Walsall: Mama Weer All Crazee Now

Football, it’s all about money, footballers are a bunch of greedy tossers, all clubs lose a fortune and are bankrolled by overseas millionaires, the game is going to destroy itself etc.

But here’s a different club. It lives within its means, makes a profit every year, and that’s without selling a single player for a fee, and has 128 staff who between them earn just over half of what Manchester United pay Jesse Lingard.  Perhaps it could make you fall in love with the game again?

The club is Walsall, in the Black Country, nice little stadium, shame about the lack of decent pubs nearby, but other than that the epitome of a stable lower league outfit who have spent the last ten years in League One. (I now await revelations from angry Saddlers fans who spill the dirt on their club).

As a Brighton fan, I have mixed reactions about Walsall, watching my team lose 2-1 in an insipid Capital One Cup game at the start of 2015/16 season. and seeing the mighty Chris O’Grady’s last kick for the club as he put a penalty for the Albion into Row Z before being immediately substituted and running off the pitch faster than he’d moved during the match.

Income

Most clubs show three types of income in their accounts, but somewhat frustratingly Walsall only show two, by combining broadcasting and commercial streams.

Walsall’s income was almost unchanged at £6.6 million in 2016/17, although a £493,000 increase in commercial/broadcast offset a £425,000 (28%) fall in matchday income. The latter was partially due to a playoff finish and reasonable runs in cup competitions benefitted the club in 2015/16 when they played Chelsea in the League Cup and made it to the fourth round of the FA Cup.

A new BT/Sky TV deal for the Premier League resulted in an increase in solidarity payments that trickle down to League One clubs from £360,000 to £645,000.

Over the last five years Walsall’s income has been growing steadily, mainly due to non-matchday sources.

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Costs

Footballs main costs are in relation to players, and here Walsall seem to have a lid on their ambitions.

The total wage bill for 2016/17 was £3.12 million, or just over £60,000 a week, before adding in pension and national insurance costs. This works out as an average of £470 a week for the staff. Even so this represents a 36% increase in the wages paid in 2012/13 of £2.29 million, where the average Walsall employee was on £390 a week.

The club clearly have a tight wage budget set each year, and this is why the wage to income ratio fluctuates in a narrow range around 50%. This compares to an average of 101% for clubs in the Championship.

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The employees who have perhaps done most well from the club are the directors, whose pay has increased from £106,000 to £192,000 over the five years of our analysis.

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The club appears to rent its stadium and training ground. The rent fluctuates from year to year, and went up from £400k to £449k in 2017. This appears somewhat strange, as the club appears to both own and rent the Bescot.

Talking to some fans on Twitter, it appears that the club owns the stadium, but the land it occupies is rented. Apparently the land is owned by Chairman Jeff Bonser’s pension fund.

This has been investigated by the excellent David Conn in The Grauniad.

https://www.theguardian.com/football/david-conn-inside-sport-blog/2011/mar/30/walsall-stadium-sale

The club is therefore committed to paying about another £5m in rent for land at the stadium until the next review.

It therefore appears that the board are generating money from the club directly and indirectly in three areas, fees (£192k), rent (£440k) and interest on loans (not too clear but at least £6k).

This doesn’t mean that Posner and his colleagues are in the Monty Burns category of evil company owners, but neither are the likely to be nudging the likes of local philanthropists at other clubs such as Steve Gibson (Boro), Peter Coates (Stoke) and Tony Bloom (Brighton) off their crowns either.

Profits

Profits are income less costs. Walsall seem to be able to break even each year, just. This could be manipulated by the directors’ tweaking their pay to ensure the club finishes in the black each season.

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Player trading

You don’t see Walsall mentioned too often in the transfer gossip columns of the papers or sports broadcasters, and there’s a good reason for that.

It initially appears that during  the four years leading up to 2016/17 the club neither sold nor bought a player for a fee.

This record was broken during the last season, when Cypriot striker Andreas Makris was signed for a supposed record fee of £270,000 (€300,000). This was funded by Walsall’s success the previous season.

This fee is at odds with the accounts though, which reveal that the actual amount paid was £179,000 (€200,000). Makris’s season proved to one of disappointment, with one goal in 32 games. After proving to be shite a disappointment Makris’s value was written down in the accounts, and he was sold back to Cyprus in the summer of 2017. Whilst the fee wasn’t disclosed, it looks, from a bit of number triangulation, the fee was about £110,000.

In relation to the sale of players, the issue is muddied by the way the club appears to have dealt with the issue. Normally, when a club makes a disposal, it is shown separately on the profit and loss account, as the club is not in the actual business of selling players.

Sheffield United do this in their accounts, as do practically all others.

What Walsall appear to have done is fold in the profit on player sales within their ‘football and commercial income’ heading. That’s at best reducing transparency, we think it’s a shabby way to deal with the subject, and inconsistent with what we believe is best business practice.

Conclusion

Walsall have shown that a club can break even, by managing their wage budget carefully, and being cautious in the transfer market (ten clubs in League One did not sign players for fees in 2015/16 for example).

Had they been promoted to the Championship in 2015/16 after finishing third and making the playoffs, they would have had a season in the sun, playing the likes of local rivals Villa, Birmingham and Wolves. Having done so once, and seen the likes of Shrewsbury have a good season to date in League One, it’s difficult to see the Saddlers change their business model for the foreseeable future.

The club does have debts of around £2 million from the directors, but these are serviceable. Part of these loans are interest free.

From an analysts’ perspective, it’s also a breath of fresh air to see a club being so transparent and putting out its full results in the public domain for fans to see. Clubs are a part of the community, and the community have a moral right to know about how the club is financed.

However what should be three cheers is reduced to two.

The methods used to extract money from the club by some who are responsible for its long term welfare, and the way that some figures (such as player disposals) are not disclosed.

This is harsh on those who travel the length and breadth of the country watching the team play every week.

Fans invest more than money into their clubs, and have a degree of moral and emotional right to know the extent to which the club has benefited from player trading.

The Numbers

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Norwich City 2017 Financial Results: Up the Down Escalator

Introduction

It’s difficult to dislike Norwich (unless you’re an Ipswich fan). Old fashioned provincial stadium, once beat Bayern Munich, bit of a yo-yo existence, owner gets a bit lively after a few red wines, nothing brash or flash about them.

Their financials are broadly the same, live within their means, sensible transfer policy, most matches sold out at home.

Norwich were relegated at the end of 2015/16, but were among the bookies favourites to be promoted back to the Premier League the following season.

Their board appeared to back the manager Alex Neill in the transfer market, and they spent £19.9 million in the transfer market signing Alex Pritchard (pantomime villain on the South Coast after agreeing to sign for Brighton and then Norwich gazumping the wages offered whilst he was on the M25), Wildschut, Oliveria and Canos. Whilst a few players left the nucleus of the squad stayed with the club.

A good start to the season meant the Canaries were top of the table after 12 games, and those who had backed the club at the start of the season were getting excited. The wheels then fell off, only two wins in the next 12 games, and they eventually finished outside of the playoffs in 8th position. Manager Alex Neil paid the price for not bringing the club the success that was anticipated by losing his job.

Income

The financial results show that relegation has hit the club, but not disastrously. Total income is down 23%, nearly all of this is due to Premier League TV money of £70.2 million in 2015/16 being replaced by parachute payments of £50.5 million. Parachute Payments broadcast income accounted for 67% of total income for Norwich last season, compared to 72% in the Premier League in 2015/16.

These parachute payments will fall in 2017/18 by about a further £10 million. It is however in 2018/19 that the real impact would be felt should Norwich remain in the Championship. The club is only entitled to two years of parachute payments as they were relegated the first season after being promoted. This would mean that broadcasting income would then fall

Gate receipts were down 20%, although average attendances were hardly affected by the drop. The fall may be due to the club being unable to charge the same level of prices to corporate fans, who are less excited by Burton Albion than Chelsea.

Norwich did manage to sell some players during the season, and generated a profit of £11.9m on total player sales income of £18.4m, mainly from the sales of Robbie Brady, Martin Olsson and Nathan Redmond. This helps to reduce losses for the season, but may have impacted upon success on the pitch too.

Costs

Like all clubs, Norwich’s main outlay is in the form of players. Wage costs are one expense, and Norwich, despite apparently having relegation clauses in contracts, still had a total wage expense of £55.1 million. This is the second highest Championship wage bill ever published (although I anticipate Newcastle and Villa may trump these totals when their results are published in due course over the next few months). It’s clear that the board backed the manager in keeping onto the bulk of the squad rather than cashing in, but this was not reflected in results.

The wage/income ratio at 73% is only marginally higher than the previous season in the Premier League at 69%. The ratio was very high in 2014/15 (96%) due to Norwich being promoted to the Premier League and having to pay promotions bonuses, which most boards of directors classify as a ‘nice problem’.

Compared to other clubs in the division, whilst Norwich’s wages look high (the average for the Championship in 2016 was (£23.1 million), the wage/income relationship is far lower than the Championship average of 101% in 2016. This is because many clubs in this division do not have any parachute payments, and so their income is far lower (average of £22.9m in 2016).

Norwich made total payments of £4.3milion for severance. This includes Alex Neil (rumoured to be £2 million) and chief executive Ged Moxey, recruited from Wolves in August 2016, who only lasted until February 2017. He managed to earn during that period £417,000 plus a payoff of £712,000. The reasons behind his departure were never made clear, although rumours of boardroom bust-ups suggest that all was not harmony and light between Moxey, Delia Smith and Ed Balls. Perhaps he criticised Ed Balls’ performance on Strictly, or didn’t like one of Delia’s flans, but, whilst out of work, he won’t be needed to sell the Big Issue just yet after trousering nearly £6,500 a day whilst at Carrow Road.

Norwich do have a history of paying their chief executives well. In previous years some CEO’s have taken home over a million pounds. Moxey would not have quite reached these levels if his pay was pro-rated, but even still it is a considerable sum.

The other cost in the profit and loss account relating to players is that of player amortisation. Whilst here we are straying into accounting nerd territory, amortisation is how clubs account for player signings, by spreading the transfer fee over the length of the contract signed by the player.

For example, if Norwich paid £8 million for Alex Pritchard (and I suspect the actual fee was far lower than this, unless Norwich are promoted), and he signed a four-year contract, then there would be a £2 million annual amortisation charge in the profit and loss account in each of the next four years.

Amortisation is useful because it helps to remove some volatility from player costs, as it spreads the cost over the seasons the player is due to perform for the club.

Norwich’s amortisation charge was £16.5 million, down from £22.4 million the previous season in the Premier League, but still markedly higher than the Championship average of £4.5 million in 2016.

This high amortisation fighure reinforces the view that the club had a strategy of keeping the squad together to try and bounce back into the Premier League.

If we add together the wages and amortisation totals, and compare to income, Norwich’s profitability looks more precarious.

The above shows that for every £100 coming into the club, £95 was being expensed in the form of wages and amortisation.

This is high for all clubs (the Championship average was 120%) but if the club is not promoted this season, then the ratio will rocket due to the lack of parachute payments.

The alternatives available to Norwich would be to either seriously prune back the squad by selling the best (and highest paid) players, or borrow money from either the board or a bank.

A wage bill of £55 million and high amortisation figure could also potentially cause some financial fair play (FFP) issues, although this is now based on a three-year rolling loss total, so Norwich’s relatively good results in 2016/17 will be of benefit.

Profits

Profits are income less costs, so taking the above totals into consideration, Norwich made an overall post tax loss of £2.7 million in 2016/17. It’s not pleasant losing £53,000 a week, but if you strip out the severance costs of £4.3 million, which are (hopefully) not going to recur every year, then the club made a small profit.

Because the club has relatively little debt (no loans and an overdraft of ‘only’ £1.8 million, interest charges were quite low.

The Championship is a bearpit of a division in terms of loss making. In 2016 Championship clubs had total non-recurring losses of £361 million, so Norwich is far stronger on a relative basis to nearly all other clubs.

Liabilities

As mentioned above, Norwich’s debts to lenders appear easily manageable. Delia Smith’s loans have been repaid, they have other borrowings.

The main sums that are payable are in respect of transfers due to other clubs. This is over £18 million at 30 June 2017, of which £15 million must be paid within a year. To counterbalance this the club is owed £7.3 million from other clubs at 30 June 2017.

The small print

In the footnotes to the accounts are a couple of interesting additional pieces of information. Norwich potentially might have to pay out up to £23.7 million if conditions included in transfer and player contracts are fulfilled. This is likely to be linked to promotion.  A further £3 million of loyalty payments could be due too. I’m sure the board would again like to file these as ‘nice problems’ and welcome them, as they are likely to coincide with a return to the Premier League.

The final footnote to the accounts shows that in the summer 2017 transfer window Norwich signed players for £8.8 million (which could rise to £11.3 million) and had player sales (Jacob Murphy, Johnny Howson etc.) of £16.9 million (rising to £19.6 million).

Conclusion

Norwich seem on paper well positioned to compete financially with other clubs in the Championship in 2017/18. One of the problems in the Championship is that many owners take a short-term gamble with clubs, spending large sums of money with no guarantee of success, and then facing a financial hangover if it does not bear fruit.

The Norwich board do not seem to be taking such an approach, which is to be applauded. The danger is that by doing so, they could end up as a very well run Championship club for a long period of time, and that isn’t necessarily any fun, just ask fans of Ipswich Town.