Progression vs Financial Sustainability

Following Brighton Mens team’s first ever top-half topflight finish last season, attentions have quickly turned to bettering that next season. Former Albion striker and current club ambassador Bobby Zamora recently said of the club’s prospects on TalkSport that “their aim next year has got to be Europe… There is not a year when they have gone backwards in the last five, ten years… As a club and where they are aiming to be, there has been a progression every year.”

Progression certainly has been the name of the game since Tony Bloom took ownership of the club in 2009. The previous season had seen one of the greatest relegation escapes in the club history as a run of five wins from their last seven overturned an eight point deficit to avoid relegation back to the fourth tier of English Football. The club even went into the final day of the season still needing points to be sure of safety.

But there was an instant upturn in fortunes when Tony Bloom took over, largely associated with the investment he provided to fund building the new stadium, which was opened two years later. After winning League One in 2011, the club were denied a return to the topflight just four years after Bloom took over, losing to Palace in that playoff semifinal. And despite then manager Gus Poyet saying that season was “now or never” for the club’s Premier League ambitions, and a further two playoff semifinal setbacks which followed, the club hasn’t looked back since.

But whilst it’s great talking about ambition and we’ve become accustomed to Albion’s aims of pushing on each season coming to fruition, fulfilling the club’s latest goal of establishing itself within the top half of the Premier League table, whilst working within their sustainable financial ambitions, will be tricky given how much the other Premier League clubs are spending.

If we look at the club’s finances, you can see that Albion have one of the lowest wage bills in the Premier League and a relatively low Wages/Turnover ratio of 72%.

Realistically, I think the club would need to increase their wage bill and up their Wages/Turnover ratio to over 80%, or about another £15m per season in wages to be able to meet those ambitions, which would help the club to keep its existing talent and add to it with additional quality. But that’s unlikely to fit within their important plans for financial sustainability.

The club managed to finish in the top half last season, but as have the likes of Burnley, Leeds and Sheffield United in recent seasons. And as their examples show, achieving that over a consistent period is far tougher and often takes serious investment. Investment of the level which I doubt the club is willing to meet, and for good reason.

The club hasn’t registered a profit since the financial year covering its first Premier League season, 2017/18 (it’s first since 1996/97, a financial result skewed following the sale of the Goldstone Ground), whilst Paul Barber has spoken publicly of the club’s financial target to be breaking even and decrease the reliance on owner Tony Bloom’s ever increasing loan to the club in order to make ends meet, a rather common-sense ambition you would think? But this is Professional Football we are talking about, an industry where common sense is often in short supply and where emotion and ambition often take over.

These financial targets will most likely instead require a reduction in costs, unless there is a significant increase in turnover. Particularly when you consider that in 2021, the club posted a whopping £53.4m loss (which was preceded by a £67.2m loss in 2020), admittedly exacerbated by the pandemic reducing some income sources. Plans to overturn a loss of this extent shows the club can’t expect to rely on additional income alone to achieve a break-even position.

That said, increases in prize money can help to fill that hole. Last season’s 9th place finish saw that increase by £27.5m to £135m. But, the club’s well-known generous performance related bonus structure will have eaten away at some of the additional revenue generated.

Paul Barber has also spoken about increasing other forms of revenue, with increases in revenue from player sales in particular being targeted. This can be seen most prominently with the recent sales of Yves Bissouma, Dan Burn and Ben White, which have all contributed to total player sales of around £100m over the past year, and will no doubt lead to a huge increase in profits from player sales compared to the £15m generated over the previous five years.

However, amounts spent on incoming transfers since promotion to the Premier League more than outweigh that amount and a significant portion of the increase in revenue will be earmarked for future purchases rather than just filling the hole in the bottom line. As Albion’s former Finance Director David Jones said to Andy Naylor for a piece in ‘The Athletic’ “going forward, to reduce the deficit, clearly, player trading needs to be part of the business.”

It is also important to point out here that whilst further increases in player sales could in theory fill the financial gap, it’s questionable whether selling your best players and replacing them on the cheap is a sustainable model to establish yourself in the top half of the Premier League.

As clubs like Southampton have shown, not really. In reality, you need more of a balance and to hold onto some of your best players, whilst replacing those that do leave ahead of time. As Brighton are finding out this summer, the higher you go up the Premier league table the more interest there is in your own players, and the more costly that replacement process becomes.

Ryan Adsett of ‘Seagulls Social’ said on Twitter recently that: “Think fans need to realise that Brighton are not what they once were. The high-quality links suggest we are aiming higher, and because we can now! To progress, the bar must be raised.”

Whilst I think he is right; the problem is I don’t think Albion’s financial model fits with the kind of signings some expect, and the signings that some transfer rumours have alluded to. In the Premier League, money ultimately talks.

So far Albion have managed to reduce their financial deficit and overcome their financial limitations with some smart player purchases. The 2021 accounts showed how transfer expenditure had increased since promotion to the Premier League, with the club now having spent £241m in the last 5 years, but which is still one of the lowest totals in the topflight. Further investment, particularly in attacking areas, will no doubt be required for the club to take that next step.

The issue is of course, that’s the most expensive area of the pitch to recruit for. Recent rumours have linked Brighton with the signing of former loan player Jesse Lingard, which would make sense, particularly with him being out of contract this summer meaning the club could arguably justify the higher wage demands due to a lack of transfer fee. A scenario not dissimilar to Albion’s signing of another former England international, Adam Lallana. But with the likes of West Ham and Newcastle also reportedly interested in Lingard, the prospective deal would be a difficult signing to pull off.

As the reported £41m spent on Alireza Jahanbakhsh, Jurgen Locadia, Florin Andone and Percy Tau is evidence of. You can’t always rely on big money transfer solving your problems.

The club’s other ploy in reducing player transfer spend is to purchase young attacking talent and develop them (via its academy and various loan spells) into the attacking talent the club requires, with this summer’s new signings Julio Enciso and Simon Adingra the latest additions to a long list of young attacking talent, all of whom have yet to reach fruition in terms of first team impact.

That model will probably be tested properly for the first time this season with some of Albion’s returning loanees expected to bolster the first team attacking numbers.

In a recent piece for ‘The Athletic’ Andy Naylor discussed our old favourite subject of taking chances as part of a piece on required areas of improvement, saying: “The additions of Undav, Mitoma and Enciso could help Potter’s side to both create more chances and score more goals.” And along with those three names there’s plenty more aside in terms of potential future attacking talent at the club.

But, whoever you pick off that growing list of names, it’s hard to find a player that you’d hang your hat on for the upcoming season, outside of Albion’s existing attackers. Time will tell if the likes of Sima, Ferguson and Zeqiri will become Albion first team regulars in the future. But the problem for the club in the meantime will be, if the likes of Maupay, Trossard and/or Welbeck leave, then they are relying on those others being ready (or in some cases even capable) of making the step up. The amount who weren’t even involved with the first team last season suggests that many are not. And if not, then an unavoidably large financial outlay would still be required to sign a necessarily established replacement and maintain the club’s level from last season in the short-term, which given the financial constraints is hard to see happening.

The South American football correspondent Tim Vickery has been full of praise for Albion’s transfer strategy of signing young (mostly South American, Vickery’s wheelhouse) talent with a view of developing them into future stars and selling them on at a huge profit, comparing this to the models established by Portuguese giants Benfica and Porto. A model recently seen most prominently with the purchases by Liverpool of Luis Diaz from Porto, and former Albion target Darwin Nunez from Benfica for a combined total of over £100m.

The difficulty Albion have in this area is twofold. Firstly, as the club’s fruitless pursuit of Darwin Nunez showed, their lack of European football makes the club less attractive to some players compared to other clubs from across the continent. And secondly signing younger players with the potential to have the first team impact means, particularly due to the rigours of the Premier League relative to the Portuguese Primeira Liga for example, these players will inevitably spend much of their initial time developing out on loan or on the fringes of the first team.

As the example of Ben White shows (admittedly a youth team product rather than a bought in talent), once Albion’s young talent is up to Premier League standard, if good enough, it won’t take long for them to be of interest to the top clubs, meaning they don’t stick around for long and so only have a short period of impact on the first team. A factor that again raises questions over this transfer strategies impact on the long-term sustainability of first team performance.

Some will say the example of Alexis Mac Allister tells a slightly different story, and that sustained and long-term first team impact is achievable with this approach. But of course, he isn’t primarily filling a position at the very top end of the pitch, being responsible for, as Graham Potter puts it, the hardest thing to do in football, score goals.

As Football finance expert and Albion fan Kieran Maguire spoke about in a recent article for ‘The Business Magazine’, Brighton have provided a financial model for Premier League survival, through expert oversight, cohesive management, a culture of steady, realistic improvement, and a healthy supportive atmosphere.

But to do more than just survive and achieve the club’s long term aim of establishing itself in the top half of the topflight, the club will have to continue to outsmart their opponents and find what Kieran calls “marginal gains”.

The club’s wage budget is currently in the bottom six, and with aims to balance the books at the club coming alongside a culture of spend, spend, spend among many of its Premier League competitors, it’s hard to see that changing.

The Premier League, financially at least, is the most competitive in the world. So, whilst ambitions of continuing to challenge for and become established amongst, the top ten remain,expectations on performance at the club will no doubt stay more grounded.

Whilst the progression has been the name of the game at the club since Tony Bloom became owner in 2009, probability is the likely trajectory of the club going forward could well be downwards from last season’s 9th place rather than upwards. And that relegation, or at least a relegation struggle is very likely in the near term.

There is some cynicism of the recent praise in the national media that both Graham Potter and the club has widely received for what these cynics see as fairly moderate achievements. But with the club’s financial limitations in mind, Albion continue to defy expectations and achieve progression beyond what many have deemed possible, time and time again.

If recent history shows us anything, it’s that Tony Bloom has built a structure and a financial model at the club which is giving the club an edge over its competition. Going forward as ambitions for further progress grows, the club wIll have to make some tough decisions as to how they balance those ambitions with the importance of the club’s financial sustainability.

Author: tweetingseagull

A Fan of Brighton and Hove Albion and all things Football. Follow my tweets here: https://mobile.twitter.com/TweetingSeagull

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