The Fans Forum newly instituted by the club has already proven its worth, contrary to the expectations of myself and many others. In the minutes of the latest meeting released on Wednesday, points were raised and answers given which have caused a lot of discussion. The club see maintaining their Premier League status as all-important, necessarily overriding interest in cups. Mike Ashley has no intention to sell the club and wants it to stand on its own two feet, to progress within its means. Sports Direct don’t pay for advertising within the stadium, but only take up unused advertising space as a showcase to possible advertisers. The space used by Sports Direct would be sold to other advertisers if any became interested.
While galling for fans, the concentration on staying in the Premier League and the discarding of any aim to win a cup competition to ensure this should come as no surprise. This is an owner and regime who are completely focused on finance and the bottom line. He’s not interested in trophies or history books. He’s paid as much into the club as he’s going to if he’s got anything to do with it and nothing will be allowed to jeopardise the club’s ability to keep raking in the TV money. In his eyes there is no room for the sentiment of chasing glory with the possible increase in injuries that would entail, and the risk of the team being unable to avoid the drop because of it. That tells us, if we didn’t know already, that the plan in its most basic form is to pay for survival. Nothing more and nothing less. No players on the books who are unnecessary to achieve that, so that small numbers of injuries above the norm could tip the balance against the club.
The flat admission of Sports Direct’s free advertising by the club is shocking, and the idea that there isn’t a single company out there prepared to pay more than the zero currently raked in from Ashley’s other business for advertising in and around the ground is frankly laughable. Here is where the forum has already been a success. Just by getting club representatives to sit down at a table and answer questions we’ve received more information than I ever thought possible. It doesn’t make Mike Ashley look great but at least we know.
There’s a question about the pathetic levels of commercial income, down to £13m per year in June 2012. I’d hoped this was a crafty plan aimed at circumventing some of the restrictions imposed by the Premier League’s Financial Fair Play plan. The rules state that clubs – like Newcastle- whose wage bill is over £52m per season can increase that by only £4m per year for the next 3 seasons. There’s a big caveat to that however. Clubs can increase wages above the restrictions if there is increased revenue from tickets and commercial income. We are told tickets make up an ever-decreasing proportion of the monies going into the club, so expecting that to fund player expansion is unreasonable. In a world where Manchester United make £150m per year from commercial income there is massive scope for Newcastle to increase their own revenue from this source. If Newcastle increased their commercial income by £30m they would still be a long way off the pace but the increase would be sufficient to allow them carte blanche in terms of player wage increases. I say I’d hoped this was all part of a crafty plan, now I don’t. I believe our poor commercial income is attributable to incompetence and an unwillingness to fund the staff needed to bring this kind of money in. When the club appear happy not to sell advertising hoardings to enable the owner to slap the logos of his other companies on them, there isn’t a plan to improve from a low baseline but a plan to restrict it right now and in the future, and that is ongoing.
Mike Ashley’s insistence that he has no plans to sell I’m sure is true. Should someone appear to offer him enough money that would change but swapping one owner for another would be change in name only. His representatives point out his aim for the club to be self-sufficient, to be run purely from its own income. We should note that is already happening. Mike Ashley isn’t providing money to keep the club afloat week by week. He was forced into doing that years ago as a result of his own mistakes. Now the club funds itself. For those looking towards the seemingly impossible goal of fan ownership, it is inescapable that a fan-owned regime could let the club fund itself day-to-day just as well as Ashley does. The only thing standing between the club and fan ownership right now is the purchase price. That may change if the favourable noises about introducing legislation on fan ownership of football clubs made recently at the Labour Party conference and at others in the past ever firms up into laws passed through Parliament. Pressure has been building on politicians on this subject for a number of years. When a critical mass is achieved the time of this idea will have come, and fans will for the first time have a genuine say in the outlook and aspirations of their club. There’s no reason they’d do it any worse than whichever random rich boy has possessed the shares over the last 100 years and more. If we were in charge, do you think we’d release the funds to provide a squad capable of challenging for cups while also being able to remain in the top division with comfort?