Byrne: Sunderland won’t sail into troubled waters

Sunderland chief executive Margaret Byrne
Sunderland chief executive Margaret Byrne
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SUNDERLAND this week announced a freeze in season ticket prices, with some seats even available at a reduced rate to the current campaign.

But with Premier League clubs pocketing a share of more than £5billion of television money over the next three seasons, have Sunderland missed an opportunity to slash prices and ensure a regular full-house at the Stadium of Light?

The Echo’s CHRIS YOUNG spoke to Sunderland chief executive Margaret Byrne on ticket prices, ensuring the TV windfall does not go directly on players’ salaries and the club’s reliance on owner Ellis Short.

THE £19MILLION sale of Jordan Henderson in the summer of 2011 bankrolled a spending spree of 11 new signings in Steve Bruce’s final transfer window as Sunderland boss.

But 12 months on, there could have been a similarly lucrative departure from the Stadium of Light.

By rights, there should have been.

Within the first five minutes of speaking with Sunderland chief executive Margaret Byrne at Black Cats House, she makes the admission that the club will post an annual loss over the next few weeks ... and a hefty one at that.

To balance the books, Sunderland had the opportunity to cash in on their shining lights. They weren’t lacking offers.

But Ellis Short came to the rescue; his cheque book ensuring Sunderland spent more than £20m on Adam Johnson and Steven Fletcher, while only offloading the unwanted – the likes of Kieran Richardson and Michael Turner – from Martin O’Neill’s squad.

It is that over-reliance on the American which Sunderland are striving to eradicate.

Providing Sunderland remain in the Premier League over the next three years, the club’s bank balance will be massaged by a share of more than £5bn from domestic and overseas television rights.

Plenty of supporters will rightly argue that such a dramatic increase in revenue should go towards dramatically reducing ticket prices, rather than inflating the already obscene wages of players.

At the Stadium of Light, it will go to neither.

The money will pay off a hefty chunk of the club’s debts, with the aim that when the television money ends in three years’ time, Sunderland are making a profit and not reliant on Short’s hand-outs.

And while Sunderland are proud to have announced a freeze, and even some reductions for certain season tickets, that is why the Black Cats have not opted to take what would have been a unique step in slashing prices.

“It’s not realistic (to lower season ticket prices) because we’ve got massive debts,” said Byrne.

“If we were a profitable organisation, I’d take on that argument all day long. But we’re not.

“We would love to be profitable and give more offers for supporters and bring in more players.

“But we’ll be reporting another big loss this year. We don’t want to do that, but we’ve taken a decision not to sell our best players.

“We had lots of offers in the summer that would certainly have put us in a much better position.

“But Ellis said that we’re not selling them, which Martin was obviously very supportive of as well.

“Because we’re not producing profits, every time we buy a player, Ellis is virtually buying that player for the club himself. We’re really lucky to have his backing and support.

“Of course you could be a profitable club and sell your best players, but it’s a relegation model.

“We want to keep our assets and not sell them.

“I know some clubs do praise the fact they are profitable, but they’re not playing in this league now. It’s about striking the balance.

“This TV deal gives the club a chance to get our books in order.”

In fairness, asking Byrne why Sunderland’s season tickets are not even lower, is akin to playing devil’s advocate.

On Monday, Sunderland confirmed that supporters renewing an existing season ticket or buying a new one would be able to do so at the same price as last year – or even cheaper in the Family Zone and Strongbow North Stand.

The price list at the Stadium of Light is already one of the lowest in the Premier League – just ask Sunderland supporters paying £45 to enter the dilapidated Loftus Road next Saturday.

And Byrne insists Sunderland have given significant consideration to the economic conditions on Wearside before setting the tariff for next season.

She said: “You have to look the area. A restaurant in London is more expensive than a restaurant in Sunderland.

“You have to look at the economic conditions.

“We’ve taken that on board, we want the supporters to come in and we’re pleased to be freezing prices and reducing them in some areas as well.

“The season card revenue is massively important to the football club. It’s one of the big streams of revenue that comes into the club each year.

“We looked at prices at other clubs and what they offer and we hope we’ve got the balance right.

“You’re averaging £20 a game to come and watch Premier League football and our Junior Black Cats are bringing in new supporters for £1.50 a game.

“Our attendances have been steady, we’re still averaging 40,000 a game. We’re way up on other clubs.

“We realise the importance of having as many people in the stadium as possible and making a real impact.”

Sunderland have been at the forefront of ensuring the TV windfall doesn’t merely spark a proportional rise in player wages too.

Short was one of the chief campaigners behind the Premier League’s new financial rules, which were approved by a narrow majority last month and will be formally ratified at a meeting in April.

The regulations will state that clubs whose total wage bill is more than £52m – which includes Sunderland – are not able to increase total salaries by more than £4m a season during the life of the TV deal.

There are ways around the rules.

Money from additional revenue streams can also be used towards wages; such as Sunderland’s summer concerts or any sponsorship deals.

But the consequence of exceeding the salary restrictions could be a points deduction and that should provide the incentive towards Premier League clubs finally preaching some financial prudence.

“This is a massive statement of intent from Premier League clubs,” added Byrne.

“In effect, the plan is by the end of the three-year cycle, clubs will be profitable.

“It’s a real opportunity for us to use this money properly and not to be giving it away to agents and players.

“Only three clubs last year reported profits in the Premier League which is not good enough.

“We’re the biggest league in the world, we’ve 4 billion people watching us, but there’s 17 clubs reporting losses.

“The reason these new guidelines are coming in is to fill that big black hole, rather than inflating the price of the season cards.

“There’s obviously a big influx of money coming in from the new TV deal and you can use that for your transfer fees.

They are spread over the life of a players’ contract.

“But players’ salaries are the biggest hit to any football club and the fact you’re not allowed to spend that extra money, it means clubs can’t go crazy with this money.

“The proportion of wages to turnover has to come down and this will give us the opportunity to do that.”