Money talks with foreign accents

There was a time when the ownership of English football clubs was a parochial matter; boardrooms were occupied by local boys made good, hoping some of the glory rubbed off.

Even in the fledgling days of the Premiership, Jack Walker, a local boy made very good indeed, was able to invest a large chunk of his £500-million fortune in Blackburn Rovers without attracting anything other than envy.

Now, eight years after Blackburn’s sole Premiership title, the faces of foreign investors are as likely to be seen beaming out from directors’ boxes as overseas players out on the pitch.
On screens in the world’s financial markets, as well as in living rooms, the Premiership has become truly global.

The appeal to investor and fan alike is largely based on television, and in the past three years that outreach has grown. The current three-year deal for international rights, which expires at the end of this season, netted the Premier League £173-million, a fee that looked modest only a year into the deal when global viewing figures for the Premiership outstripped those for La Liga in Spain, having already surpassed Serie A in the 1990s.

In many countries, from the Far East to South Africa, more hours of live Premiership action are shown on local TV stations than in Britain. The matches also support massive betting markets and the merchandising potential, as Manchester United will testify, is huge.

During the current TV deal the number of countries watching the Premiership has grown from 140 to more than 160 and last year an estimated 570-million people saw at least one match.

Overseas TV stations are using the Premiership to lever their channels into homes in the same way BSkyB did in Britain and in some countries pre- and post-match coverage is equivalent to that seen on British screens. The players are household names around the world, a facet that helps attract the best players in the world to England, and foreign money with them.

According to Milan Mandaric, Portsmouth’s Serbian-American chairperson, the Premiership’s appeal is emotional and practical.

‘For 30 years I have been involved with the football business — in the United States, in Belgium and in France — but always the No 1 country for me was England,” he said. ‘England was always a target and as soon as I could afford the time I came here and looked for a club. I wanted to take a club that had some difficulties and turn them into winners, and that was what we have done at Portsmouth.

‘The Premiership is the greatest league in the world to be in because you have global exposure on television, you are being seen in the Far East and in the new markets, but it is also easier to buy into a club here than in other countries.

‘I’m sure we will see more and more overseas investors becoming involved. It is an unbelievable level of football in the Premiership, and people will get involved for prestige, for football and, of course, for financial reasons.”

According to Dan Jones of the accounting group Deloitte and Touche’s football unit, the Premiership attracts two types of investor: those motivated by profit and those driven by the ‘trophy” value of owning a club.

‘There is a great deal more of the latter happening at the moment,” he said. ‘Investors’ patience with football has run out somewhat. The exception, of course, is Manchester United, which is attractive to both types because, almost uniquely, it consistently generates profit.”

Following in the footsteps of Roman Abramovich, whose takeover of Chelsea transformed the club’s fortunes, several billionaires and one foreign government were last week linked with English clubs.

The Arsenal vice-chairperson, David Dein, has been in talks with Oleg Deripaska and Vladimir Potanin, who like Abramovich are staggeringly wealthy oligarchs, but largely anonymous outside Russia.

Leeds, with debts of £49,5-million, have received several million pounds’ worth of assistance from Sheikh Abdul bin Mubarak al-Khalifa, an oil-rich member of Bahrain’s ruling dynasty and apparently a committed fan.

Fulham, already owned by a foreigner in the shape of the reluctant Egyptian Mohamed al Fayed, have been approached by Thailand’s Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, who is considering buying the west London club.

Some Premiership clubs are reliant on overseas investment to pay the wages. Three have outright foreign ownership: Fulham, Portsmouth and Chelsea. At Tottenham, the Greek shipping magnate Polys Haji-Ioannou, brother of the EasyJet tycoon Stelios, owns 9% through his investment company Hodram, making him the third-biggest stakeholder behind the former chairperson, Alan Sugar, and Enic.

Manchester United have several sizeable shareholders who were born far from the Stretford End. Malcolm Glazer from the US holds a 9,7% stake, the Dutchman John de Mol 4,1%, and Cubic Expression, a company owned by the Irish investors John Magnier and JP McManus, owns 23% of the club. —

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