Football Management

Commentary on the management of over 160 English football clubs by Dr John Beech, winner of the FSF Writer of the Year Award 2009/10 Twitter: @JohnBeech Curator of Scoop.it! Football Finance

Archive for the ‘Strategy’ Category

Moving on from ‘SISU OUT’

Posted by John Beech on August 15, 2014

It was a difficult choice of topic after so many months, but Coventry City is probably the obvious choice for me – I live about a mile from the old Highfield Road ground and could hear the roar on matchdays.

By chance, I was turning out last week and came across a copy of the Coventry Observer from 20 December 2007. My reason for keeping it was apparent on page 3 – two stories which began thus:

  • Last minute deal secures football club’s future
    Coventry City were just half an hour away from going into administration when pen was finally put to paper on a long-awaited takeover deal.
    with the clock ticking towards Friday’s 4pm deadline for a deal to be struck, the Sky Blues confirmed shortly before 3.30pm, the takeover by SISU Capital was going ahead – securing the club’s future and banishing the threat of administration…

  • Arena pledges support for club’s future
    Ricoh Arena chiefs have pledged to support SISU Capital’s efforts to return Coventry City to the Premier League…

Clearly much has changed since December 2007. The club had been through a disastrous period in the years immediately before. Debts had been reported as running as high as £38 million; year after year the club made operating losses; and investing in the new £60m stadium had proved a step too far. Indeed, the stadium, the brainchild of the club’s then Chairman, Bryan Robinson, had only become reality by the club passing the stadium project over to Arena Coventry Ltd (ACL), a joint venture company consisting of Coventry City Council (50%) and the Alan Edward Higgs Charity (50%), a trust set up to help deprived children from Coventry.

The then owners of the club – the major shareholders, owning 90%, were Craigavon (City MP Geoffrey Robinson’s family trust, and Sir Derek Higgs, son of Alan Edward Higgs) – announced their intention of placing the club into Administration. Apart from Sisu, the only potential buyer was ‘Greek billionaire businessman Alki David’, who rapidly backed off when he realised the scale of the debts he would inherit.

The club thus stood, to borrow the recent words of David Conn (or a Guardian sub-editor perhaps) on the edge of an abyss.

Coming in then as saviours of a club in distinct danger of liquidation, how then did we reach today’s situation of repeated legal confrontation and the club’s exile?

Sisu were by their own admission new to the football business. They brought in football business experts such as Ray Ranson and Ken Dulieu. Their judgement proved questionable and both departed. As the performance on the pitch deteriorated and the club suffered a further relegation to League 1, the fans became severely disenchanted, a situation compounded by Sisu’s almost non-existent transparency or engagement with the fans.

Opposition to Sisu became public and organised, and we drifted into phases of protest characterised by a series of slogans.

The first of these was the unequivocal SISU OUT. Understandable though this was, in my eyes it always seemed at best only half a strategy – and what next? The further Sisu sank funds into the club, the less likely it was that anyone else would want to buy the club. In the six and a half years of Sisu’s ownership only the brief appearance of Preston Haskell IV presented any viable alternative to Sisu. It became abundantly clear that a presumption of the SISU OUT slogan – that Sisu were willing to sell – was ill-founded, and even wishful-thinking.

The straw that broke the back of many fans was the decision of Sisu, in an attempt to force ACL’s hand in the increasingly bitter disputes over rent and matchday revenues, to take the club into exile at Northampton. We then entered a phase where the slogan of choice was BRING CITY HOME. A perfectly simple proposition on the face of it, but one which begged the intractable questions of how and under what conditions.

The most recent phase has seen protests with banners saying LET DOWN, which begs the question of by whom. Moz Baker of the Sky Blue Trust when interviewed on local television earlier this week cited Sisu and the Football League, and it’s not hard build an argument for either nomination. I would add to this list ACL and its joint owners, Coventry City Council and the Alan Edward Higgs Trust. I would also add to the list the previous owners of the club, for it was they who precipitated the current situation by deciding to move away from the old stadium at Highfield Road, which resulted in the separation of ownership of the club and its stadium.

From a business perspective, it is perfectly understandable and indeed reasonable that the club owners would want the matchday revenues, particularly with the restraints that Financial Fair Play protocols now place on spending . Equally understandable and indeed reasonable is that the owners of the stadium would also want the matchday revenues, particularly as the football stadium is the core of the revenue generating potential of the infrastructure.

So, we are in the situation where the entrenched positions of the two main proponents are understandable and reasonable from their own perspectives. The only way out of the impasse would be compromise by one or both parties. At present we have a war of attrition. There are unsubstantiated rumours that talks are taking place between Sisu and ACL. If true, we can only hope that ‘jaw jaw’ will stop ‘war war’. The present situation with the club in exile is patently bad for the owners of the club, for the owners of the stadium, and, above all, for the fans, and indeed for the Council Tax payers in Coventry (of which I must put my hand up as being one). The only gainers are the lawyers.

A return to the Ricoh is a no brainer. There must surely be some way forward through compromise.

 

[A reminder – this is a personal blog which is moderated.  Abusive comments will not be posted; counter-views are not considered inherently abusive.]

 

Posted in Assets, Cashflow, Debts, Football League, Governance, Insolvency, Ownership, Revenues, Stadium, Strategy | 4 Comments »

So, is it really ‘goodbye Bluebirds, hello Red Dragons’?

Posted by John Beech on June 7, 2012

Like the old joke about anti-social behaviour in a lift, what is happening at Cardiff City is just plain wrong at so many levels.

The root causes of the problem lie in Sam Hammam’s decision to build a new stadium, the resulting deep financial difficulty that Cardiff got themselves into with Langston and the Damoclean debt hanging over the club as a result, and Peter Ridsdale’s decision to involve the club in what was, from the first, described as a ‘strategic marketing alliance’ with Malaysian investors (1).  As he said at the time, “It will be a long-term alliance.  It will include youth development, it will include the opportunity to explore the whole fan base.  It will certainly include sponsorship.  We are already talking to them about shirt sponsorship and stadium naming rights without any definite conclusions at this stage.  We are also talking about their assistance in trying to put this club on the sort of financial footing that we would have liked to dream of when I first arrived at this football club.

Needless to say, there was no public talk of the shirt sponsorship involving what has just been announced.

Indeed, as recently as 10 May Dato Chan Tien Ghee said, in an open letter to fans, wrote:

The new club crest and home colours which were being discussed were intended to demonstrate the symbolic fusion of Welsh and Asian cultures through the use of the colour red and the predominant featuring of a historical Welsh dragon under the Cardiff City FC name. This would have been a springboard for the successful commercialisation and promotion of the club and its brand, driving international revenues and allowing us to fund transfers and success locally, thereby giving the club the best chance of competing at the higher reaches of competition.

This was not meant as a slight in any way shape or form on the club’s traditions or history which we recognise are the lifeblood of any club. It was intended as a positive change to allow us to adapt and embrace the future. Notwithstanding a number of rumours there were no further plans to turn the stadium red or make other radical changes. ” (2)

His use of “were being discussed” and “would have been” must have suggested to many, including myself, that the rebranding of club with a change in shirt colour and change in logo were now a dead duck, a not unreasonable understanding as he continued In the light of the vociferous opposition by a number of the fans to the proposals being considered as expressed directly to our local management and through various media and other outlets, we will not proceed with the proposed change of colour and logo and the team will continue to play in blue at home for the next season with the current badge.

He kept his word for less than a month.

In his open letter he also alluded to the current instability in the club’s business model thus: “It is clear to all concerned that the club simply cannot continue to function and exist in its current state, effectively losing large amounts of money each month, while acquiring more and more debt.”  No one can reasonably disagree with view.

In the debate that has broken out in the last couple of days since the announcement of the decision to do a U-turn (3), or to use the language you might expect from someone engaged in a ‘strategic marketing alliance’ – “Following a comprehensive review of wider supporter feedback via email, letters, media coverage and polls run via the official Supporters Club and Media Wales and as a consequence of the above commitment, Cardiff City Football Club will also reactivate rebranding proposals with a view to exploiting and maximising its brand and commercial revenues in international markets” – attitudes seem to have become polarised into two camps.  On the one hand, what is happening is a Faustian pact which involves selling the soul of the club.  On the other, the club’s survival depends on a business plan that will result in untold wealth pouring in from new fans in the Far East.  As is so often the case, it is difficult to engage in debate regarding the relative merits of these two views because they are based on different meanings of the word ‘club’ (4).  The present attempt at debate assumes that these are two mutually exclusive and opposed views, and that there are no other possibilities, no room for overlap, and no possibility of compromise.  That certainly seems to be the view of the Malaysian investors.  Which raises a number of issues in itself.

It suggests that the future of the club hangs on the fickleness of future supporters in the Far East who a) would support a club in a red shirt but not one in a blue shirt, and that b) providing the club’s shirt is red and has a dragon on it they will support in sufficient numbers to pay off the rest of the ‘Langston debt’, reinvigorate the club’s fortunes (in both senses of the word), and allow the investors to see a return on their investment.  As to a), I think this is simplistic and over-stated.  As to b), I can understand the Malaysian investors looking to the marketing success of Manchester United, but they might better have a word with Balram Chainrai, or those behind the K&K Shonan Management Corporation (5), erstwhile ‘saviours’ of Plymouth Argyle.

What is happening at Cardiff is little short of seeing owners who view a club as a commodity which can have some brand value spray-painted onto it to make it stand out from the rest.  A simple question to Dato Chan Tien Ghee – if the key to your success lies in owning a red club, why didn’t you buy a red one?  If the answer is simply ‘Well, Peter hadn’t got a red one in his briefcase to show us’, God preserve us.

Others have tried this drastic rebranding, with some commercial success.  An obvious example is that of SV Austria Salzburg, which Red Bull bought and rebranded as FC Red Bull Salzburg in 2005, complete with change in club colours and logo.  The new club has enjoyed considerable success since the takeover, but the old club had also, and that is where the comparison begins to break down.  Red Bull bought an already successful club and turned it into an even more successful one.  But in doing so they alienated fans to such an extent they started a new club, which they called SV Austria Salzburg, and which has already climbed, Wimbledon and FC United of Manchester style, from the seventh tier of the Austrian football pyramid to the third tier.

I’ll leave my final thought to the SV Austria Salzburg fans who are reported as having raised this banner in the past few days.

Posted in Cashflow, Debts, Fans, Investors, Marketing, Merchandising, Ownership, Stadium, Strategy | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments »

 
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