The income generated by Chelsea Football Club in the season prior to Roman Abramovich buying the club was bettered by four others in the Premier League, Newcastle, Liverpool, Arsenal and Manchester United. We were 10th overall across the globe.
Ten years on and the most recent ranking for such figures places only four clubs in the entire world above Chelsea FC, with just Man United from our own league listed as one of them.
It was from the Old Trafford club that Ron Gourlay joined Chelsea midway through the first season following the purchase by Mr Abramovich. He carried out a variety of director-level roles, including chief operating officer, before being appointed chief executive four years ago.
The club’s successes on the pitch during the past decade are clear for everyone to see. Although they have contributed immensely to building the club off the pitch, the advance in business terms is less visible.
As part of the official Chelsea website’s celebrations of the 10th anniversary of Mr Abramovich arriving, we talk with our Chief Executive about growth, stability, long-terms projects and working with the owner…
What have been major areas of progress away from the pitch during the last decade?
‘The challenges we have had in the executive team from a business point of view have really been brought to light by the introduction of Financial Fair Play. That has changed the whole landscape as far as football clubs across Europe are concerned and certainly the clubs who are competing year in year out for a place in the Champions League.
‘This was first talked about way back in 2008. The club had gone through a number of years with significant losses and it was very important we started back in 2008, planning for the first assessment for Financial Fair Play with the period starting in 2011/12.
‘The assessment is over two years and 11/12 was also the first year the club made a profit, so a lot of hard work had been going in since 2008 and it is all about our philosophy which is building on the success on the field, using our success to build awareness around the world.
‘That awareness turns into fanbase and that fanbase in turn is attractive to potential sponsors, and allows us to do similar deals to our record one we have done with adidas recently. That allows us to inject money back into the team but also into a number of projects around the world, stretching across our corporate social responsibility programme, our Blue Pitches, and Here to Play Here to Stay which ensures we don’t just to go to a country and play a game, we also work with the local communities, putting on coaching schools, visiting schools to talk about football and how you can introduce education and nutrition as part of coaching sessions.
‘These projects have been going on around the world now for a number of years and that has seen an explosion of the fanbase to around 400 million from 30 to 35 million in 2003.’
To what degree has the business grown?
‘The club has continued to grow year on year and the latest Deloitte figures have us in fifth position, tucked in behind Real Madrid, Barcelona, Man United and Bayern Munich, and that is on revenues generated which is a fantastic position for the club.
‘The clubs above us have different advantages over us, in particular the size of their stadiums, and for Chelsea to be the fifth biggest club in revenue terms and be outside the top 30 in Europe as far as stadium size is concerned is credit to the staff here, because there is a lot of hard work going on off the field to deliver the revenues required to inject back into the team.’
You’ve outlined the implications of Financial Fair Play (FFP) and from the start Mr Abramovich wished for the club to operate as well as possible in a business sense.
‘If you look at the business side of the club we have had real stability in the 10 years. We have had one owner in Mr Abramovich, we have had one chairman for the last nine years, two chief executives and a large core of my executive team were around back in 2003, which is important on the business side. We have had real stability as we have grown year on year and that has been very important to understanding the objectives of the football club, and measuring the growth that we have had in the 10 years.’
Looking at the Academy, we have been able to buy players for the first team squad but what has been the importance attached to producing young players?
‘There were two key financial injections after Mr Abramovich took over the club. One was into the playing side immediately to transform the team into one of the top clubs in Europe within one season, but the plan was also set then for the Academy. That was always a long-term objective and it started at the same time as Mr Abramovich took over the club.
‘These things are never quick fixes, it takes time, and in the last three or four years we have seen how successful our youth team has been and that is the benefit of the Academy. Looking forward, with the challenges we have around FFP, the key is to develop as many young players through the Academy as possible.
‘We are always going to have an injection of experience both domestically and internationally coming into the club and from a financial point of view it is important to get the right balance.’
Another long-term aim has been for Chelsea to be a force for good through our community and Foundation work.
‘That is completely driven by Mr Abramovich. We wanted to build a legacy for Chelsea Football Club around the world and we have in 10 years taken the club to many countries many times, and not only to play games. It is credit to our backroom staff and our players that we have worked very hard in the community every time we go to a territory.
‘It is very important to put something back into the communities. We have a responsibility, we are a massive name in world football and our way of giving back to the communities and to fanbases internationally is to spend time coaching them when we are there.’
We are naturally looking back at this point but looking forward as well to the next 10 years and beyond, how well is the club positioned and how stable are we?
‘We are in a very strong position. As with anything we mustn’t allow complacency to come in at any point, the bar continues to be raised off the field as well as on it, but we have been extremely successful on the trophy front in the last 10 years and we have the same objectives as we planned in the past.
‘We have to keep moving the football club forward. We want to be successful. Everybody at the club has the same objective, everybody wants to be winners. We have to push forward so that come April and May every season, we are in there fighting on all fronts for success.’
How much interest does Mr Abramovich take in the running of the club?
‘He is incredibly knowledgeable about the game and very clear on the objectives we set. He likes to understand the decision-making process and is heavily involved.
‘Of course he has other business interests but he achieves a good balance and I foresee that same energy for the next 10 years.’
If the board in the first year after the takeover had been able to look forward to today, with the trophies won, the football the fans have been able to watch, how the business has grown, would it at that point have been happy with what it saw?
‘From my point of view yes, and I am sure the other board members would support that. We only want to do what is right for the football club and for the fans, we want to continue to take the football club forward and we have learned a lot in that time. You need to consider the consequences of decisions further down the line.
‘You must always be prudent in business but particularly in football we need to plan, and more so financially these days with FFP not only in European football but in our domestic game as well with its introduction in the Premier League.
‘We have built a good foundation for the club and we see a lot of past players around the club again which is fantastic.
‘We have worked very hard and that has been driven by the owner and you can see how successful it has been just by walking around the stadium. There are a lot of great memories from trophies won in the last 10 years and memories of past legends.’
Personally, what have been your highlights during the decade?
‘I am coming up for 10 years in the club as well and things have moved very, very quickly. The experience of working through the club from the commercial side, being chief operating officer and then on to chief executive helped me because I understand all aspects of the business.
‘The enjoyment for me is seeing just how big this football club is and how far it has come. It is just the tip of iceberg really. We have a long way to go. It has been an exciting time, it was an absolute privilege to be given the role by Mr Abramovich at the time, I will always thank him and respect him for that decision, and hopefully continue to repay him in future years.’