Key motivations behind buying a professional football club

28.01.2020

European football clubs have been increasingly targeted by investors. Just recently, City Football Group (CFG), the owner of EPL champions Manchester City was reported selling an over 10 per cent stake in its business to US private equity firm Silver Lake for around USD 500 million. Late last year, Italy-born American magnate Rocco Commisso paid EUR 165M for Fiorentina to local owners the Della Valle family. According to most recent media reports, American businessman Dan Friedkin is to buy Roma for a reported fee in the range of EUR 780M, while a group of investors led by Saudi Public Investment Fund (PIF) are in advanced talks on the potential takeover of Newcastle United FC, with the deal valuing the club at GBP 340M.

There are many different football club owner archetypes: from well-known local businessmen to foreign billionaires, from private equity firms to supporter groups. Buyers of football clubs are unparalleled in their variety of type and the motives that drive them.

Club owners can be categorized by their value creation focus - as illustrated by this chart1.


 

Using this framework, the KPMG Football benchmark team have collected the most common motivations behind acquiring a professional football club for each owner category. Some of the motivations could conceivably apply to multiple owner types; they are listed under the most relevant one.
 

Political ownership (strategic capital)

Positive PR and brand-building
Football clubs are unique assets, often with great visibility, attracting the interest of significantly large groups of people and audiences. As such, they are suitable to function as communication channels and media platforms; they not only convey information about the team’s achievements and activities to their fans but can also relay the messages of commercial partners and sponsors in an effective, attention-grabbing and authentic manner. A football club can be a vehicle for countries, companies or individuals to grow their brand awareness and improve public image. For example, Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City FC are often seen as ambassadors for the countries of their owners, Qatar and the UAE, respectively. Another example is AC Milan, who were owned by businessman and former Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi for almost 30 years.

Unique advertising capability
Similarly to the previous motivation, owners may choose to capitalise on branding and sponsorship opportunities for other companies/products they own or are associated to, through their football clubs. One example is the case of Mike Ashley, who as the owner of both Sports Direct and Newcastle United FC is able to capitalise on the club’s prime advertising spaces (stadium name, live TV appearances, etc.) to grow the brand of the business.

Geopolitical motivations
In recent years the football industry has seen a considerable expansion of Chinese investment into the sector predominantly though the acquisition of European teams. The Chinese government’s stated goal of developing and growing football, enabled in certain cases club purchases to be used as a form of “soft power” in order to attain political standing or more advantageous business positioning within the world’s fastest growing economy. The use of football club “soft power” can also apply when entering new markets abroad: the recent Chinese takeovers of three Birmingham-based professional clubs are an example of this.

Network of contacts
Being the owner of a club can often present a unique setting for meeting with highly influential people. Numerous relationships have been built through access to the world’s top football club boardrooms, as well as providing owners with an impressive entertainment platform for the famous and powerful people that wish to attend matches.
 

Global ownership (economic capital)

Maximisation of financial gains
In recent years, with skyrocketing media rights revenues, (especially in the UK), increasing financial sustainability fostered by the introduction of Financial Fair Play regulations, a key reason behind investment football club investment is to operate it as a business in order to gain dividends and capital growth. An example of this type of rationale would be Manchester United FC, who are owned by the Glazer family. The Glazers had already been well-known sports team investors in the USA when they decided to invest in the Premier League. They selected Manchester United FC as their acquisition target because the club had already been in a good position to succeed commercially. Other American investors have overseen more significant growth at their respective clubs both on and off the pitch (e.g. Liverpool FC under the ownership of the Fenway Sports Group). 

Potential for global growth
Interest in football has been growing significantly on a global scale for the past three decades. This growth has been further accelerated by the internet and the development of digital media platform in recent years. This growth is appealing for prospective owners who would like to be part of this phenomenon. If an investor can find the right team, apply a successful strategy and also find the right moment in time, the booming broadcasting deals and commercial revenue growth can potentially provide a return on investment and a profit-making scenario. “For the most part, [football clubs] are seen as a trophy asset. As long as a football club keeps performing on the pitch at the same level as when you bought it, then it will hold value and likely increase its value. It’s a long-term asset that you hope will appreciate.” – says Rory Miller of Liverpool University.

Tax considerations
For certain owners it can be beneficial to optimise their tax burden by strengthening the ties between their profitable companies and loss-making football club.2

Speculation for future gains (promotion to higher division)
Especially in England, one of the reasons behind the high level of investment activity in lower division clubs is the potential reward of Premier League promotion. This can be seen as speculative: in most cases a high level of investment in the playing squad (transfers, player wages) is required to reach this goal, often resulting in loss-making operations. The high rewards of Premier League football can more than make up for these, but if the coveted promotion is not realised within a short timeframe, the accumulated losses can be devastating for a club. „Buying a Championship club is therefore like taking a punt on property in an up-and-coming part of town” (BBC).3

“Clubs” buying other clubs
Football club management expertise is a skill that can be used to take advantage of the global sector growth.  The best example of this is the City Football Group: the ownership group behind Manchester City FC, the most, but not the only successful example of the multi-club ownership model, has strategically invested in other teams across the globe: the Group has a stake in clubs in England, Spain, the USA, Australia, Japan, Uruguay, China and India.
 

Local ownership (Cultural Capital) and Supporter ownership (Social Capital)

Strong ties to the community
F
ootball clubs are also major part of their local ecosystem – certain clubs are at the heart of smaller communities, driving employment and undertaking socially responsible initiatives. Therefore, local (wealthy) individuals can see a club as a platform to take on a broader role and “give back” to the community. An example of this is Accrington Stanley FC, who were acquired by Andy Holt, a Lancashire-based businessman in 2015. As expressed numerous times during his tenure, Holt does not see the club as a business venture.4

Club affiliation and fandom
Individuals or groups who are fans of the team have perhaps the clearest motivation to be involved in the running of the club. Many famous clubs, including Real Madrid CF and FC Barcelona are still supporter-owned to this day. In Germany, the 50+1 regulation means that practically every professionally club has an ownership structure in which fans have the majority share.

 


[1] Groen, A., Ingrid, A.M., Wakkee and De Weerd-Nederhof, P.C., (2008). Managing Tensions in a High-tech Start-up: An Innovation Journey in Social System perspective. International Small Business Journal. Vol 26 (1) 57-81
[2] https://www.bbc.com/sport/football/36266364
[3] https://www.bbc.com/news/business-26365955
[4] https://www.lancashiretelegraph.co.uk/sport/13926299.display/