Chelsea seek way to earn big bucks

Abramovich's bottomless pocket will not satisfy demands of Financial Fair Play ruling
  • @stevetongue

So how do a football club who declared a loss of £70 million this year, then spent a matching sum on new players the very next day, reduce the total to the small single figure allowed when Uefa's Financial Fair Play scheme finally bites over the next few seasons? The answer, said quickly, is obvious: increase income, decrease costs.

Chelsea's chairman Bruce Buck, a quietly spoken American lawyer, does not say many things quickly, preferring to choose his words carefully, often pausing for some time before formulating them lest they be misinterpreted. His considered verdict therefore comes slowly: "We have to up our sponsorship income, there's no doubt about it, and up our match-day revenues, reduce our transfer fees a bit, reduce our payroll a bit. I'm not saying the job we face is easy, it's difficult, but we have to do it." Renaming the stadium, rather than relocating it, is currently among the favoured options.

It could be argued that with the sixth-highest income in world football, Chelsea are a financial powerhouse; only Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Manchester United and Arsenal (in that order) bring in more money. Yet that statistic makes their losses all themore staggering.

In the first year after Roman Abramovich was entranced watching United play Madrid and decided to buy a club, Chelsea lost £87.8m; the following year's figure was an eye-watering £140m. While the losses have not since touched such heights, the average over the seven years is £79.7m. For a while this hardly mattered; the current court case in which he is being sued by his fellow oligarch Boris Berezovsky suggests Abramovich is unlikely to be seen selling The Big Issue at Fulham Broadway Tube station. The only concern during the first couple of years was what would happen if he grew bored and wanted his loans back, which was alleviated by Jose Mourinho winning the club's first League championship in 50 years.

Having initially declared that they intended to break even by the end of the decade, Chelsea were able to relax a little and postpone such a wildly optimistic notion. Then Uefa's Michel Platini decided that allowing owners to pour in vast sums of money was distorting European football and so FFP was introduced. The issue of Abramovich's loans was resolved to an extent by converting them into equity, and when losses for the financial year 2008-09 were down to a mere £44.4m, the club had seemed to be moving in the right direction.

Yet the following year's figure shot up to £70m, and since then there has been a huge outlay on transfers – a net amount of £112.5m in 2011 as Fernando Torres and David Luiz were brought in last January and the likes of Juan Mata, Raul Meireles and Romelu Lukaku signed to support the new manager, Andre Villas-Boas, this summer.

Wages have increased every year and account for an unhealthy 82 per cent of turnover, compared with United's 46 per cent and Arsenal's 50 per cent. Then there is the issue of Stamford Bridge, suddenly in the spotlight last week when Chelsea Pitch Owners revealed the club want to buy their shares in the stadium in order to have the option of moving to a larger one.

Buck's intention of reducing fees and wages "a bit" would appear to be a rare example of American understatement. One way he hopes to do so is by producing more players like Josh McEachran through the academy. The second part of the equation, increasing income, is more important. Buck was speaking at the Leaders in Football conference at Stamford Bridge, one of the extra-mural activities providing a useful addition to turnover. Yet the ground cannot be expanded any further and match-day revenue is strictly limitedthere, with supporters already so upset by high ticket prices that they are proposing a boycott of the next Champions' League game, at home to Genk on Wednesday week.

Arsenal, by moving to the Emirates, with a 60,000 capacity, take almost £30m more than Chelsea on match days over the course of a season. Buck says of the ticket issue: "We're always looking at ticket prices and it's a balance between what the fans would like, which is basically free seats, and the realism of running a business that is trying to break even. We're comfortable that [the stadium for the game against] Genk is going to be full."

A new stadium is a huge long-term commitment and Buck openly admits he is not sure Chelsea would fill one. "Maybe with digital media and whatever, match-day crowds will stay flat or, who knows, even go down. In that sense maybe our stadium is the right size already and 75,000 in Manchester may be too much. We really don't know what the right-size stadium is for 10 or 20 years from now, just like Mr [Ken] Bates didn't know 15 years ago what the right size was for today."

What is left to improve? Commercial revenue and sponsorship, most promisingly by selling naming rights to the stadium. The club have made good strides in promoting their "brand" abroad, as was evident from the summer tour in Malaysia and Thailand, and they have just established an officein Singapore to chase sponsors.

The Samsung Bridge, or something like it? "Naming rights could be an important component," Buck admits. "We always were of the view that we couldn't rely on Mr Abramovich forever, it just wasn't appropriate. We had to figure out a way over the medium term to stand on our own two feet and maybe Financial Fair Play is making us do that a little bit quicker than we might have done otherwise."