Most Premier League clubs make as much money as a branch of IKEA

Really enjoyed the David McWilliams podcast entitled ‘The Economics of Football’ in which he interviews Simon Kuper of Soccernomics fame. What he basically says is that the vast majority of clubs are not businesses and are not trying to make profits. They are pursuing trophies and with this intention spend what money they do make on buying the best players. If you look at the teams in the four English Divisions in 1921 there has been little change even when some clubs go bankrupt. As they are fan based institutions they seem to be unaffected by things like debt in a normal business. For example if a club (limited company) goes bankrupt you discard the old company and form a new limited company changing the name of the club (ABC City to ABC United) but playing at the same ground with the same strip etc. To put it in perspective a typical Premier League club is the size of a branch of IKEA.

Football clubs are huge emotional brands but not very big businesses. For example in 2019 Barcelona was the first club to made over $1bn in revenue but that equates to 0.02% of what Walmart made that year. The problem that football clubs have is how to monetise that passion for the club without affecting their fan base.

Bundesliga should be the richest league in Europe?
When you look at the economic indicators of the German economy – population size, income levels, GDP growth etc – it should be the league with the most money. Why is this not the case? The German FA doesn’t want foreign money coming into their clubs like Chelsea, Manchester City, Paris Saint-Germain etc. Also the German Bundesliga has a rule that over 50% of a club must be controlled by its supporters.

New breed of foreign owners and European Super League
The owners of Manchester United, Tottenham and Arsenal are more focused on making money out of the football club compared to others – Man City, Chelsea, PSG – whose owners want success at the expense of profit. This new breed of owner has come under a lot of pressure from the club’s supporters in that some are borrowing money to buy the club and then taking money out. Take for instance Man United – in the 5 years up to 2020, no owners in the Premier League have taken out more money than Man Utd £133m (dividends £112m, share buy back £21m). In stark contrast, some owners have put in significant funds: Everton £348m, Aston Villa £337m and Chelsea £255m – see graphic.

Source: SwissRamble

You can therefore see why some owners were keen on the European Super League. The proposed ESL was all but free-market capitalism with an American style franchise system with 12 teams guaranteed a place in the competition – significant barriers to entry and not conducive to competition. So much for Joseph Schumpeter’s creative destruction with a group of elite clubs protecting their market and the owners being rentier capitalists. The ESL’s proposed move is similar to what has been happening in the market place – a structure of businesses taking huge debt and taking little interest in competition as long as they are making money. Manchester United, probably the most famous club in the world, got knocked out of the Champions League in the group stage in 2021 but are still making a lot of money for the owners. It seems that the desire to win trophies has been superseded by profit – the proposed ESL avoids competition as member clubs are protected against the risk of failure. Not to say this is not already happening as the EPL and many other leagues in Europe are dominated by a small number of clubs which have significant funds available.

European Super League and so much for Joseph Schumpeter

Economist Joseph Schumpeter talked about creative destruction in that to survive capitalists continually seek more profits through the pursuit of new markets. With the presence of new markets this brings about more innovation removing the old businesses and opening opportunities for the new.

The free market, in which business is supposed to thrive, is based on weak barriers to entry, competition and less regulatory constraints. The extreme of this theory is perfect competition although in football we don’t have homogeneous products in that all teams are different. However the market does give teams the chance to gain promotion from lower divisions in English Football. Take for instance Leicester City winning the EPL and before them teams like Blackburn Rovers, Aston Villa, Nottingham Forest – the latter winning the league having just been promoted from the Second Division (in those days). These teams used innovation, coaching, strategically delving into the transfer market (not with the funds that some clubs have today) etc to form a successful team.

Nottingham Forest – Div 1 Champions 1977-78

The proposed ESL was all but free-market capitalism with an American style franchise system with 12 teams guaranteed a place in the competition – significant barriers to entry and not conducive to competition. So much for Joseph Schumpeter’s creative destruction with a group of elite clubs protecting their market and the owners being rentier capitalists. The ESL’s proposed move is similar to what has been happening in the market place – a structure of businesses taking huge debt and taking little interest in competition as long as they are making money. Manchester United, probably the most famous club in the world, got knocked out of the Champions League in the group stage but are still making a lot of money for the owners. It seems that the desire to win trophies has been superseded by profit – the proposed ESL avoids competition as member clubs are protected against the risk of failure. Not to say this is not already happening as the EPL and many other leagues in Europe are dominated by a small number of clubs which have significant funds available. This makes it near impossible for the other clubs to be competitive – remember Wimbledon winning the FA Cup in 1988 with the ‘crazy gang’. They had the worst stadium, poorly paid players and the lowest gates. It is hard to see supporters of less wealthy clubs being too enthusiastic about the excitement of victory.

The ESL has demonstrated that global capitalism operates on the basis of rigged markets not free markets, and those running the show are only interested in entrenching existing inequalities. It was a truly bad idea, but by providing a lesson in economics to millions of fans it may have performed a public service. Larry Elliott – The Guardian – 22-4-21