WHAT A marvellous tale the rise of Luton Town is. Whether you have affection for the club or not, to climb from non-league football into the Premier League in around 14 years is a considerable achievement and the sort of romantic yarn the game had almost forgotten how to create.
This is a club with one of the lowest wage bills in the Championship, with a sub-10,000 average gate, and a modest revenue generating platform that earned £ 17.7 million in 2022. Line that all up against Manchester United, Manchester City and the other big fish and Luton Town are definitely being cast in the role of David against a whole room full of Goliaths.
Luton were last in the top flight in 1992, the summer that saw the birth of the Premier. They had enjoyed a prolonged period in the first tier, developed a lot of players that went on to enjoy very fruitful careers and even won a trophy in 1988, beating Arsenal 3-2 in the Football League Cup final. When they drifted down the leagues and, after a harsh points deduction, into non-league football, it looked as though Luton would never see the bright lights again.
Kenilworth Road, their home ground, has long been on the threatened species list and the club has been trying for decades to move to a new stadium. At present, their capacity is restrictive for revenue growth and although the atmosphere is first class, the ground is something of a much-loved throwback. A new stadium, Power Court, is currently on the agenda, a 23,000 arena close to Luton railway station that should be completed by 2026 regardless of the status of the club.
The real bonus of Premier football will be, inevitably, the extraordinary broadcasting money. Over three years, this could run to more than £ 170 million, but even failure is well rewarded in the elite division. Luton’s £ 17.7 million of earnings in 2022 could easily exceed £ 120 million in 2023-24. A good benchmark is Brentford, whose revenues rose from £ 15 million in 2020-21 to £ 141 million in their first Premier campaign.
Naturally, wage bills will increase but they are unlikely to account for 101% of income as they did in 2021-22 (2020-21 was even higher, 111%). Commercial income will surely increase, too, but without a price hike, matchday income cannot rise too much with the current structure of Kenilworth Road. Football Finance expert Kieran Maguire calculated that one season of Premier football will be the equivalent of 17 seasons of income combined, that’s how lucrative promotion can be.
If Luton can stay in the Premier for a few years, the financial benefits have the potential to place the club on a stronger financial footing. But there’s the rub, for staying there is as hard as getting there in the first place. However, the recent trend is not for instant ejection after one year. In 2022-23, for example, none of the teams promoted in 2022 went down, but this has happened only twice in the past decade. In 2021-22, Norwich and Watford, who had been promoted in 2021, both suffered relegation. Overall, 13 of the last 30 promoted teams have lasted one season.
Luton have shown, however, that they are well managed, pragmatic and realistic about their aspirations. They are only too aware their collapse was attributable to being poorly run in the past. In today’s football, small clubs – and Luton are just that – have to adopt smarter strategies to survive and this includes player trading, community interaction and youth development. Luton’s players trading profits in 2021 and 2022 were £ 1.1 million and £ 2.2 million respectively, so there is a very obvious upside in this revenue stream.
Nothing drives loyalty and passion like existential threats and Luton’s demise certainly generated a lot of affection for the club. Hence, the play-off victory at Wembley was greeted with waves of emotion for the Hatters. Their return to the top of the English game could have a good moral-boosting effect on a town that has had some hard times. Luton’s industrial decline has been compared to that suffered by some northern towns even though it is in close proximity to London and a short drive from affluent places in Hertfordshire.
With over a quarter of a million people and a growing airport, hosting a Premier League club should not be too much of a problem. Nevertheless, Luton Town have punched above their weight to get this far, but in recent times, clubs like Burnley and have demonstrated there is a place for small-to-medium sized football clubs. It may be a struggle when they kick-off later this year, but Luton Town and their fans, will, undoubtedly, enjoy being back among the crème de la crème of English football once more.