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Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Global Game, Global Coin: Foreign Investors in English Footy

There is an epidemic in the United Kingdom. It's not black death or skinheads, but foreign ownership of English Football clubs. Before you close this tab... hear me out.

On the heels of rumors out of Toronto that Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment (owners and proprietors of all the major sports franchises in Toronto) is searching for a team to buy within the English football realm, I've become vexed by the demand for this particular asset class. You have to consider that painfully rich men are so because they know how to manage their money, hence their investments are typically sound. But is the driving force behind this phenomena purely economical or for sport? What happens to teams that fall under foreign ownership and what has brought about this superficially-peculiar trend?

As it turns out, the answer to why was sowed by the seeds of early English ideals: prosperous business endeavors fostered through free markets and product distribution. Specifically, the English Football Association decided in 1992 to allow capitalism to dictate their operations resulting in the sale of television rights to a satellite service for distribution. Viewed as sell outs by other European nations who initially turned their back on the opportunity, they're now faced with the collateral damage brought about by those decisions: the demand for capital and foreign ownership.

The ownership docket is stocked with grossly wealthy foreigners. In addition to the Canadian interest expressed above, add Dubai International capital to the list of those in search of a franchise. Additionally, more successful parties have already landed several notable franchises, namely: Chelsea (Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich), Liverpool (Americans Tom Hicks and George Gillet), and Manchester United (US tycoon Malcolm Glazer). We can be assured their interest in the game took a back seat to their investment concerns, but how do those with genuine fanatical interest in the beautiful game take to the invasion? For some insight, lets bring this scenario closer to home.

Imagine the riots in Indianapolis if Yang Huiyan purchased the Colts? You couldn't swing a dead cat in and around the Lucas Oil Stadium without hitting a Colts fan seething with outrage. Cries of, “why don't they stick to table tennis!” are echoed loudly, with others screaming, “...all the Chinese know is humping, Communism and dog eating! Leave the NFL alone!” The day the headline brakes every Chinese restaurant in the state of Indiana will be surrounded by angry, blood lusting crowds – a reaction this side of the pond might even deem rational (Ok, maybe just the Americans.)

Or maybe Canada too. What if the Montreal Canadians were purchased by Mukesh Ambani? You could bet your ass the province of Quebec wouldn't lie down quietly. They'd rightly fail to see the merits in allowing a cricket-loving billionaire the rights to control their franchise. And finally we've arrived at the krux of the issue -- clearly the owners money is good, but are their intentions?

Some owners make a habit of menacing with their teams day-to-day affairs: Al Davis and Jerry Jones come to mind (thankfully for Cowboys fans to differing results). Foreign ownership has the potential to put your organization on shaky ground if the person with the controlling interests has no prior knowledge of the sport, something these English teams seemed to overlook. Fortunately however, these wealthy owners know the value of winning. Even those rich enough to afford to lose millions would never tolerate it if things could be changed, which brings us full circle: allowing foreigners to invest and/or purchase franchises serves as a brilliantly orchestrated security blanket for organizations looking to secure future success.

When the new ownership plunks down a sizable chunk of their fortune, they do so with the intention of using the professional sports franchise as a vehicle to grow said fortune. Thus, winning as a model for growth, brand loyalty and positive return on investment becomes paramount to the guys who sign the cheques. Does this win-to-profit ideology suss out?

Yea. Chelsea just finished second in all of Europe, losing to Manchester United. Liverpool won the UEFA Champions League in 2005, won the FA Cup in 2006, and finished as runner-up in the UEFA Final of 2007. This success has ensured spots on the top 10 revenue-producing clubs in the world for Manchester United (4th) and Liverpool (10th) with Chelsea undoubtedly nipping on their heels. Finally, we've found the reason for the lack of outrage from the English: winning cures all ails.

1 comment:

The Commentator said...

Good points.

In the case of the Habs, I woudl submit that it already happened. It was met with the usual hollow anti-American nonsense following Gillette's purchase - albeit for a brief period. Any anger was sullied and numbed by the fact that NO CANADIAN OR QUEBEC businessman stepped up.

Then again, after what happened with the Expos, I wouldn't want a Quebec-based consortium of parochial businessmen running a major league operation.

As for soccer, yes in recent times English clubs have done very well and this has distracted fans but it is having (so the argument goes) a negative effect on the quality of English players developed - though Capello feels there's enough talent to win.

In addition, the rest of the EPL as a league counting from the Big Four downwards is sometimes unwatchable. It's become a product and for this reason I suppose "the continentals" have a point.

Mind you, the deeper discussion is whether anyone is developing true footballers. Now it's all based on physical attributes and speed. We think this is what makes a soccer player great. Players like Riquelme and Pirlo are throwbacks to a past era.

But what about the EPL's main rivals? Historically, Serie A and La Liga have known more success and they've produced world class players at the national/international level as well. Italy in particular has been extremely successful at producing great league AND international teams/players.

But they have other problems to worry about. Nonetheless, it hasn't happened yet but I suspect the EPL way of doing business may spread. I hear Soros is close to buying AS Roma and I wonder if 1) that will start a cascade of owners flocking to Italy where soccer dollars are potentially equal (if not greater) than England and 2) how Italians will react - let alone the rather abrasive Roma fans.

Nationalism usually is fleeting when dollars and victory follow as you aptly described.