealing that this deal is bigger than the current main shirt sponsorship with Fun 88 (reportedly worth only £6.5m a year). This contract will be terminated in the summer (two years early) so that new deals can be explored. This isn’t surprising. The current sponsorship falls way short not only of the big 6 but several mid-ranking PL clubs. Burnley, Wolves and Crystal Palace managed to negotiate better deals.
Castore replaced Puma as kit manufacturers at the beginning of the 21/22 season with a deal purportedly worth £5m a year. To put this in context, Man United’s deal with Nike is worth £750m over a 10 year period. It’s possible that NUFC will seek to end their deal with Castore early as they have done with Fun88 to explore more lucrative partnerships.
New incoming NUFC commercial chief, Peter Silverstone, has led several successful commercial initiatives (Arsenal’s Adidas partnership). In addition, NUFC have also announced new partnerships with Saudia (Saudi Arabia’s national airlines) and Monster Energy (official drink partners).
We had an early view of the 21/22 accounts through the Deloittes rankings. This shows that commercial income has already increased by over £6m under the new owners (or by 27%). This is the first step forward on a long road. But it is at least a step forward after being mired for 14 years. Along the way, there’s going to be some difficult choices for the new owners which are not going to be universally popular (e.g. stadium naming rights and ticket pricing).
The next quick win for NUFC is the increased income that they could potentially generate from improved performance on the pitch. This could be huge to NUFC particularly if they were to make the Champions League. For comparison, look at the TV revenue that the “big 6” and Leicester generated through their European exploits from 2015 to 2020. Nearly £2b of revenue. Newcastle didn’t bring in a single penny.
Improved performance on the pitch will also result in higher receipts under the TV deal. Newcastle benefited from the 9th highest TV receipts in 21/22 despite an 11th place finish. Increased merit payments and facility fees will result from higher league placings.
NUFC will also need to improve the funds generated through player sales. If anybody wonders how Chelsea have been able to fund their recent transfer splurge then this has been a huge contributing factor. The table below shows how the most successful clubs in the PL generate profit from player sales. Key to this is an effective scouting network and a top academy. NUFC need to develop both under the new owners.
The final opportunity for NUFC is to increase their matchday income. In the short term, this can be achieved through increased ticket and corporate pricing. A balance needs to be struck here between the club remaining an affordable venue for a largely working-class support and endeavouring to increase income to compete at the highest levels.
The longer-term solution is to increase ground capacity. The difficulties in extending St. James’ Park are well known. TF has published a number of articles explaining the challenges that the club faces. The purchase of the land at Strawberry Place removes one of those challenges but many remain. The expense will be significant for even a relatively small increase in capacity which raises the question whether it’s commercially viable. But we know that the club are actively investigating the possibility which is fantastic news.
So why is increasing income so important?
We’ve got the richest owners in the world. Can they not just stick their cash in without having to waste time with all the above? Well no. Or at least not in theory. Both the PL and UEFA have financial fair play rules (or to give them their proper name, Profitability & Sustainability rules). They aim to limit the money that their owners can input into their clubs (not a problem when Mike Ashley owned NUFC). Of course, some clubs are trying to bend those rules to breaking point but that’s a whole different article.
UEFA’s FFP rules are stricter than the Premier League with the allowable losses over 3 years being only €30m (PL is £105m). UEFA have also introduced squad cost control via a new ratio of player wages, transfers & agent fees that is limited to 70% of revenue & profit on player sales, though there will be a gradual implementation over 3 seasons (90% in 2023/24, 80% in 2024/25 and 70% from 2025/26).
So what does this all mean? Essentially, the only way that NUFC can achieve their owners’ (and fans) ambitions (and remain within the rules) is by increasing their income. NUFC’s recent transfer spend has purportedly taken them to the edge of their FFP limits. Howe has spent remarkably wisely. But to truly compete with Europe’s elite, they are going to have to buy better players and pay higher wages. Massively increasing their turnover will enable that. After 14 years, we’ve now got owners who can achieve it.