Express & Star

Wolves chairman Jeff Shi's column: On long-term sustainability, Gary O'Neil's performance and season ticket prices

The Three Body Problem is an excellent sci-fi novel, written by Liu Cixin.

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The book won the Nebula Award in 2015 and was adapted into a TV series by Netflix in 2024.

In the story, human beings were lower creatures compared to the invading aliens who had much more advanced science and technology.

In one episode, the aliens hijacked every screen on the earth and showed three words to every human being: You Are Bugs. It’s undeniable that humans were exactly like bugs when they first fought against the extraterrestrial starships and weapons.

However, in the end the ‘bugs’ didn’t lose to the aliens, because though bugs were weak and small, they were surprisingly tenacious. Much like in history where humans exhausted all options trying to make locusts extinct, but this 200million-year-old insect still survives, and will probably outlive humans comfortably.

In our football pyramid, Wolves’ position is just like the humans in that universe of the novel. We are not as powerful as aliens, but not as small as bugs either.

We should learn from the biggest clubs to upgrade our operation, also it’s equally important for us to learn from the smaller clubs about patience and sustainability.

A football club is a very unique business.

In my view, successful examples from other industries, or even from other clubs, are not always adoptable here.

It’s not easy to give the club a clear identify. I personally don’t like the way some people call us a ‘project’, which implies short-term objective.

I am also not in favour that we are often described as the ‘stewards’, whose job is just to safeguard Wolves.

In fact, by our nature, we are entrepreneurs who seek for business and commercial values relentlessly.

However, the club is not a pure corporate either, because our fans are not average consumers, they love the club not only for its products but also for its uniqueness, character, and heritage. Their happinesses and emotions are tied to the club closely.

If I have the freedom to label the management team and staff at Wolves, I would say most of us are long-termists, which is the most important common identity for this group of people. We all come from different cities and different countries, from London, Shanghai, Paris, from Kent, Bath, Oxford, from Italy, Portugal, Netherlands, from all over the world, to Compton and Molineux, to passionately try to make something meaningful and long-term happen, for the club, and also for ourselves.

We understand there are no quick ways to build an enduring success of Wolves. For every short-cut, there is a double-back at the next corner.

Only when our team have learned enough, failed enough, experienced enough, and ultimately when we have improved enough, the true and long-lasting strength will come and stay.

Gary O'Neil. Picture: Nick Potts/PA Wire.

Gary O’Neil and his coaching team have done a great job this year. Without the unlucky injuries and controversial refereeing decisions, we could have had a top-half finish.

But more importantly than our position in the table this season, we have built the core of a competitive and talented squad, and the foundation to progress further.

Sometimes you can be lucky or unlucky to finish a season with a higher or lower position, however, if the squad needs an overhaul, or the coach loses ideas or passion, the next season might be challenging.

Evaluating ourselves, finding the values and advantages that could help us looking forward with a beer and clearer foresight, then addressing the areas we should improve and correct, is always our immediate focus after each season.

It was a massive challenge when Gary took the job so late in the summer. We had no time to optimise the squad based on his demands.

He lacked time getting to know each player before helping them. He had no pre-season to shape his tactics and identity.

Back in 2016, when I began to work in Wolves, we were a mid-table Championship team, and because of several serious injuries and the departure of a couple of key players, we did struggle that season. I remember for a while we were truly in danger of being relegated into League One.

Before 2016, the last time Wolves managed to stay in the top division of English football for at least five consecutive years was from 1977 to 1982 – four decades ago. I was a little child then.

Next season will be my ninth year in Wolves and the seventh Premier League season. There is no doubt that this club has climbed two or three levels up in the football pyramid.

But throughout the nine years there were a lot of highs and lows; I would rather the upward curve be slow and flat, than fast and zigzag.

I think the key to stability is that the manager and club can grow together, support each other shoulder to shoulder on the long path. Sometimes one falls, the other picks them up and we stride forward again.

Fans also play an important role. If you only pursue trophies or consistent European football, Wolves might not be an ideal choice.

If you only love your local team and don’t mind their sporting achievements, Wolves may not be one either.

The chapter of Wolves now is about a patient story of growth; slow, but indomitable, driven by people and not capital.

All football clubs are competing on two paths, one is sporting competition, which we can watch every weekend.

The other is financial competition, which is usually behind the scenes, and only when something very bad happens people start to notice it. This phenomenon is very different from what we see in other industries, in which financials are always the most important indicators, and maybe the only thing investors and management care about. In another parallel universe, imagine if every club owner could provide unlimited funding, then the competition could be even simpler than the games in Football Manager.

Our universe is a bit more complicated, each owner’s pocket is limited, and in this case, if a club can’t find a way to be self-sufficient sooner or later, then the day its owner stops funding is literally the day it starts to prepare for administration or to be sold.

Therefore, by the end of every season, internally, when we measure our own performance, these factors are all crucial since they aim at both short and long-term success: sporting competitiveness, commercial growth and financial robustness.

This season, our commercial revenue is the highest in history, thanks to the contributions from our domestic and international fans, business partners and all the people who like and support Wolves. It’s not easy, since the macro environment of economy is still very tough. I am confident next season we will keep the upward trend and push for another record of both revenue and fanbase.

Our financial performance is also strong. If we remove non-recurring profit and loss, we should break even or be very close to a positive bottom line. We still need to be cautious about PSR, but no doubt financially we’ve turned the corner, successfully sailed out of the unprecedented storm that was mainly caused by the irrational arms race happening in front of our eyes in the league since Covid.

When we talk about commercial revenue, ticket prices are always a challenging subject. As a consumer myself, of course I want everything as cheap as possible.

It’s very understandable that some fans feel frustrated if the cost for Premier League games gets higher and higher.

The only way to price it fairly is benchmarking our price with the other 19 clubs, especially with those peers who have similar fanbase size, stadium capacity and sporting achievements. It shouldn’t be much higher than theirs but shouldn’t be much lower either.

Our ticketing team have researched each Premier League club, compared Wolves on almost every aspect with them.

I believe the final pricing is a fair and reasonable reflection of where we are now, where we were and where we are heading. Why is commercial growth so important? Some fans may argue that the TV rights revenue from the league is always the main source of cash.

They are right, however, from the cost side: wage bills can easily offset all the broadcasting contribution. In fact, clubs’ disposable income is mostly from commercial areas, which is also the key difference between the bigger clubs and us.

Recently, I received several encouraging messages from friends about our video feature Don’t Suffer In Silence.

Every person’s life story is different and unique – we want to hear theirs, and want to share ours. Though I talk a lot about business and football, it’s not my intention to make each fan an entrepreneur.

I just hope readers can learn more from me about what we are working on and aiming for, to enhance a mutual understanding between us, as the feature did.

All the staff in Wolves are working hard for you, our fans, to give you the best we can give – not for our own ego, not for our owners’ ego, not for the head coach or players’ ego, but for the moments we enjoy or suffer together, for the next step we stride forward together and for the next target we try to reach together.