Since day one of his life as Chelsea Chairman, Bruce Buck has been working towards one mythical, barely imaginable goal: break-even. He took on that role after helping to save the club he supported from financial ruin and managing its acquisition by a certain Roman Abramovich, with whom he had worked before during various mergers and acquisitions in Russia, especially involving the oil company Sibneft.
Buck, Roman’s self-described “Little-toe-on-the-left-foot”-Man, retired from his day job a couple years ago to enjoy life a bit more now that he’s in his 70s, and of course to continue guiding Chelsea on this mythical quest of sustainability.
“I think that we are all looking to be breaking even, and even be profitable, over the long term, but it is difficult. The reason you have a football team is to win trophies, although there’s not a direct correlation, as winning trophies requires a lot of investment.”
Chelsea can certainly attest to some correlation in that regard, turning Abramovich’s millions into millions of trophies (approximately). Buck would’ve likely not imagined this ever being a possibility in 1983 when he moved to England and started supporting Chelsea, but Abramovich changed the game in 2003 and we reaped all the rewards. Since the introduction of Financial Fair Play, an initiative that Chelsea supported, that sort of dream is much less likely to happen for others, if not impossible.
“There are 10 or 12 big clubs in Europe right now and I think five to 10 years from now, in round terms, those 10 or 12 clubs will be the big clubs then. The mix in terms of who’s on top, with respect to revenue, performance and trophies, that is up for grabs.
“The dream in England is, if you support a Conference team, someday you’ll win the Premier League. Financial Fair Play has pluses and minuses. One of the minuses is that dream is not possible. What Chelsea did in 2003, what Man City did five years later, that is virtually impossible under FFP.”
The rich stay rich, the poor stay poor, but as far as Buck’s concerned, both as a professional and as a fan, that works just fine for Chelsea. In fact, despite being an American, Buck prefers his sports leagues with a bit less parity than what strict salary cap environments tend to produce. The natural world order is predators and prey, and it’s good to be the king.
“In terms of competitive balance, which is always viewed in a negative way, I personally believe that, for the development of football, marquee clubs and marquee players are important. It’s important in developing fanbases, encouraging young people to engage in this sport, and it’s also important in terms of the large clubs having the ability to put a lot of money into good causes, which they do.
“I’m not in favour of dumbing down the large clubs to make all clubs the great unwashed. They’ve done that in the US over the last 20 years and I think it’s been to the detriment, particularly of baseball.
“I just don’t think it works for the long term. Clubs have to seek their natural position in the football order. No matter where you are in that, you want to improve, but I don’t think we should assume that, because every club is not equal, therefore it’s bad.”
Chelsea’s place in the upper echelons is assured for now, but the club still isn’t fully self-sustaining. While Abramovich probably isn’t going anywhere — Chelsea continue to strongly dismiss any and all rumors to the contrary — the need to become stable and break even was brought back into strong focus with the owner’s visa situation and the subsequent halt on the new stadium planning this summer.
Buck didn’t address the stadium situation when speaking at Leaders Sport Business Summit at Stamford Bridge this week, but he emphasized Chelsea’s renewed focus on revenue through sponsorship and new media.
“At Chelsea, we have worked very hard to push the sponsorship model. We have done everything we can to increase our matchday revenues and non-match day revenues at events like this. Most importantly, and we are at a crossroads, we are looking at media and broadcasting.
”We are looking at the opportunities for the future to really make this club stable and profitable for the long term. Yes, we have central distribution for the main broadcasting revenues, but there’s lots of pieces that we can put together in terms of what’s going on in the world.
”Disruption media broadcasting [including the likes of DAZN] and looking at other avenues to capitalise on the assets we have. The world is desperate for content. The world is even more desperate for live content. We have that. We are looking at things like Dugout, which you might be aware of, and other things to try to increase the revenue base going forwards.”
-Bruce Buck; source: Goal
More content is good. As long as it’s easily accessible and shareable, which is a part that is often overlooked — things like Dugout or even the new Chelsea app, The 5th Stand aren’t helping in that regard. More content is good. More exclusive content is even better. More fragmentation of content is bad. But at least we’re looking in the right direction.
Whether any of this will help Chelsea achieve this mythical, stable break-even point remains to be seen. The new stadium is supposed to help in that goal as well, at least in theory, but while there are rumors that work will resume before the end of the year, there’s been little to no obvious signs of life in the project.
Buck has experienced the ups and down of the Ken Bates era and has overseen the rise of the Roman Era. Now he’s working to ensure that we can avoid the inevitable fall.