April 22, 2024

Why does the cost of success in the lower leagues of English football continue to rise?

Jeff Thompson knows that there are a lot of people who want to buy what he has to sell. Phone calls and emails over the past few weeks have left no room for doubt. This isn't really surprising. There are few industries with the appeal or prestige of English football, and Mr Thompson has a part of it.

Admittedly, it's a relatively small piece: South Shields Club, a team he has owned for nearly a decade, operates in the sixth tier of English football, several levels below, and a number of worlds away, from the dazzling light and international allure of the Premier League. But although his team may be small, Thompson believes it is, at least, as ideally placed to achieve as profitable a minor-league English football club as it could possibly hope for.

South Shields gained four promotions to higher leagues during his nine years as chairman. The team owns its stadium. Mr. Thompson spent large sums of money updating the bathrooms, club store and private boxes. There is a thriving youth academy and an active charity. “We did most of the heavy lifting,” Mr. Thompson said.

After a cancer scare last year prompted him to reevaluate his priorities, Mr Thompson reluctantly decided he had to “hand the baton” to someone else.

This is where things get complicated. There are plenty of wealthy people who would like to buy their way into English football. It is, as Mr. Thompson said, “fun.” Having a team gives you the opportunity to “be a champion” somewhere. It's a compelling enough idea that within weeks, at least four suitors – two British and two Americans – inquired about how to take South Shields off his hands.

This is an upside. The downside is that – as the Premier League becomes a playground for private equity firms and sovereign wealth funds, and as the success of Welcome to Wrexham shines a Hollywood spotlight on the romanticism of the game's hinterlands – England's minor leagues have become a place where even the rich can… To feel poor.

The league to which South Shields has been promoted, the National League North, is largely filled with part-time teams and semi-professional players, but the team's wage bill is still around $1.2 million a year. (And even this is not the highest in the department). Mr. Thompson estimates he has invested about $10 million of his own money in the club. He knows he won't make up for most of it.

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He says this is good. He is happy to have created something to cherish in South Shields, his humble hometown, a place that, he said, is “always in the wrong quadrant for obesity, poverty and unemployment”.

“I feel fine about it,” he said. “Even if it is like the words of a madman.”

The challenge is to find someone to succeed him who feels the same way. The South Shields team he built boasts a healthy following, no debt and low risk. He doesn't want all his work to disappear when his successor realizes the money won't be as great as one might hope. “I don’t want it to wither on the vine,” he said.

Simon Leslie doesn't know how or when his ambition of owning a football team will come true. It was just something he knew, and had known, for some time. “I always wanted to own a club,” he said. “I thought it sounded like the most wonderful, attractive job in the world.”

Before the Premier League came into being three decades ago, Mr Leslie's background – he founded Ink, a company that produces a range of on-board magazines, and sold his stake in 2022 – made him a likely candidate to own a team. In the upper reaches of English football.

But now, the cost of entry into the top flight is out of reach only for the wealthy: Jim Ratcliffe, one of the world's richest men, has spent more than $1 billion to buy just a 25% stake in Manchester United. Rising prices have pushed inflation to lower levels, meaning that even buying into the second division, known as the Championship, is expensive.

“You need nation-state money to buy a Premier League team,” Mr Thompson said. “The team in the championship needs hundreds of millions.”

Last year, Mr Leslie fulfilled his dream in the sixth tier instead, taking a majority stake in Eastbourne Borough, the mainstay of the National League South, the geographical counterweight to the division that South Shields calls home. In the quiet, coastal and artsy town of Eastbourne, Mr Leslie saw an opportunity.

He had a bold vision for what his football team could become: a haven for players released from elite academies, supported by a cutting-edge rehabilitation center – “cryotherapy, cold plasma, everything,” he said – sandwiched between the sea and the rolling hills of the South Downs. .

It would be wrong to say that money is no object, but Mr. Leslie was prepared to invest. He spent about $600,000 in his first season, hiring not only players but also sports scientists, talent spotters and chefs. He expects to invest the same amount in his second year. The aim is to break even by 2026, with Mr Leslie saying there is “a limit to how much I am willing to lose”.

But the inflationary effect that has excluded even the wealthy from top-tier football is now being felt across the strata of English football: across the country, dozens of investors are pumping huge sums into teams in the three divisions of the semi-professional National League. league and even at the sprawling amateur and local levels below that.

“It's not just teams from the above divisions coming in to sign our players,” Mr Leslie said. “We had clubs from the Isthmian League, at the lower level, offering players more money than we were paying them.”

They can do this because – unlike the Premier League or the three professional tiers of the Football League immediately below it – the minor leagues in England have no cost controls. Owners can donate whatever they like, and are incentivized to do so because of the potential reward: promotion to Major League Soccer could mean about $1.2 million a year in broadcast revenue alone.

“People think they can make money in the National League,” Mr. Leslie said.

Over the course of his first few months at Eastbourne, he realized that was much easier said than done.

English football has an unfortunate habit of only looking at its beloved pyramid from the top down. As it descends from the money-laden Premier League via the ambitious Championship to dozens of semi-professional and amateur leagues below, the depth and breadth of the league system seems to demonstrate not only the sport's popularity but also its validity.

However, observe the pyramid from bottom to top, and the impression will be different. It is steep, arduous, and narrows quickly.

Only two clubs can be promoted from the National League each season to the Football League, unlocking its coveted television income.

Christina Filippo, a lecturer in sports finance at the University of Portsmouth, said: “Clubs are spending a lot of money to get out” of the lower leagues. “This means that if others want to compete, they have to spend similarly.” That “creates a spiral,” she said.

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It's radical enough that it will surprise even those who might be accustomed to it. “I see some teams spending money, and I'm amazed,” said Gary Douglas, chairman of Guiseley, a National League North team in suburban Leeds. “There are bands with fairly small audiences that suddenly have these huge budgets.”

He added that the change occurred gradually. He first invested in football in 2006, joining with two friends to control Guiseley. Their combined wealth made the club “the richest in non-league”, said Steve Parkin, one of Mr Douglas's triumvirate. He said at the time From purchase.

This is certainly not the case anymore. Money has flowed into the minor leagues in recent years, even before Wrexham – the team and Documentary – Bringing an unexpected appeal to the lower reaches of English football. Now there are dozens of wealthy owners willing to gamble that they will be the ones to succeed.

“The National League is the golden goose,” Mr. Douglas said.

However, it can be seen how risky the investment is in the clubs' finances. In 2022, the last year for which a full set of figures are available, clubs in the three National League divisions reported a combined loss of 25 million dollars. Two-thirds of the league's teams were effectively insolvent, dwarfing their assets. This pattern is likely to be repeated at the bottom of the pyramid where revenues are smaller.

“It has disaster written all over it,” Dr. Filippo said.

For some, delivery will come with escape and promotion. But more teams — and their owners — are destined to be disappointed. Like Mr. Douglas, Giselli's chairman, they may find themselves financially and emotionally bound, unable to leave.

“Once you're in, you're in,” he said.

Or perhaps they should, like Mr Thompson, the South Shields boss, begin the long and careful search for a suitable replacement: someone who will build on their work, rather than dismantle it. This, after all, is kind of how the system works.

“The pattern is that, for reasons of ego or emotion, there are always new people waiting when a particular individual's club journey comes to an end.” Filippo said.

She added that this only works because of the belief that “there will always be someone else coming along.”