The recent fall from grace for Sunderland and their fans has been broadcast around the world thanks to the hit Netflix series Sunderland ‘til I die. With both seasons featuring relegations, managerial sackings and boardroom unrest, producers couldn’t have asked for a better story (though Tottenham’s upcoming Amazon series All or Nothing could well give it a run for its money).

Sunderland’s traumatic recent history though has featured a series of financial mismanagement and utter chaos on and off the pitch. Here, Chris Winn, programme leader for MSc Football Business at GIS, has taken a look at the numbers behind the club’s recent troubles…

“The success of our team leads to the success and prosperity of our city.”

For both Sunderland fans as well as those who have witnessed the recent fortunes of the club via the popular Netflix documentary, the opening line of series one very much summarises the depth of feeling, support, elation and despair the Sunderland fans’ community have both embraced and endured since their relegation from the Premier League at the end of the 2016/17 season.

From David Moyes to Simon Grayson, from Chris Coleman to Jack Ross and finally Phil Parkinson, the last few seasons have featured changes of management both on and off the pitch, the arrival (and subsequent efforts to leave) of Stewart Donald as owner following the withdrawal of support from Ellis Short, waiver of all club debt, an array of player departures and arrivals, relegation to the third tier for only the second time in the club’s history, club restructuring, a record attendance for a League One home game, two ultimately heart breaking trips to Wembley, a reported US company loan, a worldwide pandemic, and now the imposition of a salary cap in the third tier for 2020/21.

As far as stories go, it’s safe to say you couldn’t write it. And with the release of Sunderland’s financial statements for the 2018/19 season at the end of July 2020, that being the reporting period for their first year in League One, a unique opportunity is provided to analyse the finances of successive relegations from the lucrative Premier League, as well as the effects of any restructuring Donald and his team promised to restore sustainability to a traditionally loss-making business.

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The financial consequences of relegation from the Premier League are again evident in Sunderland’s case, with the club recording a 48% drop in revenue in their 2017/18 Championship campaign, but still recording the second highest revenue in the league that year, with only Aston Villa generating more. Indeed, Sunderland’s revenue of c.£59m in 2018/19 was over seven times the average League One club revenue of £8m (Source: Deloitte).

As can be seen, Sunderland have relied heavily on broadcast revenue over the period, providing much of the aforementioned revenue advantage over teams in the second and third tiers. Premier League broadcast distributions alone contributed 76% (c.£93m) of Sunderland’s revenue as a Premier League team, with parachute payments continuing to support the club in the years following relegation (65% and 59% of their Championship and League One revenues respectively).

Understandably, relegation to the Championship impacted average league attendance, with stadium utilisation falling from 85% to just 57%, and this was reflected in the marked drop in matchday revenue that season. However, notably, the efforts reported in the documentary by ownership to revitalise the matchday experience, combined with the run to the EFL Trophy final, resulted in a level of matchday revenue as a League One team almost on par with the 2016/17 Premier League campaign.

And following a similar pattern, whilst loss of Premier League status and the associated commercial attraction more than halved commercial revenues as a Championship team, the ownership’s commitment to self-sustainability is again backed up by a c.£2m rise in commercial revenues in 2018/19, despite third-tier football being in play.

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As a Premier League team, Sunderland’s overall finish of 20th betrayed their levels of wage expenditure in a league where wage spend and performance traditionally go hand in hand. Spending the thirteenth highest amount on wages that season, their wage/revenue ratio of 67% came in under the 70% threshold commonly associated with over-expenditure.

However, as highlighted in the documentary, with some out-of-favour players such as Jack Rodwell lacking relegation clauses in their Premier League contracts, the rate of wage cost savings could not match the fall in revenue, pushing the ratio up to 74% in the Championship – albeit this still being well under the Championship average that season of 100%. Despite a much lower correlation between wage spend and performance in the Championship, having the eighth highest wage bill in the league that season could not save the club from further relegation.

At the beginning of series two of Sunderland ‘til I die, marking the start of the League One campaign, Donald set out a restructuring plan. This is evident in the wage expenditure figure in 2018/19, where a further £20m was trimmed from the Championship figure, a fall of 43% in absolute terms, and equating to a wage/revenue ratio of just 45% for the season. However, the club’s expenditure of c.£27m was more than three times the league average of £8m that season (Source: Deloitte), again demonstrating that pounds don’t always win prizes in the lower tiers.

And of course such cuts don’t come without job losses, with a reduction of 110 (35%) permanent staff numbers across admin and football between the 2017/18 and 2018/19 seasons, and a further 65 matchday staff also being deemed surplus to requirements in a League One environment.

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Alongside the aforementioned wage cuts via a reduction in the workforce, the above table demonstrates the lengths gone to by ownership to reduce other operating costs, with a further c.£5m saved in League One – a greater reduction in both absolute and relative terms than that achieved following relegation from the Premier League. As a result, the weekly cash based operational expenses of the club fell well below the £1m per week mark in 2018/19 as a League One team to c.£835k, a total saving of just under £500k per week compared to Championship levels of expenditure.

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All of this adds up to a clear swing in operating profitability (pre player trading, interest and exceptionals), with the club marginally exceeding the levels of operating profit reached as a Premier League team in their 2018/19 League One season.

At a pre-tax profit level, a quick glance at the financials would likely cast a shadow on such cost savings, with combined losses in excess of £40m over the three-year period. However, stripping out several exceptional items paints a different picture, as shown. In 2016/17 the club incurred an exceptional cost of £9.7m in relation to a ruling by CAS; 2017/18 recognised an £8.2m profit on disposal of the Charlie Hurley Centre, and in 2018/19 wrote off a £20.5m debt due from the parent company Madrox Partners.

As a result, were it not for the debt write-off in 2018/19, the club would have generated a pre-tax profit of almost £10m as a League One club, following an alarming pre-tax loss of £28m as a Championship club pre-exceptionals. The 2018/19 result is further aided by the removal of almost all interest charges following the departure of Ellis Short (in excess of £6m charge in 2017/18), as well as a significant 80% fall in player amortisation/impairment charges to just £4m following the changes to the squad over the year.

However as often comes with lower league football, the ability to sell players for significant profits has fallen away, with a Jordan Pickford inspired £33m profit on player disposal in the last Premier League reporting period contrasting heavily with just £100k player profit in 2018/19.

Since series two of Sunderland ‘til I die, the world has changed in many ways.

Stewart Donald remains the majority owner but is actively looking to sell up having reportedly placed an asking price of £37.6m on the club in July 2020. His right-hand man, Charlie Methven, equally well known throughout series two of the documentary, stepped down as a director in December 2019 citing work and family commitments. And Donald himself stepped down as Chairman in July 2020 after Sunderland failed to make the play-offs, following the pandemic-led termination of the season on a points-per-game basis.

Beyond the boardroom, the club’s parent company Madrox Partners borrowed £9m from FPP, a US based company, in October 2019, to provide additional funds to the club. Whilst the details of the loan are not publically available, it is well reported that the loan is secured against the assets of the club, namely the stadium and training ground, meaning should Madrox default on repayment terms, the Americans would gain control of the club. However, in reality, it is not uncommon for debt providers to request collateral when providing loans, with the owners providing reassurances in the media that the repayment terms will be honoured.

A certainty of the 2019/20 financial picture will be a further drop in parachute payments. As a year three recipient, Sunderland will be entitled to just 20% of the equal share components of Premier League broadcast distributions, amounting to c.£15m (assuming any rebates are deferred), that being a £20m drop on their 45% entitlement in 2018/19. Parachute entitlement will then cease in its entirety as the club embarks on the 2020/21 season in League One, their fourth season outside the Premier League.

The coronavirus pandemic that has deprived clubs of their fans for so long now will also take its toll on the 2019/20 financial picture. However, only three of the eight league fixtures foregone would have been played at the Stadium of Light, limiting the matchday exposure to c.£750k based on matchday revenues reported in 2018/19 and a slight fall in average attendance. This level of lost revenue may rise further should key commercial partners have withheld payments or requested rebates given the lost commercial exposure in those final eight league games, making a return to normality all the more important in 2020/21 as soon as it is safe to do so.

Finally, the imposition of a salary cap on League One clubs from 2020/21 will provide its own set of challenges. The cap has been set at £2.5m for League One clubs, with transition arrangements having been incorporated in respect of clubs’ calculations to address both committed contracts and relegated clubs. Any contract entered into on or prior to the date of the vote to introduce the regulations will be capped at an agreed divisional average until that contract expires. With the PFA claiming such rules are ‘unlawful and unenforceable’, the practicalities of these new set of regulations remain to be seen.

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Barring the somewhat controversial write off of amounts due from the parent company in 2018/19, the latest financials show that Donald and his team achieved their off-pitch ambition of establishing the club on a more self-sustainable basis. This included somewhat impressive growth in matchday and commercial revenue, coupled with targeted cost cutting measures delivering levels of operating profit akin to those achieved in their last Premier League season.

But with uncertainty again shrouding the club in terms of future ownership, and a third successive season beckoning in a pandemic stricken League One, the one thing Sunderland can count on is their fans’ unwavering support, as shown by an average league attendance in excess of 30,000 prior to the season being curtailed.

As they say, ‘Sunderland ‘til I die’.