Sport finance chiefs plot recovery from Covidby
Talk to any financial director operating in elite-level sport and the turbulence caused by Covid-19 over the past 18 months is laid bare. Ahead of the AccountingWEB Live Expo, Mark Bisson speaks with the finance leaders that kept sport alive during lockdown.
From the wealthy English Premier League giants to cash-strapped EFL teams, rugby clubs, Olympic administrators and national governing bodies, the pandemic has dealt sport some harsh economic blows.
The shutdown of sport decimated broadcasting, matchday, retail, hospitality, merchandising and sponsorship revenue streams, forcing CFOs and their accountants to pivot to new financial strategies.
Financial chiefs in sport have spent long days plotting multiple scenarios, constantly pondering the ‘What if?’ question.
At AccountingWEB Live Expo on 1 December, sports broadcaster Georgie Frost will be speaking to the finance directors who helped sport survive when the crowds had to stay at home – get your free ticket today!
Uncertainties around staging the Tokyo Olympics, ultimately postponed for a year, made the biggest headlines during the pandemic owing to the global ripple effect.
The British Olympic Association’s chief financial officer, David Glassey, had to manage the possible cancellation of the Olympics or their postponement.
He tells AccountingWEB the BOA’s senior executives were “continually running a risk scenario” as the Games loomed, hoping they would not be axed.
Glassey said the BOA would have been in a “precarious situation” if Tokyo 2020 was cancelled because costs were “so committed” and revenues would have been lost.
A BOA taskforce reviewed all Tokyo Games expenditure, key contracts and revenues. The main concern was cash, Glassey said, as commercial contracts were rolled forward and payments from suppliers and sponsors’ revenues were deferred a year. Only one BOA sponsor pulled out.
In its accounts, the BOA agreed a “fair way” of recognising revenues due in 2020 that wouldn’t be received until 2021; some sponsors were reluctant to pay until the Games had taken place.
The Olympic body adjusted its business model, furloughing around 30 staff to manage its cost base, with other employees working remotely for nearly a year.
With many Games-related costs deferred, the BOA was in profit for 2020. Glassey was a little surprised the BOA was able to secure new sponsorships such as GoDaddy during the health crisis. He predicts the BOA will break even for 2021 “which for a Games year is pretty good”.
“It’s much stronger than we would have expected because sponsors have stood by us, new sponsors have come in and we’ve managed the costs well internally. We set up a contingency fund which didn’t need to use,” he added.
“We’re a bit behind in revenue for a normal year, but not enough to keep me awake at night.”
With the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics on the horizon, the BOA board discussed the 2022 budget last week. Glassey is upbeat as the process of renewing sponsorship deals and setting new business targets gets underway.
“You only have to go back six months and we didn’t know where we were going to be. But we’re in a very strong position from a cash point of view, on the balance sheet and in terms of annual profit.”
Going back to the height of the pandemic last year, suspension of the football season followed by a restart which saw games played behind closed doors was a developing sport finance story.
While Premier League clubs suffered a financial hit – Manchester United reported a £46.8m drop in commercial revenues over the prior year – the economic repercussions of Covid were bleakest for clubs in the Championship and Leagues One and Two, many of whom scrambled to curb spending amid evaporating matchday revenues.
Rob Wilson, a football finance expert from Sheffield Hallam University, believes clubs learnt a few harsh lessons in financial management during the pandemic. He said: “Generally speaking, there appears to be more sensible spending on player transfers and wages. All of the anecdotal stuff I’m getting from agents/lawyers suggests that contract negotiations are less generous. This will have an impact over the next two or three years.”
As for Manchester United, whose revenues to September 30 show a £17m increase in match-day income on the same period last year following the return of fans, Wilson said the latest quarterly results signal the financial power of EPL clubs to weather the Covid storm.
“But what we need to remember is that matchday revenue for most EPL teams makes up a much smaller proportion of their overall revenue that it did 20 years ago,” he said.
“While Covid stopped the fans attending, the matches continued and so did the broadcast and sponsorship revenue. If anything, the EPL teams found better value for money in a post-Covid transfer market.
“What MUFC have done well is suppress their wage expenditure – moving away from the frivolity of recent years (Alexis Sanchez for instance). The wages are much more in line with their original objective of no more than 50% of turnover.”
Elsewhere in the British sporting landscape, coronavirus has wreaked havoc – but a slow financial recovery is underway.
Abraham Khan, head of finance at Warwickshire County Cricket Club, describes the uncertainties of Covid as a “rollercoaster” after the club posted record revenues of £27m in 2019 due in part to World Cup and Ashes matches.
From spring 2020, the restrictions on crowds attending Edgbaston for major match days led to intense budgeting and scenario planning to quickly address cashflow issues.
Difficult decisions were made. Among them, players and non-players agreed to “salary sacrifices” and cashflow became the primary focus.
“We felt the impact of it all the way up until now,” Khan said, speaking of a drop in income to £11.6m, partly impacted by postponement of The Hundred competition until 2021. Catering and hospitality revenue fell away but some members still opted to donate membership fees.
In the absence of assets to fulfil sponsors’ contractual obligations, the club offered deferrals. And with about £4m in tickets sold for major internationals, Warwickshire CCC encouraged fans to accept credits rather than go through a mass refunding process. Over 60 percent said yes.
Khan said the club was already operating “very lean” prior to the outbreak of COVID and was recovering financially.
“We are not just about survival but growth,” he said, looking ahead with optimism to 2022. “We have seen there’s a bigger and earlier demand for matchday tickets. But we are seeing sensitivities around non-matchday events such as conferences, there’s a drop off in that area.”
England Hockey finance director Kuldeep Kaur points to the significant loss of revenue when the sport came to a standstill. With the funding cycles from stakeholders ending before the Tokyo Olympics, there was “only short-term clarity” about the Games and ongoing funding.
Kaur was recruited to England Hockey in October 2020 to strengthen its finances, following nine years at the Rugby Football Union where she led financial planning, strategy and partnering teams.
She spearheaded a major cost control exercise as revenues dropped £3 million on the previous year. “We were leaning on [£200,000] reserves but there was also a massive reduction in the cost base – lots of things were paused, such as discretionary spend and recruitment,” she said.
With sponsors looking to have their rights delivered, all options were explored – from an extension of assets to moving them forward.
Kaur helped implement a new philosophy of finance and strategy; she talks about analysing the “granular detail on numbers”, reviewing and tightening contracts, “all the way to understanding transactions and purchase orders”.
“It’s everybody’s job to know the numbers to understand how an organisation is performing”, she said. Medium and long-range goals were considered internally and with stakeholders when COVID disrupted growth strategies.
Kaur is seeing an uptick in revenues and predicts England Hockey will break even for 2022. “There’s still a hangover [from COVID]. We are not out of the water yet. We are still on our journey to tighten finance and cost controls.”
Kuldeep Kaur will be one of the speakers on the ‘How Sport Survived Lockdown’ panel session at AccountingWEB Live. She will be joined by Alan Bradshaw, the finance director at Sussex Cricket, and Tom Bonser, the finance director at Wasps. They will be providing the inside story on how finance kept sport afloat. Register now to get your FREE ticket to attend AccountingWEB Live Expo on 1-2 December.
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Mark Bisson is a sports business reporter and editor with over 20 years experience. He currently writes about Premier League and Championship clubs for football finance website, Off The Pitch.
An Olympic correspondent for more than 13 years, he has written for many UK and international sports business publications.
Mark is a former...