Sale and leaseback is the latest buzz phrase in the world of football finance, as Derby County, Aston Villa and Sheffield Wednesday have used this mechanism to avoid points deductions in the EFL Championship.
How does it work, is it legitimate and what the benefits to the clubs involved (and their owners) in terms of FFP ‘compliance’ will be covered in this article?
What is sale and leaseback?
Accountants have used sale and leaseback for a long time to help companies raise money and it is usually a transaction arranged with a bank or other lender effectively mortgaging an existing property owned by a business.
Under present accounting rules when a company sells a property it can book a profit, calculated as the difference between the sale proceeds and the book (not market) value of the asset.
New owners of the stadium (which in the case of both Derby and Villa (and probably Wednesday too) is a new company set up by club owner) pays an agreed amount for the stadium then agrees a rental agreement with the ‘tenant’ (i.e. the football club).
How the price in relation to the sale of the stadium is agreed has provoked some raised eyebrows from other Championship club chairmen as there is a suspicion this has been inflated to maximise the profit on the disposal.
Applying the rules
As the ultimate ownership of the stadium is unchanged then what is effectively happening is that Mel Morris (in the case of Derby), Wes Eadons and Nassef Sawiris (at Villa) and Dejphon Chansiri (at Wednesday) have simply shifted large amounts of money from one of their bank accounts to another, but their respective clubs have had a FFP boost as a result.
Referring to the Derby accounts for the three years ending 30 June 2018 shows the club had an accumulated loss before tax of £23.7 million, seemingly well within the Profitability and Sustainability limit of £39 million.
Viewing the accounts of parent company SevCo5112 Ltd revealed that the loss of £1.1 million in 2018 was partly due to the sale of Pride Park at a price of £81.1 million, which generated a profit of £39.9 million as a result.
Every Derby fan will claim that the transaction was within the rules and based on the pre-tax figures in the accounts the three-year loss was ‘just’ £23.7 million.
Yet these losses can be reduced further by clubs spending money on ‘good’ activities, such as infrastructure, academy, women’s football and community schemes as these are excluded from FFP calculations.
If these costs are included then Derby would have had a P&S loss of £11.1 million, well within the allowable limit.
Should the profit on the sale of the stadium have been disallowed (as per the original FFP rules) then the loss would have been £39.1 million higher at £50.2 million and a probable eight-point deduction in 2018/19 meaning Middlesbrough, rather than Derby, would have made the playoffs.
Aston Villa had a much lower ‘sale’ price of Villa Park, which initially seems odd given that the stadium site is much larger, but this allowed the club to state that it complied with FFP for 2018/19, although based on our calculations there would probably have been only a three point deduction and Villa would still have made the playoff.
Compliance is very much the watchword in relation to P&S rules and the use of such creative accounting is surely more to do with the appallingly lax set of rules created by the EFL rather than clubs cheating, as has been accused by fans of other clubs.
Over at Hillsborough the stadium was ‘sold’ for £60 million and a £38.1 million profit booked although this is further confused by Land Registry still showing in July 2019 that it still belonged to the club even though the accounts in which the sale is shown are for 2017/18.
Have they done anything wrong?
Middlesbrough owner Steve Gibson has been the most vocal critic of the sale and leaseback transactions and has threatened legal action but whilst the actions of the Derby et al aren’t cricket we don’t think they have broken any rules.
Potential legal action by Gibson is therefore unlikely to succeed, although it will make for another tense meeting of club chairmen when they have their next EFL meet up.
Less clear is whether Gibson’s suspicion that the sale price of the stadia ‘sold’ has been at an inflated price.
Each club who has made such a sale has presumably used a firm of surveyors to determine the value although critics will point out that given the club chairmen are effectively paying the surveyors’ fees there will be a conflict of interest.
Those of you who watch daytime TV will have seen the likes of Dion Dublin take about a yield on properties which are bought to let, and this principle could be applied in relation to the three clubs involved.
Every company that has a rental agreement should in theory show the rents due in future years in the footnotes to the accounts.
Buried away in the Derby footnotes on page 33 is a note showing that Derby’s rent for the following year was increasing by about £1.05 million and the club appears to be committed to paying a total extra rent of £23 million in future years, far less than the £80 million sale proceeds.
Entering those numbers into our big calculator gives the new owner of Pride Park a 1.3% yield, which is unlikely to be given a thumbs up from Dion Dublin and co.
Looking at the accounts for Sheffield Wednesday gives equal confusion as the club does not appear to have any rental cost for Hillsborough in future years despite selling the ground for £60 million and so the new owner could have a zero yield.
Leasing football grounds, it must be stressed, is perfectly legitimate (Manchester City have such an arrangement with the local council for the Etihad, West Ham similar with the London stadium).
Each Championship club that has taken such an approach in the last couple of years has benefitted in terms of their ability to compete on the pitch as a result of these transactions and this has caused resentment from other club owners who have not used such mechanisms.
No one seemed to notice the change to the P&S Rules initially in 2016 and this is where the crux of the problem lies, as someone should take responsibility and explain whether the change was simply a cock up or a deliberate dilution of P&S.
Don’t expect anyone at the EFL to hold their hands up though, given the record of the organisation claiming to be ‘only a competition organiser’ whenever the flak starts flying.
Under the old EFL FFP rules profits on sales of tangible fixed assets, such as stadia, were specifically excluded from the calculations, which would have had a huge impact upon the ability of the clubs involved to trade. Derby, for example, spent over £15 million in 2017/18 on new players and a further £18.5 million in 2018/19, albeit with sales of players bringing in £16 million over that period too. Sheffield Wednesday were able to spend £168 on wages in 2017/18 for every £100 of income and Villa kept the superb Jack Grealish at Villa Park on the back of a lucrative new contract and were rewarded with promotion to the Premier League.
The new P&S rules make no reference to profits on asset sales and therefore they are legitimately included in the calculations. Why the change was allowed to go through has never been explained, although we have heard on the grapevine that the EFL simply cut and pasted the Premier League P&S rules (which have always allowed asset sales) without looking at the small print for any changes, unlike the accountants and lawyers at Derby.
The overall lesson learnt, as some are finding out with the present FaceApp photo ageing application, is that if you don’t read the small print someone else will, and they can make you look fairly stupid as a result, as the EFL is probably privately conceding at present.
Our view from day one of FFP is that it’s an artificial construct that has earned large sums for accountants and lawyers (the EFL’s legal costs for the QPR ruling are estimated to be £3 million and presumably QPR’s silks didn’t do it for free either) and looking at Bolton, Bury, Notts County, Oldham, Macclesfield etc hasn’t achieved much in the way of financial restraint.