Consolidation, manifesting itself in the form of mergers and acquisitions of smaller companies by larger corporations, is a common practice in the free-market economy. Within the growing football industry, multi-club ownership – defined as an individual or a private company owning shares in two or more clubs – has become increasingly commonplace over the past decade.
In recent months, Atlético Torque (Uruguay) have become part of the City Football Group, Atlético de Madrid have invested in Atlético San Luis (Mexico) and AS Monaco have agreed to acquire Cercle Brugge KSV (Belgium). In this article, the KPMG Football Benchmark team reviews the multi-club ownership landscape across Europe’s ‘big five’ leagues.
In the late 1990s, the portfolio of current Tottenham Hotspur majority owners ENIC (formerly the English National Investment Company), also included a majority shareholding in Czech club Slavia Praha and a minority share in Greece’s AEK Athens. After both clubs qualified for the UEFA Cup (1999/2000), the European Court of Arbitration for Sports issued a ruling, which was adopted by UEFA, prohibiting any company or private individual to have control or influence over more than one club in the same European competition.
At a national level, in an effort to guarantee the integrity of domestic competitions, major leagues have implemented more rigorous legal safeguards on common ownership. However, in the global football landscape, these regulations have not prevented clubs’ expanding internationally through acquisitions, often targeting other European clubs not playing UEFA competitions or clubs that are members of other confederations.
When the objectives of the ownership-sharing clubs are complementary, a broader network may result that can leverage synergies from both a sporting (e.g. improve scouting networks) and business perspective (e.g. mutualize sponsorship efforts, cost efficiencies, sharing expertise and best practices). However, beneath the surface there are a number of challenges, including multi-club owners potentially facing opposition from fans if their club’s interest comes at the expense of a broader corporate body.
The Pozzo family provides an interesting case study. The family has demonstrated an impressive capability in identifying talent at Udinese Calcio, Granada CF – recently sold to Chinese firm Desport – and Watford FC. A larger club network has helped to minimize player acquisition costs while maximizing the profit from surging transfer fees as players were loaned between ‘sister clubs’ and later sold at a premium. However, clubs have also profited from this unique network with both Granada CF and Watford achieving promotion to LaLiga and Premier League respectively.
Fast-growing groups owned by ambitious shareholders – such as Club Atlético de Madrid and the City Football Group (‘CFG’) – have also chosen this path with the aim of benefitting from a future pay-off, although their objectives do differ. Atlético and CFG share the common goal of accelerating the growth of their brands. In this regard, emerging football markets such as United States, where CFG owns Major League Soccer (MLS) franchise New York City FC, or India, where both Atlético and AFC Fiorentina partially own Indian Super League (ISL) franchises, provide unique exposure and access to key markets.
This strategy, although appealing for newcomers willing to raise their international profile and benefit from operational synergies, can still appear risky for more established and prestigious European strongholds. Leagues such as MLS, ISL or the Australian A-League are often closed and operate under strict salary cap regulations, fostering a greater level of competitiveness across the league. Therefore, clubs who might want to be associated only with the highest levels may be more reluctant to follow this path and wish to consider alternative strategies. FC Barcelona, for example, has confirmed their intention to create a women’s football franchise to join USA’s National Women’s Soccer League.
While franchises in emerging football markets may help to expand the club’s global footprint, investments aimed at enhancing an organisation’s ability to identify and recruit talent are increasingly common and have been largely focused on traditional football nations. Examples such as Atlético Torque (CFG), Atlético San Luis (Atlético Madrid) and - yet to be confirmed - Cercle Brugge (AS Monaco) clearly demonstrate this approach, with owners opting for lower division clubs that could provide low investment access to local talent.
Finally, the case of the Red Bull club network reflects how an enterprise with little past association with football can leverage a multi-club strategy. Similar to other football powerhouses, Red Bull has gradually invested in the rebranding of clubs in key markets, reflecting the company´s global business strategy. However, unlike other analysed cases, the Red Bull network currently includes two clubs which may yet qualify to the 2017/18 Champions League. Although this has raised questions with regards to UEFA regulations, the European governing body will only reveal its position should this scenario be confirmed at the end of the season.
In a growing football market, a larger number of clubs may follow the examples of the above-mentioned organisations to grow their brands, diversify their business and optimize their operations. In most cases, multi-club structures are expected to continue having a single club at the centre of their strategy. However, in a changing environment, regulators will continue to play a key role and, as was the case with ENIC in 2000, next season’s Champions League edition may yet set a new precedent.
Further investigation into this and related topics, as well as analysis of industry data, can be undertaken for you by KPMG Sports Advisory Practice. Our subject matter experts can also assist stakeholders in assessing and interpreting the potential impact on their organisations of any particular piece of research, identifying the underlying reasons behind specific trends or developing potential solutions and considering future scenarios.