Shrewsbury Town’s fans had long since filed out of the Montgomery Waters Meadow stadium after the defender Chey Dunkley had scored an injury-time winner against Exeter, when Brian Caldwell looked angrily skyward. The League One club’s chief executive was unimpressed to see the ground’s floodlights still burning bright.
Caldwell is among the football executives trying to limit the financial pain from huge energy bills. Faced with an even bigger surge in his annual costs, Caldwell was forced to settle for a £100,000 increase, to £180,000, when signing a new energy contract in April. “It’s a massive dent in our finances. Football clubs are not normal businesses, they’re set up to break even and put the money you can into the playing budget,” he said.
While Premier League clubs will doubtless be dismayed by rising bills, they spend the vast amount of their budgets on player wages, meaning power makes up a relatively small portion of their costs.
The debate has taken place lower down the pyramid, and has centred on floodlights. With scoreboards and advertising hoardings using low-power LEDs, the glaring lights that shine over stadiums are clubs’ most visible use of energy. (Caldwell’s groundskeeper, in his defence, needed the lights on late to divot the pitch.)
A survey by the reform group Fair Game showed 63% of smaller clubs would consider earlier kick-off times to save on floodlight costs. Mansfield Town brought forward their League Two fixture against Walsall last Saturday by two hours to 1pm. The club said an assessment of the savings and effect on crowd sizes was ongoing.
Three in four supporters are in favour of clubs moving kick-offs earlier, Football Supporters’ Association (FSA) research found. Just 12% said they would attend fewer games if timings were moved.
“Clubs face some difficult questions on what to do for the best. Our data shows attendances would be marginally affected if kick-off times were brought forward to reduce the need for floodlights, but as the nights draw in this measure will have less impact,” said Andy Walsh, the head of national game at the FSA.
In Germany, which was more reliant than Britain on Russian gas, authorities and companies have been more proactive in limiting power usage. The second division club Nuremberg will not be playing evening games in the near future after the city council said floodlights could not be used after 9pm.
Bayern Munich’s Allianz Arena is already heated by air-source heat pumps but the serial champions have cut in half the illumination time of its striking stadium LED lighting. Meanwhile, SC Freiburg’s Europa-Park stadium has 6,200 solar panels on the roof, which generate 2.4 megawatts of power at their peak, part of the club’s effort to “make itself independent of price fluctuations” through “sustainable energy”.
However, Dale Vince, the chairman and owner of Forest Green Rovers, believes the floodlight debate is a non-starter. “It’s an idea that, on the face of it, has merit, but it’s got no grounding in actual numbers.” He said shutting off the floodlights for three hours saved just £100 at the New Lawn ground. “It’s nothing – the equivalent of one steward for a matchday.”
The serial entrepreneur said the roughly £2,500 that would be saved over a season was a fraction of the overall energy bills, and he believes the savings could be wiped out by travel expenses. “If you have to travel across the country for a 12.30pm kick-off and the sports science now says the players need to eat three hours before, you’re likely to need a hotel stay, which now costs £5,000 – far more than the £600-£700 the lights might save.”
However, the economics will vary from club to club. Fair Game’s chief executive, Niall Couper, said: “The further down the leagues you go, the bigger the proportion that an energy bill will take of your costs. In the context of the pandemic and the cost of living crisis, it’s a massive concern.”
Teams are also more likely to have hospitality packages based on traditional 3pm kick-offs, such as lunches in corporate suites.
The impact of energy bills will be felt beyond just the matchday. The Fair Game survey showed 60% of lower league clubs were considering halting ground improvement work as a result of the pressures, while 38% were preparing to look at their non-playing staff budgets. Clubs may also close certain stands, as already happens in poorly attended cup games, to save money.
Clubs will be eligible for the government support scheme to cut business energy bills, but there are question marks over how generous the discounts will prove to be.
An anticipated fall in matchday revenues is unlikely to help. About one in four fans expect to attend fewer fixtures over the winter period, and away attendance could halve, the FSA survey showed.
Vince said: “We haven’t had the crowds that we had expected after being promoted into League One, even though we froze our prices. Even that hasn’t been enough to offset this problem, which is understandable given what people are facing.”
The energy headache will exacerbate what for many clubs are long-term financial woes. Of the 85 clubs that filed accounts for 2020, 44 were technically insolvent, reliant on a wealthy benefactor to survive.
The effects of the pandemic – when fans were not allowed to attend matches – will have further dented balance sheets since. There are fears that plans for an independent football regulator, seen as vital in improving clubs’ attitudes to financial risk, could be shelved by the new regime in Downing Street.
Couper said: “When a football club enters administration, it has a huge effect on the local area – the modern-day butcher, baker, candlestick maker is the plumber, caterer and printer. If the club goes, all of those go out of business.”