England's going football crazy

England's top clubs have never been in better financial shape - but they're still an accountant's nightmare...

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Unless you’re Deloitte, presumably. The Big Four accountancy has just published its latest annual review of these extraordinary ‘businesses’ – and it shows that English football just keeps getting bigger. The Premier League is now the richest, highest-paying, most popular league in the world by some distance.

It’s pretty clear that as a marketing concept, the Premier League has been an extraordinary success story. In the last decade, the combined revenue of England’s biggest clubs has more than trebled, from £464m in 1996/7 to over £1.5bn in 2006/7. Last year’s main revenue driver was match-day sales (tickets, Bovril, replica kits and so on), which were up nearly 20% last year, while commercial activity jumped 15% (sponsorship, corporate deals and the like). Broadcast revenues remained pretty flat, but not for long – the start of the new TV deal will push revenues up towards the £2bn mark in 2007/8. In every category, English football is making far more money than any other league in Europe (the combined total is 65% higher than the second-placed German Bundesliga).

And despite football never being off our screens, it doesn’t seem to be affecting our desire to go and see our overpaid prima donnas in the flesh. Average attendances jumped to 36,100, and although England still lags slightly behind Germany in this category (where many of the stadia were redeveloped before the last World Cup), it probably won’t be for long – most of the top clubs are currently in the process of trying to increase capacity or build new grounds. In fact, as a measure of football’s popularity in this country, the Championship (the second tier) is now the fourth-best attended league in Europe: more people are watching Barnsley and Colchester than AC Milan and Juventus (ok, maybe there’s a bit of artistic licence there, but you get the point).

There is one area where Germany continues to rules the roost, however: profitability. England’s top clubs might be raking in more cash, but they’re spending it faster than they earn it – mostly on buying and paying the world’s top players. The Premier League’s wage bill shot up 13% to a total of €1.4bn – again, nearly twice as high as any other league in Europe (though most of it probably went to Chelsea’s hapless Andriy Shevchenko). On average, English clubs are spending two-thirds of their turnover on wages, compared to just 45% in Germany – the main reason why German clubs are making an operating margin of 18%, compared to 6% in England (and possibly, why German clubs are no good in Europe any more).

In fact, much to Deloitte’s disapproval, English clubs seem to care very little about acting like proper businesses. None of them appear to have any interest in reducing costs or maximising profits, despite the influx of all these foreign owners – in fact, says Deloitte, ‘most clubs could be considered effectively ‘not for profit’ businesses', with the owners only likely to make money in the event of a sale.

Still – as long as English clubs continue to rule the roost in Europe, will any non-accountants really care?

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