THESE ARE good times for Wolves, arguably the best they’ve seen at Molineux for almost half a century. True, their recent resurgence has not yet been gilded with a trophy, but this season they have moved to within striking distance of a top four Champions League place and they are taking the UEFA Europa League very seriously.
In an era where finance is linked to on-pitch success more than ever before, Wolves, on first glance, appear to be moving in the right direction on both counts. Only Manchester United made a bigger profit among the Premier League clubs who have reported for 2018-19, but the club’s figures reveal a big dependence on owner input.
Wolves have not been masters of organic growth, they have merely moved into the bracket of clubs that have strong and differentiating financial backing. The fact is, a club cannot easily grow substantially without a benefactor or owner that’s prepared to pour a lot of cash into their investment.
That’s the current football paradigm, whether you like it or not, and Wolves alignment with the elite confirms this band is expanding beyond half a dozen clubs. The richer Premier clubs become on the back of TV money, the more wealthy business people will be attracted to those still awaiting the billionaire’s call.
Those that remember Wolves as a top half club with players like Derek Dougan and John Richards will welcome their return to prominence. The Midlands needs consistently successful clubs to lift the region out of mediocrity and it has been too long since trips to Birmingham, Nottingham, Derby and Wolverhampton were daunting experiences.
Wolves, more than most, have experienced the ups and downs of football life, but the days when the old gold shirts were playing in the fourth level of English football (two seasons in 1986 to 1988) now seem a long time ago. Of course, they had the Sir Jack Hayward era which brought the club back to life after it stared into the abyss.
The club’s current owners, Chinese conglomerate Fosun International, paid just £ 45 million for Wolves in 2016. Fosun’s interests are very diverse, including a stake in the company that owns GestiFute, Jorge Mendes’ player agency.
Fosun was founded by Guo Guangchang, the 50th richest person in China with a net worth of US$ 6.5 billion. Some business experts have interpreted the interest in the West Midlands as opportunism on the part of Fosun in relation to the UK’s HS2 railway link. Fosun’s portfolio of businesses includes railway engineering.
Fosun’s involvement has transformed Wolves. Last season, they finished seventh in the Premier League and qualified for Europe. Importantly, they also attracted their best home attendances for 49 years – 31,030.
Promotion from the Championship has had a dramatic impact on the financial profile of the club. In 2017-18, Wolves’ revenues totalled £ 26.4 million, but in 2018-19, this grew by 653% to £ 172.5 million.
The jump in revenues, driven primarily by lucrative broadcasting and higher commercial income, turned Wolves’ £ 55 million loss into a pre-tax profit of £ 22 million.
On the other hand, the rise to Premier League status has been costly. Wolves’ wage bill was £ 92 million in 2018-19, 81% higher than 2017-18 and, over the past five years, a growth rate of 650%. The wage to income ratio has come down dramatically and is now 53% (2018: 192%).
Wolves have spent heavily in the past two seasons, paying out more than £ 100 million and recouping around £ 20 million in each campaign. The club has a substantial Portuguese presence and actually has more players from Portugal than Sporting Lisbon in their first team squad, mainly due to the involvement of Mendes. Highly-rated and much-coveted Coach Nuno Espirito Santo is also a Mendes client and, needless to say, Portuguese, born in the São Tomé and Principe Islands.
The excessive spending has resulted in the club’s net debts growing to £ 103 million but cash due to creditors amounts to £ 210 million of which £ 131 million is owed to Fosun. The club’s accounts suggest that Fosun is not about to ask for their debt to be repaid, although they add there can be no certainty that this level of support will continue.
Wolves secured additional financing in 2018-19 totalling £ 50 million, including a £ 25 million loan from Australian bank Macquarie. The new financing has a caveat that will call for the cash to be repaid on demand if Wolves should drop back to the Championship.
But the mood is definitely upbeat at Molineux at the moment. The club has its eyes on the UEFA Europa League – they have played 13 games already in the competition and after an impressive 4-0 win against Espanyol in the last 32 first leg, they are poised to reach the last 16. Wolves have an exciting front line and the partnership between Raúl Jiménez and Diogo Jota is getting stronger by the game. Jota has scored hat-tricks in the last two European ties, against Besiktas and Espanyol. Wolves league form has included the “double” over Manchester City and draws at both Arsenal and Manchester United. They’ve also run Liverpool close in both league meetings.
Although purists will look upon the modern Wolves as another club on steroids, admittedly less powerful than those being injected into clubs like Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City, it is good to see a new name among the upper echelon. Wolves are not yet a household global name, despite their Chinese ownership. Continual involvement in European competition will help change that, but the club also aims to broaden its appeal in China as evidenced by its recent foray into eSports in that market.
In the recent Mailman Red Card report, Wolves were the 18th most popular football club online in China. Wolves are still a long way from the leading social media clubs and has around 600,000 followers on twitter and 1.4 million on Facebook. Given that Aston Villa and Leicester City have three million and 6.7 million Facebook followers respectively, Wolves have plenty of upside on social media channels.
Meanwhile on the pitch, Wolves will undoubtedly chase a Champions League place this season, but if their Europa League form continues, they might just find that winning the trophy will provide another route into the most lucrative competition in world football. The finances for 2020-21 would look very different if they succeed and Wolves would move up another rung or two in the ladder.