[Note: If you're arriving here from WSC then feel free to copy/paste elsewhere - there's an Excel file at the bottom of the post with all the info in it. I have no doubt there are errors in the list below - I'd appreciate it if you pointed out any glaring omissions.]
Attempting to make sense of the financial state of English football.
It’s almost eight years since the ITV digital collapse brought chaos and financial meltdown to the lower leagues. By pulling out of their deal to pay £315million over three years for the right to screen fixtures such as Chesterfield vs Barnet they provided us with some great anecdotes (heard the one about the Tuesday night match where it would have been cheaper to drive every viewer to the ground in a limo, put them up in a hotel and give them £500 rather than pay the costs of televising the game?) and the perfect bogeyman to blame for all the problems at England’s provincial football clubs. As with Setanta’s later decision to screen Conference games on pay-TV the benefit of hindsight makes the ITV deal seem, at best, horrendously naive. Even on the most optimistic projections the Football League rights were a matter of corporate prestige and the search for a flagship product rather than financial logic.
But while the loss of such a vast sum of income was unprecedented and pushed many clubs over the edge it’s too easy to ascribe all the clubs’ problems to this particular loss of income. Many of the these clubs had always been badly run, had suffered from falling crowds for years and were in a state of decline. Charlatans such as John Batchelor and Darren Brown were around before ITV Digital and the collapse of the broadcast deal only served to expose their earlier misdemeanours.
Football clubs playing in the top five divisions of English football who have entered administration/a Company Voluntary Arrangement (CVA):
Red dot = has been in administration.
Disclaimer: Red dots are more prominent that the white ones – be aware that that adds emphasis. Any club that has been relegated from the Football League but is not currently in the Conference is listed – all have been in administration. Both MK Dons and Wimbledon are listed as having been in administration, along with a few other quirks.
Over the past decade the lower league ‘crisis’ has moved from being a single great collapse to being a fact of life. There has been no let-up in the cycle of administrations, new owners, broken promises, CVA deals with the taxman and last-minute saviours willing to take over the smaller clubs. Read the BBC Football site or pick up any When Saturday Comes from the last five years and you’ll see at least one account of a club about to go the wall and strike a deal with creditors. I’ve been trying to work out the scale of this problem and put it in some sort of context – I’ve struggled to find data on a lot of these financial crises and this is my first stab at collating information on the collapse of English clubs.
It’s worth remembering that amongst the 100+ full time professional football clubs in England it’s healthy for a few to be in dire straits at any one moment. If businesses didn’t take financial risks and try new tactics then there’d be no innovation. Applied to football, the lower leagues would be even more stagnant than they currently are. The downside of this is that this allows mismanagement and fly-by-night sugar daddies to sneak into the system. But in every area of entertainment, governance and commerce there are some places that get it right and some that overspend, under invest and suffer the consequences. The problem is that we can’t treat football clubs as other businesses – the emotional bonds mean that some lifelong fan is almost always willing to step in at the last moment and take on the £300,000 tax debt run up by the previous administration rather than let the ‘essence’ of the club die. The heart triumphs financial sense and provides a safety net for even the most indebted football club. The end result? Wounded clubs limping along at the bottom of League Two (or worse) struggling to pay the interest on historic debts.
I’m not in favour of salary-caps, over-regulation and an attempt to create a level playing field financially. Clubs should learn to spend what they can afford to pay as part of basic business practice (even if it’s funded by a rich benefactor) and forcing them to limit wages to an arbitrary amount would be difficult and costly to police. It would also take away the prized independence of clubs and scare away investors. But the current cycle of bust-and-bust is just untenable. Points deductions don’t work and despite some promising starts there has been no shift to fan ownership in the Football League, with a few notable exceptions. The map at the top of the page shows the scale of the problem – but right now the only solution that I can imagine would be the complete liquidation of a number of high profile clubs. Are there any Portsmouth fans willing to let their club die for the sins of the others? Nah, thought not. There’ll be another saviour along soon enough.
Complete list of football clubs that have entered administration or a CVA in the last 25 years*:
Newport County 1989
Exeter 1994, 2003
Bournemouth 1997, 2008
Darlington 1997, 2009
Chester 1998, 2009
Portsmouth 1999, 2010
Crystal Palace 1999, 2010
Oxford Utd 1999
Swindon 2000, 2002
Notts County 2002
Port Vale 2002
Lincoln City 2002
Swansea City 2002
Halifax Town 2002, 2008
MK Dons 2003
Crawley Town 2006
Rotherham 2006, 2008
Leeds United 2007
Boston United 2007
*Teams currently in the top five divisions of the football pyramid (and former Football League clubs) that have entered administration or a CVA in this period to the best of my knowledge/Google. This is the best list I’ve been able to come up with – please correct any mistakes. A raw data Google Docs spreadsheet file that I used is available here – use in any way that you want.
And remember – this data uses ‘administration’ or a CVA as evidence of serious financial gloom. You can argue that Salisbury entering administration to clear a small debt and earning a mention is less cause for concern than the massive debt at Liverpool, Man Utd, Watford, etc. Non-League is even worse: a majority of teams in Conference North have been in some sort of serious financial crisis within the last few years.