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One of the biggest things that have impacted many British people has been overseas money that has resulted in soccer team acquisitions. There is a certain irony in someone like myself who isn’t that emotionally invested in sport writing about the impact of soccer team acquisions – but maybe my view from the outside in may get somewhere closer to the truth.
I worked on lacrosse brand Warrior’s foray into soccer and helped relaunch the New Balance offering in football. (It had previously made football boots in the 1980s and had English football team captain Bryan Robson as their spokesperson.)
I have visited major football stadiums in Ireland, the UK and Spain – but still don’t have an emotional connection to the game.
Over my life I have seen football change as a pass time. Football was a decidedly working class sport with concrete floors on terraced stands with railings to lean on, clubs could pack in their fan base to watch a game standing up.
Roy of the Rovers
The sport was lionised in comics, notably football player Roy Race aka Roy of The Rovers, which ran from 1954 – 1993. It has been rebooted a couple of times, most recently by Rebellion, publisher of 2000AD and Judge Dredd.
It is no coincidence that most of the UK’s most prestigious clubs were in historic large working class population centres: Liverpool, Manchester, Nottingham, Leeds and Leicester.
John Moores to Delia Smith
For working class entrepreneurs, soccer team acquisitions and team ownership were a way of demonstrating their position at the acme of their community. John Moores – the scion of the Moores family who founded the Littlewoods empire based on the working class love of betting on football match outcomes. Moores then went on to set up a mail order retail company also called Littlewoods, which mixed a wide product range with payment by instalments.
From mail order Moores rolled out a network of value orientated department stores that catered to working class communities. To give you an idea of how ubiquitous Littlewoods was, everyone I knew at school had school shirts, trousers, jumpers and blazers from Littlewoods.
In 1960, Moores become a director and then sealed his place in Liverpool society by becoming chairman of Everton Football Club. From this achievement he became a freeman of the city of Liverpool in 1980 and received a knighthood ten years later.
Delia Smith is as famous in the UK for her cookery as she is for her ownership of Norwich City Football Club. A school leaver without qualifications, Smith built up a reputation for cooking after the austerity of the post-war years when cooking had no longer been passed down from mother to daughter due to food rationing. This eventually garnered being published in newspapers and magazines, her own TV series, books, a sponsorship deal with Sainsbury’s and an online cooking portal.
Smith and her husband were not from Norwich, but had chosen to make their home there. They cemented their place in the community when Smith bought into the club in 1996, where she has a reputation as an impassioned owner.
“This is a message for possibly the best supporters in the world. We need a 12th man. Where are you? Where are you?”Delia Smith broadcast on BBC Radio Norfolk during a match against Manchester City
Smith like Moores was never going to make a fortune from football.
Football is our religion
In their push for viewer subscriptions, British satellite pay TV provider Sky Sports ran an anthem advert that got to the core of the British relationships with their football team.
In the advert, actor Sean Bean reads a manifesto written by Leeds United fan, who also wrote, directed and produced the film.
It can be difficult
You know that
We all need someone to rely on
Someone who’s going to be there
Someone who’s going to make you feel like you belong
It’s ectasy, anguish, joy and despairBarry Skolnick
Part of our history
Part of our country
And it will be part of our future
It’s theatre, art, war and love
It should be predictable … but never is
It’s a feeling that can’t be explained but we spend our lives explaining it
It’s our religion
We do not apologise for it
We do not deny it
They’re our team, our family and our life.
If the football match is their service, then the football stadium is their church and their bible is the history of teams and and their gospel chapters individual player biographies. In Britain weddings, funerals and baptisms may happen in a church – but that’s about the limit of religious activities for many people.
Catalysts were in place for new types of soccer team acquisitions.
How to become a millionaire?
The perceived wisdom about owning a football team was encapsulated in a British joke:
How to become a millionaire? Be a billionaire and then buy yourself a football team
But that isn’t always the case. In America there was a class of investors who realised that owning sports teams with substantial media rights didn’t give regular dividends but did offer the opportunity of a big payout when exiting and selling the business on. People like the Glaser family and their experience with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers took their expertise to English Premier League football. Acquiring undervalued teams, maximising the value and selling them on. This hasn’t been without controversy with fans being openly hostile to the owners.
A new type of British entrepreneur tried the same thing, the exemplar being Mike Ashley at Newcastle United.
Hot media property
Remember when I said about owning substantial media rights? The media rights themselves were a catalyst to changing the business and driving soccer team acquisitions. 1991 was a seminal year in English football with the founding of the Premier League. It was a break top flight football needed. At the time stadiums were in need of refurbishment and fans facilities were in a poor state. There were security issues at matches due to organised crowd violence. The English were only recently allowed back into European inter-league competitions after bans due to hooliganism.
The Premier League allowed clubs to tap into funds to help rebuild stadiums and make nicer facilities. Knock on effects of this included a pivot towards middle class customers and corporate entertainment which affected the atmosphere in the stadiums, but made the matches more media friendly. This meant football clubs became more brand friendly and opened new commercial doors for sponsorships.
The world is watching
The rise of the Premier League also saw the rise of international media rights. Matches were broadcast around the world. Clubs suddenly found that they had a fan base half way around the world. English football tended to be more exciting to watch due to its playing style versus European clubs. It also attracted sports betting. One of the things that most surprised me travelling in Asia was running into fans not only of Liverpool or Manchester United but also lower profile clubs like Blackburn.
The renovation of stadiums meant that clubs were ready for tourism and their merchandise sold around the world. A Manchester United football shirt appeared in even more cities than an ‘Irish’ pub. The clubs became global brands, which attracted the interest of American investors who realised the opportunity that English soccer clubs offered.
Second wave buyers
Skilful investors in English clubs don’t make money in soccer team acquisitions and running the clubs, but in selling their team. The next tranche of investors to shake up English football were foreigners resident in the UK and looking to enmesh themselves in British society some of them like Alexander Lebedev managed to buy the Evening Standard newspaper, which instantly gave him influence. However there are more opportunities to own a top flight football team due to media consolidation, AND, you probably have more chance of making more money on exiting the investment.
The exemplar for this second wave would be Russian business man Roman Abramovich who had made is money in the post-Soviet era from energy and aluminium processing. He went on to buy Chelsea Football Club, one of the most high profile soccer team acquisitions of the early 2000s, if not the past quarter century. Under his ownership the club went under the kind of development that American owners had looked to achieve, but on a world stage. His ability to spend also distorted the transfer market for football players.
By the end of the decade, a Europe wide set of regulations were brought into effect to try and reduce the distortion that second wave buyers and their soccer team acquisitions could bring to club competition called the UEFA Financial Fair Play Regulations.
Even as a high profile member of British society, Chelsea couldn’t provide the shield that Mr Abramovich needed to stave off suspension of his tier one visa allowing entry at will to the UK in 2018. It also didn’t stop the sanctions deployed against him, amongst other Kremlin-connected business people after the 2022 invasion of Ukraine.
Third wave of soccer team acquisitions
The third wave of soccer team acquisitions are from Gulf Cooperation Council member states:
- Bahrain – Bahrain is unlikely to be doing any large soccer team acquisitions, though it has bought into second tier side Paris FC. It is a regional tourist destination for people in the Middle East and has built up a finance services sector that has a regional footprint. However it has relied on financial help from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia
- Kingdom of Saudi Arabia
Their motivations are multi-pronged in nature:
- Diversification of national wealth out of extracting oil and gas into assets that will continue to deliver returns after the oil runs out. In this respect they are no different to the sovereign funds of countries like Norway or Singapore
- Media ambitions, Qatar already hosts the main service provider showing life professional football across the Middle East. Soccer team acquisitions could be thought of as vertical integration. For other countries, it could be seen as hedging against Qatar’s sports media hegemony
- Increasing their soft power to improve their security status. This is also why Qatar hosted FIFA World Cup in 2022
- Societal influence. The House of Saud have been the guardians of some of Islam’s holiest sites for about a century. Now they are the guardians of St James’ Park through their majority ownership via the Saudi government Public Investment Fund. This may give them a contingent to draw upon during difficult times in their relationship with the UK, particularly as Saudi oil becomes less important as an energy source. (Saudi oil will still be important as a chemical feedstock for every aspect of modern life including Tesla batteries, but hydrogen and electric power via alternative energy sources will reduce the impact of an oil embargo considerably.)
Ryan Reynolds purchase of Wrexham is an anomaly. Soccer team acquisitions to build a media juggernaut are hard to do and Reynolds has shown he is uniquely creative with Aviation Vodka and Mint Mobile. He has managed to create a media property out of a lower league football team and bring pride back to a small North Wales town that hasn’t had much going for it since I was a child.
The club was community owned and has had a modest 2 million pounds invested in it since 2011. But it made great reality television in a healthy way. How long the halo of Hollywood lasts is a bigger question, but any attention given to the former steel making and coal mining town has got to be welcome.