Hibs owner Ron Gordon: "Scottish football packs a big punch"
30 May 2021
Peru-born businessman Ron Gordon took majority control of Scottish club Hibernian in July 2019.
The club has seen revenue decline about 30 per cent during the pandemic with cash reserves taking a hit.
Gordon, whose background is in broadcasting and banking, plans to double revenue in five to six years by improving the matchday experience and commercial income.
He says more matches should be broadcast in Scotland and hopes Hibs can "emulate" the best practices of the Old Firm clubs.
Asking Hibernian owner Ron Gordon to sum up the nearly two years since he bought the Edinburgh-based club seems like a loaded question.
"On the one hand, it's been an absolutely wonderful and exciting and challenging experience. It's probably been more than I anticipated in terms of how fulfilling and rewarding it's been," he tells offthepitch.com.
"And on the other hand, my timing was perhaps not the best."
Gordon bought the majority shareholding from previous owner Sir Tom Farmer and then chairman Rod Petrie in July 2019. Around eight months later, the Covid-19 pandemic forced football to stop, with the impact ravaging the finances of virtually every professional club.
Not just a one season hit
In March, Hibs revealed turnover during the suspended 2019/20 season was down 17 per cent, to £8.9 million (€10.3m) from £10.8 million (€12.5m). Despite cutting costs, including in hospitality and matchday operations, the club finished the season with a £1.4 million operating loss.
At June 30, 2020, the club had about £5.3 million (€6.1m) in cash. By the end of last year, with fans still not back in stadiums, that had fallen to £2.6 million.
"Covd-19 will possibly impact three seasons. It'll be 19/20, 20/21 and 21/22, though hopefully not too badly," Gordon, who has "never regretted" buying Hibs, says.
"It's not just a one season hit, it's a three-season hit. That's a little unsettling but it seems to me we're at the end of that.
"I also think the club to some degree has taken advantage and perhaps seen a little bit of a silver lining in Covid-19. It's given us a chance to reorganise our operation, our staff, and reset some of our planning. I think generally speaking we've made the best out of a difficult situation."
Based in Miami
From a sporting perspective, this has been a fine season for Hibs. The club finished third in the Scottish Premiership, their highest placing for 16 years, to secure a place in European competition. They also reached the Scottish Cup final but lost to St. Johnstone.
Gordon was born in Peru, where his love for football was born, and moved to the United States as a teenager. Now based in Miami, he has a background in broadcasting and banking and founded TV production company ZGS Communications, selling it in 2017 for a reported $75 million.
While Scottish football had an emotional pull for Gordon, whose grandfather emigrated from Scotland to Peru in 1908, he spent about four years looking at different investment opportunities before choosing Hibs. He considered clubs in England, Spain, the US and Latin America but found at Hibs, "the pros were significantly longer than the cons".
"The club is a fantastic club and there are also the opportunities it presents. I think there's a desire within the Scottish game to improve the league but already it's a small country that packs a big punch. It has two very big clubs that do well in Europe, generally speaking," Gordon says.
We have to fill that hole
"The (UEFA) coefficient for Scotland is quite good but it can even be better, which allows clubs like Hibs to have a real opportunity to be in Europe on a consistent basis. Those kinds of opportunities are not available in many countries in Europe."
In February last year, just before the pandemic hit Europe, Gordon said the plan was to double turnover at Hibs in the next five years. Now, he still thinks that "ambitious" goal is possible, once the club has recovered to its pre-Covid situation.
We haven't engaged some of the top brands in Edinburgh with football and we need to do that
"I think it's doable. Our revenue probably took a 30 per cent hit so we have to fill that hole and then begin the growth. If it's not five years (from now), hopefully we can do that in six years or something like that," Gordon says.
"If we don't get to that number, but we're headed in that direction, that would be great."
Maximising matchday revenue is part of the plan with average attendances well below the 20,421 capacity at Hibs' Easter Road ground in recent – non Covid-affected – seasons. A new audio system and big screen were part of an initial £1 million spend when Gordon took control and he is planning more infrastructure investments.
Greenest club in Scotland
"We want to enrich the stadium, its look and feel, and create a better environment for the club. So that includes some digital assets that we're going to put in, perhaps a coat of fresh paint, and just make the stadium look a little bit more alive," he says.
"I think we will have the ability to generate a little bit of excitement and more of a production around coming to Easter Road. I say all the time that coming to Easter Road should be a celebration. It should be a celebration of the game and it should be a celebration of our club and our city."
Gordon sees an opportunity to grow commercial income. Hibs have been named the "greenest club in Scotland" and committed to initiatives including deriving 100 per cent of the club's energy from renewable sources and recycling all matchday waste. Gordon says the move has attracted brands who share their eco-friendly outlook.
He also wants to leverage more local partners and believes Scottish football in general needs to "bring more value around the product".
There is value there
"We haven't engaged some of the top brands in Edinburgh with football and we need to do that. It is a little bit of a rugby town but there is a huge fan base and when you aggregate the delivery of Hibs and Hearts, there's a lot of football support," Gordon says.
"Scotland has the highest per capita attendance of any country in Europe. It's very much a part of the Scottish cultural fabric. There is value there and we need to reflect that, not only from a commercial perspective, but also the image and brand of the game and our clubs."
There is a desire to share best practice and other ideas with like-minded clubs, from a business and sporting perspective. Earlier this week, a partnership with Brighton & Hove Albion was announced with an emphasis on player development at both clubs.
A smaller US club is also on board with Hibs and the club ultimately wants four to five partner clubs, including one or two from continental Europe.
Matchday income is comfortably the most important revenue stream for Scottish clubs. According to Deloitte, it made up 48 per cent of total club revenue in 2019/20. Gordon believes broadcast revenues in Scotland are "underperforming".
Very, very big clubs
He also thinks it is time to reconsider the broadcast "blackout" in the UK which forbids top-flight matches that kick-off at 3pm on Saturday being televised.
"I think the more you expose people to the game and the Scottish game and your clubs, the more engaged they are. The more engaged they are, the more likely they are to come to the game at the stadium," he says.
"So I'm all for broadcasting more games and exposing more teams to more fans."
We have tried to get a game plan, not to get us to the level of a Celtic or Rangers today, but maybe we can close the gap … and keep moving up that food chain
On and off the pitch, football in Scotland has been dominated by the two Glasgow giants – Celtic and Rangers – for decades. Aberdeen's title in 1985 was the last championship won by a club outside the Old Firm. In the 2019/20 season, Celtic and Rangers secured revenue of £70.2 million (€81.5m) and £59 million (€68.5m) respectively.
"At the end of the day, they are very, very big clubs. The gap between those two and the next two or three is substantial," Gordon says.
"But on the other hand, it is an opportunity for us to not only ride their coattails, but emulate what they do. They're absolutely leading clubs. So we want to take some of their best practices.
"I think, for example, having Rangers go as deep as it did in Europe is a positive reflection on the game. We want more Scottish clubs to go deeper in Europe every year, and just essentially enhance the value of our game, which is going to be reflected in the transactions, for example, for players and how they value a player that comes from the Scottish league."
Keep moving up
While it seems a daunting task to break up the "big two" anytime soon, Gordon's focus is on growing revenues to start to catch up.
"Some clubs are bigger than others. We have tried to get a game plan, not to get us to the level of a Celtic or Rangers today, but maybe we can close the gap … and keep moving up that food chain," he says.
"Whether it's the SFA Cup or Leicester winning the Premier League, that's what makes football exciting. You just never know when David is going to slay Goliath."