Bristol City 2017/18: Mezzanine

Introduction:

The insanity of life in the Championship chasing a place in ‘The Promised Land’ ((c) Alan Green and all other unimaginative commentators) is highlighted in Bristol City’s latest financial results.

City were 2nd in the table on 26th December 2017 but were slid to mid table by the end of the season, and with that had to disassemble the squad as the vultures came picking off their best players.

Key figures for year to 30 June 18: Bristol City Holdings Ltd

Income £25.2 million (up 19%).

Wages £27.3 million (up 30%) .

Losses before player sales £24.2 million (up 26%)

Player signings £12 million

Player sales £1.8 million

Steve Lansdown investment £137 million (up £19 million).

The club are owned by Pula Sports Limited, a company based in the tax haven of Guernsey. Pula Sports Limited also own Bristol Rugby club and Bristol Flyers basketball team.

Pula are owned by Steve Lansdown, a very successful accountant and businessman, half of Hargreaves Lansdown, the £8 billion plus valued financial services company.

Income:

All clubs generate money from three sources, matchday, broadcasting and commercial. What separates out the Championship from other league is the impact of parachute payments from clubs who were previously members of the Premier League (EPL).

Total income for the season was £25.2 million. To put this in context, the three clubs relegated from the Premier League, Hull, Middlesbrough and Sunderland, each earned over £40 million in parachute payments.

City are one of the earliest clubs to publish their finances for 2017/18, so the figures in the Championship table are from 2016/17 unless labelled 2018.

As far as Championship clubs go, Bristol City are competitive with other clubs not in receipt of parachute payments.

Strip out the parachute payments and City rise to 7th in the income table.

Football clubs generate cash from three main sources, matchday, broadcasting and commercial.

Since 2013/14 City’s income has quadrupled, but this hasn’t been enough to stem the losses.

Matchday income from ticket sales rose a third to £6.6 million. This was due to attendances at Ashton Gate increasing 9% from 19,256 to 20,953, but a good cup run added some lucrative fixtures. .

Broadcasting income rose 14% to 6.8million. This was due to the ‘solidarity payment’ paid by the Premier League to the English Football League increasing from £4.3 million to £4.5 million as well as some of the cup matches being shown live on Sky.

Other income, mainly commercial and retail, rose by an impressive 15%. This is mainly due to the completed development of Ashton Gate, the stadium that City share with Bristol Rugby Club.

Additional facilities allow the club to generate extra money from hospitality, conferences, catering etc, and allows the club to be open for more than the 25-30 days a year when home fixtures take place.

Costs:

The main costs for a club are in relation to players, and come in the form of wages and player amortisation.

Wages in total rose by 30% to £27.3 million and have more than doubled since promotion in 2015. The wage/income ratio for City rose to 108%. This means Bristol City paid out £108 in wages for every £100 they generated from revenue, leaving nothing to pay any of the other running costs, unless these are bankrolled by the owner, Steve Lansdown.

This of course leaves effectively nothing to pay for all the other overheads of the club, such as ground maintenance, heat and light, HR, finance and so on.

A close up of a map Description generated with high confidenceA close up of a map Description generated with high confidence

In the Championship as a whole, this puts the club slightly lower than the average wage level for 2016/17 of £29.8 million, and a wage/income level of 100% for the division as a whole.

The other player related expense is that of player amortisation. This is the cost of signing a player spread over the length of his contract. So, when City signed Famara Diedhiou for £5 million on a four-year contract this works out as an annual amortisation charge of £1.25 million a year (£5m/4yrs).

City’s amortisation charge rose by 160% to £5.2 million compared to the previous season.

A screenshot of a cell phone Description generated with very high confidence

The advantage of focussing on amortisation instead of just looking at transfer fees is that it removes some of the volatility from making one big signing in a single year and shows the impact of the club’s long-term player signing strategy. It’s clear that Bristol City’s board have backed the manager to ‘go for it’ to an extent over the last two years, as the amortisation charge is now five times the sum of when the club was in League One.

Other costs:

After spending a lot of money in recent years redeveloping Ashton Gate, the club cut back on capital spending in 2017/18. It does appear to have started work though on new training facilities, (classified here as ‘assets under construction’) for which formal planning permission was granted in September 2018.

Directors pay

Bristol City seem to have a fairly tight policy in relation to director pay. It could be that the costs are borne by holding company Pula Sport in Guernsey, but at £109,000 the amount is fairly low compared to other clubs, in an industry where there appears to be no ‘going rate’ as salaries vary between zero and £1.2 million.

Profits (or perhaps more appropriately Losses?)

Profits/losses are income less costs, and were £24.2 million last season, or £465,000 a week. The previous season the losses had been £19.2 million but the sale of Jonathan Kodjia to Aston Villa, for £15 million help offset these. There were no significantly profitable player sales in the year to June 2018.

Over the last six years City have racked up losses before player sales of £94 million, and the highest position during that period was last season’s 11th in the Championship (plus the wonderful League Cup run).

A screenshot of a cell phone Description generated with high confidence

Player sales have reduced these losses to ‘just’ £77 million, but Steve Lansdown still has effectively had to find a quarter of a million pounds each and every week for six years.

Some of you may by querying how the club has complies with financial fair play (FFP), which restricts losses to £39 million over three seasons, so it must average £13 million a season. Over the last three years City have had losses before tax of £47 million, so on the face of things would be subject to FFP sanction, but help is to hand.

FFP is calculated using a different formula to the accounting losses, and some expenses, such as infrastructure, promotion, women’s and academy football, community schemes and so on are excluded.

Some rough calculations suggest the FFP loss for City was therefore about £35 million over the three seasons, leaving some, but not a lot, of breathing space.

Player trading:

According to the accounts City paid out £12 million in 2017/18 on player additions, just short of the sum paid in the previous season.

This puts City mid-table in terms of the Championship, a division where you probably need to spend £10 million if you want to stand still in terms of maintaining the league position. It is also a division in which striking lucky with loan signings can make all the difference, as was experienced by Huddersfield when they had Mooy and Izzy Brown in 2016/17.

With the club failing to be promoted, it did mean that there were interested parties looking at some of City’s players, and this resulted in net player sales since 30 June of over £13 million as the impressive Flint, Bryan and Reid all departed and Webster, Watkins, Hunt & Eisa arrived.

A screenshot of a cell phone Description generated with very high confidence

Funding the club

Steve Lansdown’s total investment increased further in 2017/18 as he invested a further £19 million in the club via Pula Sports. These loans were then converted into shares, which means relatively little to fans except that shareholders, unlike lenders, cannot ask for their money back.

This takes his total investment to £137 million, in the form of shares and interest free loans.

A screenshot of a cell phone Description generated with very high confidence

Realistically, Lansdown will have to subsidise the club by a minimum of £10-20 million a year for the foreseeable future, unless promotion to the Premier League is achieved.

Whilst £53 million of the debt is technically due to banks it is Lansdown’s wealth and the guarantee given by Pula Sports Ltd that is the reason why the money was advanced by lenders in the first place. Under normal circumstances there’s no way a financial institution would lend to a business that loses £10-25m a year.

Conclusion

Bristol City are a textbook example of everything that is right and wrong with the Championship. Investment in the playing squad showed that the team could compete, on a single match basis at least, with clubs from the Premier League.

At the same time that level of investment cannot be funded from being a Championship club in its own right, and having a benevolent owner is essential to compete in the top half of the table.

The investment in the stadium at Ashton Gate will help generate extra income, but this will not make a serious dent in the operational losses, especially with no sign of wages slowing down in the Championship.

The good news for City fans is that there’s no sign of Steve’s affection for the club in the city where he made his fortune, or sport in Bristol, waning.

He’s invested in rugby and other sports in the city and region and is an excellent example of philanthropy (which I used to think meant he was a stamp collector).

He remains the club’s biggest asset in terms of his generosity but also its biggest risk should anything happen to him, and that’s always an issue for any business which is over reliant upon one individual.