Manchester United among clubs with questions to answer from the Football Sustainability Index

Ian King
Old Trafford, home of Manchester United

The Football Sustainability Index is a new way of ranking the wellbeing of football clubs. Here are five – well, four plus 11 – with some work to do.


It’s the month of reports. Following on from the release of the Deloitte Money League, which ranked Europe’s football clubs by revenue, comes Fair Game’s Football Sustainability Index, which seeks to take a broader view of club wellbeing through analysing factors such as fan engagement, financial management and equality standards to rank clubs in England’s top two divisions. 

Top of the league are Liverpool, who scored particularly highly for equality – factors such as gender ratio at boardroom level and the recruitment of women and minority ethnic candidates to leadership roles – and governance, which looked at issues like transparency and rates of pay for non-football staff, with Southampton in second place, thanks in no small part to an exceptionally high score for engagement, a factor which considers governance, dialogue and transparency. 

These rankings are somewhat dated by necessity, and this influences the overall rankings. The financial figures available for reporting were only correct as of the end of 2021, and a lot has changed at some clubs since then. But at the same time, they do tell some fundamental truths about the condition of the game in the top two divisions as football continues its recovery after the disruption of the pandemic.

Few will be that surprised to hear that the report is far from good news for all of the clubs that have been analysed, and here are five clubs – well, to be precise, four clubs plus one big cluster of 11 clubs – who have a little work to do, from the report’s findings:


1) Manchester United
United finished in fifth place in the Premier League index, but they would have finished considerably higher had they scored higher on equality. This is the calculation used to work out a club’s equality score:

• Ratio of women on the club board (50%)
• Recruitment ratio of women and BAME to leadership roles, as provided by the Football Leadership Diversity Code (50%)

United’s score of just .80 for equality is a reflection of the white, male senior management of the club. Of course, with them being up for sale, there is a huge opportunity for this to be addressed, but that will be down to whoever the new owners of the club turn out to be.


2) Leicester City
On three of the four criteria that the report analysed Leicester scored above the mean, but on financial sustainability they fell considerably short with a score of 16.40, more than a third lower than the Premier League average of 25.61. Financial sustainability was calculated according to the following factors:

• Current assets/liabilities (30%)
• Short-term loans measure (25%)
• Loans repayable within one year as percentage of revenue (25%)
• Wages as percentage of revenue (20%)

Only two of the Premier League’s newly promoted clubs – Bournemouth and Nottingham Forest – scored lower than Leicester, and Bournemouth’s financial circumstances may well have changed radically with their takeover by Bill Foley’s consortium at the end of last year. What is probably the most concerning aspect of Leicester’s financial sustainability score is that they are a well-established Premier League club who won the FA Cup in 2020.

3) Tottenham Hotspur
Spurs may currently be in something of a state of flux but, in a case of art imitating life, they still managed to sneak into fourth place in the overall Premier League rankings. But there is one way in which they could still substantially improve. Spurs finished third from bottom in the Premier League for engagement with a score of 5.40; they were fifth from bottom throughout both of the top two divisions combined. Engagement is calculated taking into account the following factors:

• Fan Engagement score, as provided by the Think Fan Engagement Index (90%)
• Percentage of stadium filled on league match days (10%)

Nobody who has been paying attention to the ‘ENIC Out’ protests at The Tottenham Hotspur Stadium will be particularly surprised by these results, but they’re not great (especially when we consider that they tend to sell out their home Premier League matches) and, considering that ENIC have now had a controlling stake in the club for almost 22 years, how realistic is it to believe that anything much will change there unless there’s a change in ownership?


4) Nottingham Forest
Two newly promoted clubs occupy the bottom places in the Premier League index, with Forest rock bottom even though they scored pretty well for engagement and governance. Indeed, across both divisions only two clubs – Blackburn Rovers and Middlesbrough – scored lower. This is because financial solvency makes up the biggest part of the weighting of the total score – it accounts for 40%, overall – with, as above for Leicester, the following factors being taken into account:

• Current assets and liabilities (30%)
• Short-term loans measure (25%)
• Loans repayable within one year as a percentage of revenue (25%)
• Wages as percentage of revenue (20%)

Forest’s score of 1.00 was far and away the weakest in the Premier League, with the club having a wages to turnover of ratio of 202%, meaning they were spending just over twice the amount of money that they were bringing in on player wages alone. Championship television revenues won’t have helped with this, and looking at these numbers is a timely reminder of how important promotion was for the club at the end of last season.

Will this improve for next year? Well, that will depend on the annual accounts. All that lovely loot from being in the Premier League certainly helps, the vast number of new players brought into the club last summer probably less so. Avoiding relegation would help substantially, and recent form – two wins and two draws from their last four Premier League games – seems to indicate that the Steve Cooper’s team has a good chance of managing that, and doing so would go a long way towards stabilising the club’s financial position.


5. Almost half of the clubs in the Championship
There is a very stark dividing line just below the halfway point in the Championship sustainability index. Eleven of the clubs in the second tier have a financial sustainability score of ten or lower, with six of them having a score of five or lower. Clubs higher up the table are a mixture of those who have had the benefit of Premier League parachute payment money in recent years and those such as Luton Town, Swansea City and Millwall, who scored highly for having run themselves within their financial means.

Of course, everybody already knows just how bad the finances of most Championship clubs are, in a division distorted by Premier League parachute payments and the desperation of clubs to into the Premier League. As Niall Couper, the CEO of Fair Game has said himself: “Outside the Premier League, clubs’ finances are a mess. The Championship has become a casino and at stake are the history and traditions of our great clubs.”

The Football Sustainability Index is available to view in full here (PDF).