Article from 'The Athletic' (a subscription based sports website)
Perhaps the surest sign of a rediscovered faith at Bolton Wanderers was the sight of more than 200 firms assembling for a business breakfast that aligned with the release of the fixtures for the new season.
This happened on June 23 in the Platinum Lounge of the University of Bolton Stadium – unthinkable as recently as 2019, when the club was 24 hours away from liquidation, with debts to hundreds of businesses, many of them local.
It would take time for many of the creditors to see their money and Football Ventures (Whites) Limited, the group of investors who rescued the club, is still untangling the mess left behind by the previous ownerships.
Much of the bridge-building has been led by chief executive Neil Hart, recruited from Burnley last summer, and commercial officer Mike Pink, who joined the club from Crystal Palace.
Even some of Bolton’s most cynical fans have told The Athletic that the club is beginning to be viewed as a safer bet than it was not so long ago and the packed room reflects that.
It is understandable, however, if the fanbase remains gossipy and conspiratorial following a decade of decline that led to the team tumbling down the leagues and almost out of existence.
And as June slipped into July, those with an appreciation of the financial challenges that have existed since Bolton’s relegation from the Premier League in 2012 were closely inspecting developments on the website of Companies House.
Aside from Derby County, Football Ventures were the last in the league pyramid to tender their accounts for the 2020-21 financial year after Ipswich Town just beat them to it. The Suffolk side at least had the excuse of being taken over during the season in question.
For a few days, it looked like Bolton had missed the June 30 deadline. Only on July 4 did the club’s books appear in public, yet it was confirmed by the United Kingdom’s business registrar that the cut-off was, in fact, met, and the delay on publishing the accounts were because of a backlog of submissions from other firms.
Having considered 41 pages of detail, football’s accountants — professional and otherwise — have declared that the results at Bolton are OK, fair to middling, not bad considering.
The reason for this judgment is that it is hardly surprising that a big club in the lower divisions would lose money, particularly with the stadium gates padlocked. The business lost almost £1.5million ($1.8m) in total. An improvement, then, as they lost £3.9million the previous year. As the report puts it, “the second year of trading for the group remained difficult”.
Football Ventures’ business plan for the club was based on healthy subsidies from a hotel and conference centre attached to the ground, but the global health crisis put paid to that. With no fans at games and reduced income from the hotel, the group’s turnover fell by a third from £9.3million in 2020 to £6.2million in 2021. They did manage to trim the wage bill from £7.4million to £6.9million, but the fall in turnover meant that for every £100 earned in regular revenue, Bolton was spending £112 on salaries.
We make that distinction about the revenue because Bolton did earn just over £900,000 from the government’s job-retention scheme, having banked just over £1million in furlough cash the year before. And there was also a one-off profit of £2.75million, thanks to the write-off of a loan.
Debt, however, remains a longer-term issue. As of June 30, 2021, Football Ventures had liabilities of £31.7million, the second highest such figure in League One. Sheffield Wednesday, now 22 years out of the Premier League, are in a league of their own in this regard, as they have financial obligations amounting to £94.3million, including a £51.1million debt to their owner Dejphon Chansiri.
Bolton, in fact, borrowed even more money after the year-end in 2020-21, as they tapped into the government’s Future Fund, a £1.1billion scheme to help innovative businesses get through the pandemic. Some eyebrows were raised at the idea of an EFL team being innovative, but it was certainly innovative of Football Ventures to apply for and get a £5million loan. Earlier this year, it was confirmed that Football Ventures had chosen not to repay the loan, which meant it was converted into shares. Yes, the UK government now owns eight per cent of Bolton Wanderers. Another vote of confidence.
On the pitch, Bolton finished 10 points outside the League One play-offs last season, but it was a campaign of two halves. Only six points above the relegation zone in January, Football Ventures loosened the purse strings and added seven new players, helping the club climb the table. Neither Bolton nor its owners could afford another campaign in the bottom tier of English football, financially or emotionally.
But can Football Ventures afford to take them any higher?
Most supporters believe that if Bolton were to return to the Championship, it would be easier to sell the club to owners with greater resources because of closer proximity of the Premier League and all of its riches. And yet there are some fans who worry that a big push for promotion might ruin the club’s finances and make any purchase less likely.
It would be overstating things to say the fanbase is divided on whether to stick or twist, but when the club began promoting its early bird discount offer on season tickets in February, rather than the usual April, there were some who immediately wondered if the club had already overreached itself in the winter window and badly needed some cash.
For the majority of fans, however, there is trust in Sharon Brittan, the public face of the ownership group. She has impressed directors at other clubs, too, and is popular at the league’s HQ, where they know just how close Bolton came to oblivion in 2019.
Brittan has also managed to bring in fresh investment this year. In January, Football Ventures agreed to issue £4million worth of new shares to a consortium of Swiss-based investors known as BMLL Limited. The deal was sealed at a game that month. They picked a good one — Bolton beat Sunderland 6-0. Sources have told The Athletic that Brittan looked like she had “won the lottery” as the group helicoptered away.
BMLL is represented on the Football Ventures board by a British-based Australian businessman called Nick Luckock. He and Brittan also sit on the board of a music publishing business called Lickd. They haven’t got this football business licked just yet, but they are learning.
Soon after the BMLL deal was completed, the club announced it had a new shirt sponsor for the coming season, Service My Car. Set up only last year by Mubarak and Ozair Puda, two local businessmen now based in Dubai, there is very little in the way of publicly-available financial information for the online-booking business.
But The Athletic understands the club performed thorough due diligence on the business, which has already paid for half of its sponsorship up front. The deal is also worth twice what Home Bargains paid for the shirt front last season.
It should also be noted that the club is trying to take an ethical stance with its commercial links. Last season, Bolton ended all of its relationships with gambling firms — a money-where-your-mouth-is step for a club that clearly struggled during the height of the pandemic.
Brittan and the other FV partners took on a huge project when they rescued Bolton, but it became even bigger when COVID-19 changed the world. The hotel was meant to be an asset but it became another liability.
The accounts filed at Companies House are, of course, now a year old, so they are showing an out-of-date picture of the business.
Speaking to The Athletic this week, Hart assured fans that the group is on the right track, on and off the pitch.
To give two more examples of the work being done by Hart and his team, Football Ventures is in talks to sell some unused land at the training ground to Bellway, a leading housebuilder, and the group has also done a profit-sharing deal with the Radisson Group that will see the Bolton Whites Hotel added to the chain’s booking platforms. The agreement means an upgrade in standards at the hotel, but additional marketing firepower should keep it busier.
“Sharon, (manager) Ian Evatt and I are a very tight triangle,” says Hart.
“We talk every day about how to take the club forward on and off the pitch and I can honestly say that in my 20-plus years in the game, I have never worked with a better club chair than Sharon.”
The bottom line at Bolton is that the club could very easily have gone the way of an expelled Bury or a bankrupt Macclesfield Town had the takeover not happened in 2019. This earned Football Ventures a lot of goodwill.
Since then, the club has earned promotion out of League Two at the first time of asking before finishing ninth in their first season back in League One – ahead of rivals like Ipswich and Charlton, where the financial challenges are similar.
What happens next will be crucial, though. Such goodwill still exists but is often caveated by comments about “naivety” or fears for Football Venture’s long-term prospects.
Sources close to the ownership group say there is no need for such concern, though, and the club have no real worries that a good season cannot fix.
Just like every club in the division, then. And that, perhaps, is another sign that the worst is behind Football Ventures.