Ferris Bueller once said ‘Life moves pretty fast, if you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it’, wise words. I regularly like to stop, look around and take stock of football; At the top level of football in England I see a game that is thriving, season-after-season the Premier League seems to grow in strength and popularity. It is a league that boasts an array of the world’s best players, a league where the professionals themselves want to come and play, yes for the money, but I also because the Premier League as the most exciting and competitive league anywhere.
The Premier League is big business off the pitch, but even so clubs themselves have had to start to channel a lot of revenue in to making themselves worldwide brands as domestic revenue streams start to dwindle, the real money is abroad in countries with vastly bigger populations. This is a longer term strategy, but it needs to become reality now as clubs do not want to take a chance on sailing close to the financial wind.
For the rest of football there is serious danger on the horizon. There is growing concern within British football that before too long only the very top leagues will be the only ones that can sustain existence as clubs struggle to survive financially. Every week a different club seems to be flirting with administration or teetering on the brink of liquidation, mimicking the now desolate high-streets that exist up and down the land, the world is in the midst of serious economic downturn.
In England alone the stats are frightening; if we look at the period since the Premier League was formed in 1992, when football really began its journey to become a business, 53 clubs from the Conference upwards have been put in to administration. In total there are only 116 teams across all 5 divisions (we are counting the Conference as some teams are now professional) as a percentage that is 45% of clubs that have gone in to administration and that is not counting those clubs that have entered administration more than once.
Only in last few weeks have we seen Darlington FC be put in to administration and former Premier League club Portsmouth issued with a winding-up order over an unpaid £1.6million tax bill – at both ends of the spectrum it is scary stuff. They are not alone, fellow conference side Kettering Town, are also facing a winding-up order if creditors cannot be paid by the end of February. In Scotland we have recently seen the players of Hearts FC go unpaid as the club seemingly struggle financially, despite claims from controversial multi-millionaire owner Vladimir Romanov the club will be self-sufficient in the near future. Scottish football has also had its fair share of problems with no fewer than 7 clubs going in to administration since 2000.
The UK is a small place, but we have a ridiculous number of professional teams and questions have started to be asked about how long lower league football can sustain itself for, especially in England.
Darlington FC are a great example of everything that wrong with football business. Darlington FC have a rich history that first began in 1883, but forget history and sentiment, this is the third time in only a decade the club has been in administration. During this decade of decline you may remember the club doing things like trying to sign former Newcastle legends Paul Gascoigne and Faustino Asprilla on big money and moving to a new 25,000 all-seater stadium, where only 10,000 seats can be used due to planning restrictions. Sounds crazy? It is.
Darlington FC’s average attendance so far this season is 2,136, with their highest attendance being 5,638. Why do they need a 10,000/25,000 all-seater stadium? Ask the fans and they will agree this was a bad move, a move they did not want, but it is the fans that have had to save the club from the brink of liquidation by raising some short-term capital to keep them in administration for now.
There are a lot of problems with a club the size of Darlington. For example, the supporter base is low, the average attendances at the club make Darlington only the 11th best supported in the league, but they have a ground with by far the largest capacity (even though it cannot be fully utilised). They are surrounded by bigger clubs who can recruit from their supporter base like Middlesbrough, Newcastle and Sunderland. They will need to spend money on player recruitment and wages to get them out of the league, make them more successful and attracting new fans, but they do not generate enough income to support this approach. This is merely scratching the surface of the issues Darlington face, that could be a whole other article.
Their situation is down to previously awful decision making by chairman, most notably George Reynolds, and since his departure anyone picking up the chalice better be ready to taste it poison, unless they are going to make an attempt to become world businessman of the year by getting this club to break even. That is the size of the task at Darlington, but it is an all too familiar scenario elsewhere.
Chairman will not want to invest their own money in to clubs as history tells them they are almost certain to lose it. As clubs fall in to administration up and down the land, less and less investors are going to be interested in such a challenge especially in this financial climate. Their predecessors have literally made this an almost impossible task and therefore uninvestable, unless they don’t care about losing money and just want to prove their mettle, but most sensible business folk will not want to do this as this type of investment carries a high risk. In Darlington’s case there maybe some saving graces that can pull them from the edge of oblivion, but for just how long?
How long can all of the lower reaches of football sustain an existence outside the top two divisions in England? Premier League clubs struggle to turn a profit, and with Portsmouth as a glaring example, so do teams in the Championship. At least there is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow for both, with vast amounts of money available if you reach the Premier League or if you are already in it, you have half a chance. I admire the fans that came together to save Darlington, it is something special to behold and I know Football Rascal was right behind the campaign, but such fans are fighting a losing battle as football will condense over the next 20 years and clubs will unfortunately cease to exist.
I love the history of the game and revel in its sentiment, but the problems that have already happened this year are just a prelude to a war that is going to be long and bloody, but ultimately one the fans of lower league teams will lose.