Sunderland hanker for a play-off place – and the treasures of the Premier

THE Championship play-off race reaches a climax on May 8, with several clubs trying to grab the one place that is yet to be decided. Sunderland, currently in seventh place, are among the hopefuls, just a year after they won promotion via the play-offs from League One. They travel to Preston North End while West Bromwich Albion go to Swansea, Coventry visit Middlesbrough and Millwall host Blackburn. It is going to be a tense day.

Sunderland believe, with some justification, they are a Premier League club in all but name and if they manage to go up, it will add credibility to their attempt to turn the club around. They know what it means to be in the Premier, both on and off the pitch. If they needed reminding, their latest financials provide a very visible reminder of the vast difference between the top division and the rest of the EFL. For decades, Sunderland have been labaelled an under-achieving sleeping giant, but you have to go back to 1936 for their last league title and that 1973 FA Cup triumph has now reached its 50th anniversary.

Sunderland’s turnover in 2021-22 doubled on 2020-21, but at £ 26.1 million, it’s small beer compared to the Premier. They were last in the top flight in 2017, when their total revenues were £ 123 million. Sunderland have strong support – their average gate in 2021-22 was 30,000 in League One and this season it is almost 39,000. They sold an astonishing 32,000 season tickets for 2022-23. Bearing this in mind, the club could be nudging £ 150 million and beyond in earnings if they get back to the Premier.

Sunderland’s matchday earnings went up from £ 1.2 million to £ 9.5 million as stadiums welcomed back supporters after the pandemic. Broadcasting was down to £ 3.2 million but commercial income in 2021-22 went up to £ 13.4 million. Needless to say, a Premier League campaign will provide further growth for the club’s sponsorship and retail revenue streams.

The club’s ownership – Kyril Louis-Dreyfus took over in February 2021 – is looking to make Sunderland a sustainable business, which is a challenge for most football clubs trying to compete in an unrealistic economic world. However, since Luis-Dreyfus took control, around £ 3 million has been invested in the club’s infrastructure. The club has no external debt and owns all of its assets – a good development. Sunderland posted a pre-tax loss of £ 5.9 million for 2021-22, an improvement on 2020-21’s deficit of £ 9.5 million when revenues totalled £ 10.7 million. 

The total cost of staff for 2021-22 totalled £ 16.3 million, but the club reported that player wages represented 34.6% of income, which equates to £ 9 million. Should Sunderland achieve promotion, this is one area that would increase substantially. 

Sunderland’s ability to generate cash from player trading has plenty of upside. In the past five years, the total profits on the disposal of players was £ 12 million, of which half was made in 2018. They have been out of the Premier League for six years, but player trading will surely feature as a key element of their business model in the future.

Sunderland provide a very worrying example of the financial perils of failure in the modern game. From 2017, when their income totalled £ 123 million, their earnings collapsed to £ 10.7 million by 2021. Two relegations were suffered in that timeframe and the onset of the pandemic made matters worse. In 2018-19, they endured a near 50% decline in revenues, then in 2020, they lost another 50% only to see their turnover fall again by almost two thirds in 2021. They are, at least, fighting back. You can only admire the intense loyalty of their support base.

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