Sunderland's Finances: An Analysis

Stu Forster

Monday morning saw local newspapers awash with another declaration of losses from Sunderland AFC. The latest set of financial statements are by no means cause to shout from the rooftops, but nor are the unmitigated disaster some in the media would lead you to believe.

Immediately, it is important to note the situation surrounding those figures that came into the public forum on Monday. For a start, they do not show the state of the club's finances up to the current minute. Instead, they offer a snapshot of the club's financial affairs as of 31 July 2013.

Given the nature of the business - a football club - this in itself poses a few problems. Primarily, Sunderland AFC's financial yearend date is situated slap bang in the middle of the summer transfer window - the exact time of the year when they are involved in trading their most valuable commodities, football players.

Hence, these statements do not take account of numerous transfer dealings. In the summer, Charalampos Mavrias and Andrea Dossena joined on permanent deals after that 31 July cut-off point, while Ondrej Celustka, Fabio Borini and Ki Sung-Yeung arrived on loan deals that likely included some sort of transfer fee. In addition, Liam Bridcutt, Oscar Ustari and Ignacio Scocco arrived in January, while Marcos Alonso and Santiago Vergini boosted that throng of loanees.

On the other hand, James McClean, Stephane Sessegnon, Ji Dong-Won and David Vaughan have all left the club since the end of last July; Mobido Diakite and Cabral have departed on loan deals.

Furthermore, these accounts do not take into consideration the departure of Paolo Di Canio and his entire backroom staff - who all likely left with sizeable severance packages - nor any changes within the club's backroom hierarchy, such as the recent departure of Valentino Angeloni. They do account for the pay-offs given to Martin O'Neill and his staff in March 2013, but it is difficult to know whether or not the Di Canio regime will have seen similar finances go their way upon their dismissal.

Perhaps most importantly, these accounts are behind the times in that they do not include the improved television revenue that has come the club's way in 2013-14; figures bandied about suggest that Premier League clubs are receiving in the region of, at least, an extra £19m this term.

So, having covered what the accounts don't tell us, what exactly do they tell us?

For a start, those baulking at the headlines declaring a £23m loss in the year can rest a little easier. That figure constitutes the club's "operating loss" - essentially, this is derived by subtracting the club's yearly operating expenses its annual turnover.

Crucially, this figure does not include the profit or loss made via the club's disposal of players and their contracts. Sunderland made a profit of £11.2m from these disposals in the year. Taking this into account, alongside certain other figures, the club's loss for the year comes in at £13m, a far more agreeable figure than those cited in the newspapers, and a marked improvement on 2011-12's £32.3m loss.

Despite posting another loss in the year, the club's operating expenses actually fell, from £104.9m to £97.6m. This was largely down to a reduction in the wage bill, falling 9.6% to £57.9m. The club's turnover, though, also fell, to £75.5m - not least because of the club's poorer placing in the Premier League table last season. As a result, the club's wages to turnover ratio sits at around 77%. This is an improvement on the lofty 82% it sat at back in 2009-10, yet still comfortably exceeds the 70% figure advised by UEFA. Given the number of sub-standard players in the Sunderland squad, it is hard not to think that value for money isn't forthcoming.

Promisingly, there was a small rise in the club's 'Conferencing, banqueting and catering' revenues. This was likely down to increased activity via the group's 1879 Events Management wing. Sponsorship and royalties, too, saw a rise (up from £9.2m to £10.7m), but other areas meant an overall 3% decline in turnover.

Gate receipts dropped from 2012, though will likely rise in this current season given the club's increased amount of games due to two strong performances in the cup competitions. Like most other clubs, the bulk of Sunderland's revenue comes from television and media quarters, and this too saw a fall in 2013 - down from £47m to £44.9m.

As stated, this year will see a substantial rise in those television revenues. However, it is in this area where the reality of relegation this summer would truly hit. A drop into the Championship is widely expected to see a dramatic fall of around £40m. Strong suggestions are that many among the club playing staff have 40% wage cuts written into their contracts should relegation occur but, even so, the loss of such a vast amount of revenue would be an enormous blow to the club's coffers. Assuming that £19m sum bandied about earlier is correct, relegation would see TV revenues drop from roughly £64m this term to just £24m in 2014-15. Given that, in these 2012-13 figures, TV money made up almost 60% of the club's overall turnover, the implications are fairly stark.

Moving on, perhaps the most alarming discovery - and one which plenty in the media have seized upon - is the rapid increase in the club's overdraft. From £11.4m in 2012, the overdraft on 31 July 2013 stood at £39.1m, a more than threefold increase in just twelve months. In addition, the club has a bank loan of £27m, and both this and the overdraft expire in 2014, though the club is expected to renew both of these facilities. In the (unlikely) event that renewal is not forthcoming, "funding will be obtained from the ultimate controlling party" - that's Ellis Short, to you and me.

The consensus is that the club have earmarked this year's increased TV money to pay off the overdraft. That is all well and good, but the sizeable increase in the overdraft is cause for concern; also, it poses questions around what money will be available to recruit players that are sorely needed to boost a poor playing squad. In truth, few financial decisions can feasibly be made until the club's fate is known at the end of the season.

Elsewhere, a bulk of the club's operating expenses came in the shape of player amortisation (£23m). For the uninitiated, this is a cost incurred by all clubs, whereby the cost of acquiring a player is spread across the length of that player's contract. As a result, it does not always offer a perfect reflection of the actual finances available to the club. For example, clubs may pay the full sum of a transfer fee off at once, but that fee will still be amortised across the length of the contract. Even so, high amortisation (Sunderland's was almost exactly the same as in 2012) implies high transfer fees, a galling admission when the club has moved backwards on the field in recent years.

Ultimately, just as has been the case for several years, the club remains entirely at the behest of Ellis Short. While Short has converted some £100m of loans to equity in the past - effectively dissolving that debt owed to him by the club - and around £33m was generated from a share issue in the past year, the fact remains that, were Short to walk away tomorrow, Sunderland would be plunged into crisis. The chairman, thankfully, shows no signs of doing so.

Despite the drop in turnover and that hefty overdraft, there are some promising signs (though these will only remain so if relegation is avoided). The reduction in wages and the future increase in TV revenue will help the club en route to its overall goal of self-sufficiency.

Unsurprisingly, getting it right on the field will have the greatest bearing on whether or not this is possible. Last summer saw in the region of £30m spent on the playing squad (though the net spend was far lower), but it has transpired that that money was largely spent on players that were not up to the task. Another rebuilding job this summer will only delay the process of the club sustaining itself.

The numbers released this week are by no means a disaster, but nor are they cause for celebration. As many will have known anyway, whether or not Sunderland survive relegation this season will be crucial in determining the club's long-term financial well-being.

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