Stephen Hall The Business School, Imperial College London April 2003
Abstract: In the US most economists have argued that professional sports teams are profit maximising businesses, but it is a widely held view in Europe that professional football clubs are not run on a profit maximising basis. This belief has important implications for the impact of policy measures such as income redistribution that are widely advocated. This paper looks at the performance of sixteen English football clubs that acquired a stock exchange listing in the mid 1990s. If the European story is true, we should have observed a shift toward profit maximising behaviour at these clubs. This paper finds no evidence of any shift in this direction. This result is consistent with the view that football clubs in England have been much more oriented toward profit objectives than is normally allowed.
Keywords: economics of sport, objective functions
JEL classification number: L21, L83
We thank to Dirk Nitzsche for assistance with data collection. We thank Peter Sloane and seminar participants at the CARR Outreach workshop on business history for helpful comments.
“Those clubs which have floated to become public companies – Manchester United, Newcastle United, Aston Villa, Chelsea, Tottenham- now have as their principal objective the making of money for their shareholders.” -David Conn, The Football Business, p154.
1. Introduction In North America it is commonplace, especially among economists, to think of the owners of professional sports teams as profit maximisers (see e.g. Fort and Quirk (1995)). In Europe, however, this assumption has been treated somewhat sceptically. In an influential paper Sloane (1971) argued that a plausible characterisation of the owners of football clubs is as “utility maximisers” subject to a budget constraint, where utility is largely associated with success on the pitch. Reasons for this view include the perceived lack of profitability of football clubs and the opinions expressed by club officials. In some countries football clubs are organised as sporting associations which have no shareholders, but in England all professional clubs are limited companies, and most have been so for around 100 years.
This study focuses on sixteen English football clubs came to be traded on the London Stock Exchange in the mid 1990s. For the most part this arose through share placings and offers for sale of up to 100% of the share capital. If the directors of these clubs were acting as utility maximisers prior to their flotation, then flotation should have brought about a significant change in the objectives, assuming that investors in publicly quoted corporations are interested primarily in financial returns. At the time of flotation many fans expressed concerns similar to those implicit in the quote above. This paper examines the performance of these sixteen clubs before and after their flotation. The changes in measured performance of these clubs do not seem to be consistent with a shift toward more profit oriented objectives.
(a) The significance of objectives for league policy It has long been recognised that the identification of the firm’s objective function is central to understanding its behaviour, and this is more than usually crucial when it comes to understanding sports leagues. Members of sports leagues typically enter into a wide range restrictive agreements such as revenue sharing, limitations on players spending (salary caps and roster limits) and restrictions on player mobility. These restraints, the team owners claim, are necessary to preserve a competitive balance without which the league’s product will become unattractive. Antitrust authorities have in general been persuaded by this line of argument. However, critics such as Fort and Quirk (1995) and Vrooman (2000) have argued that these restraints will be tend to raise profits, that this is the true motive for their adoption by owners, and that the impact on competitive balance will be negligible or non-existent. The assumption of profit maximisation is critical to the validity of these claims, as has been shown in work of Kesenne (1996, 2000).
Consider for example, the case of collectively sold broadcast rights. In the North American major leagues the income derived from collective sale is typically divided equally among the teams. What effect would this have on behaviour compared to the alternative where teams negotiate their own broadcast rights individually and retain the income for themselves? Let us suppose that if rights are sold individually then there are some large market teams that will generate a lot more income than small market teams. If owners are profit maximisers there is reason to doubt whether collective selling will improve the competitive balance of the league, since owners are under no obligation to spend what they receive. Thus a small market team may receive more income under collective selling, but will not choose to spend more on creating a successful team. Under the profit maximisation hypothesis owners should spend up to the point where the marginal revenue of a win equals the marginal cost, and a fixed share of broadcast income will affect neither marginal revenue nor marginal cost2. However, if the owners are utility maximisers whose principal interest is success on the pitch then collective selling will improve competitive balance. By assumption teams spend what they get on the pursuit of sporting success, and collective selling means more spending power for the small market teams and less spending for the large markets teams.
(b) ownership and motives in English soccer
In this paper we are interested in the possible change in behaviour associated with stock market flotation. The ownership structure of football clubs in the UK is significantly different from the model adopted in other countries. In most of Europe, football clubs have typically been organised as not-for-profit sporting associations. Even very large clubs, such as Barcelona and Bayern Munich, have been run as clubs in a legal sense, i.e. controlled by members who pay an annual subscription and managed (in a commercial sense) by a club committee. One of the most practical consequences of this arrangement has been that football clubs have not been able to take advantage of limited liability and therefore their ability to borrow has been constrained3. Football clubs in England and Scotland sought to evade this restriction as early as the nineteenth century. No fewer than 68 of the 92 teams in the four English professional divisions (Premier League and Football League) adopted limited company status prior to the First World War, the majority during the 1890s4.
The conventional view is that the ownership of a limited company resides with the shareholders and that the shareholders are motivated by profit. However, there are plausible reasons to doubt this in the case of English football clubs. Firstly, analysis of shareholder lists (see references cited in footnote 4) suggest that the original subscribers were largely drawn form a club’s locality and were frequently supporters of the club and hence the profit motive may have been tempered by an interest in sporting success. Even shareholders with purely commercial interests (such as local brewers) may have been more interested in the success of the club from the perspective of generating income for their core business interests rather than for any direct financial return (Morrow (1999) provides a detailed analysis of the motivation of directors with dominant shareholdings). Secondly over time most of these clubs came to be concentrated in the hands of a small number of wealthy individuals- usually because the limited company had fallen into financial difficulties. Often these individuals were supporters themselves, and therefore unlikely to view their ownership of the club as a purely financial proposition5.
This does not exclude the possibility that some owners of football clubs at some times were motivated by profit. But arguably what distinguishes a private limited company from a public limited company (floated on the stock exchange) is that in the latter case the profit motive is likely to be even stronger. It is not that the listing requirements of the stock exchange oblige companies to maximise profits, but rather that a stock exchange listing typically introduces a class of investors with little or no interest in the business other than the returns that it can generate, either through the payment of dividends or the appreciation of the share price. Insurance companies and pension funds own the largest share of stock in most listed companies.
The listing requirements of the stock exchange are intended to provide such investors with all the information they require to make an informed decision about investment prospects. The directors of the company are thus obliged to achieve this return for their stock holders or see the company shares decline and risk a hostile takeover that may lose them their job. The view that stock market flotation will introduce commercial objectives has been advanced in the North American context. Most of the Major leagues in fact ban stock market flotation on the grounds that this will lead to excessive commercialisation6. Thus while we cannot state with certainty that the directors of any single company will be more profit oriented following a stock market flotation, we can reasonably argue that on average directors of companies with a listing will be more profit oriented than directors of companies that do not have a listing.
(c) the predicted impact of a change of objectives
If companies that float stock on the market adopt more profit oriented policies, what does this mean in terms of the measurable performance of the company? First consider the impact of success on the profitability of a given club. Success, we might reasonably suppose, is achieved by investing in the team. This may mean investing in training facilities or a good manager, but more often than not it means hiring the best players, and the best players command the highest salaries. The better the quality of the players on the pitch the more likely is success. Szymanski and Kuypers (1999) explored at great length the data that demonstrates the extent of these relationships.
If a club spends little or nothing on its players, success will be limited, but profits will also be small, since few people are interested in paying to watch an unsuccessful football team. If player spending increases, however, fans will be attracted and profits will typically rise. This will continue up to some level of success, at which point more player spending will increase success but profits will fall. This is illustrated in figure 1.