By Suresh Nair
ANOTHER week and another football club being targeted by overseas investors in the so-called “English” Premier League.
Now Barnsley, in the Championship who was promoted the previous season, is on the verge of going under a Chinese consortium.
The “Home of Football” may appear to be invaded by foreign money and such will continue to be the extent of the foreign invasion in the English top flight that the talks of other similar moves have rarely raised a flicker of surprise.
I had expected something contrary, although from Singapore I fervently support the London-based Tottenham Hotspur and sometimes wonder why the Englishmen don’t show some nervousness that the legacies handed to the club by the founding forefathers, some over a century ago, may be squandered.
But the blunt truth of the matter is the reluctance to put clubs, many with well over 100 years of heritage and tradition behind them, in overseas hands has long since passed.
Just go back to the drawing boards: A staggering 57 per cent of clubs in England’s top two divisions are now owned or led by foreign investors. Do you know that 14 out of the 20 EPL clubs are now either owned or part-owned by overseas investors with only Burnley, Middlesbrough, Stoke, Spurs and West Ham now in British hands.
Look back your record books and you’ll note that a decade ago that number was nine and before Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich arrived with his roubles in 2003, it was zero.
EROSION OF ENGLISH GAME?
Football history is, rather unconsciously, taking a toll. But it’s a remarkable transformation in the make-up of ownership and while some fans are undoubtedly happy with the arrangement – most notably those of a Manchester City and Chelsea persuasion – others are growing increasingly uneasy at the apparent erosion of the national game.
That fear is magnified by recent figures released by UEFA (Europe’s football-controlling body), which suggest that 69.2% of players in the Premier League are foreigners. That same study found that over half the players in the Championship were also from overseas.
That trend on the pitch in the Championship is reflected by the ownership story off it too. Foreign owners enjoy control of 11 out of 24 second-tier clubs, including Aston Villa, Leeds United, Nottingham Forest and Wolves – four of English football’s most historic football institutions, ready for Premiership promotion.
The days when clubs were owned by local businessmen made good, it seems, are long gone.
IMPACT OF TELEVISION
“There are two arguments as to why this is happening,” says Rob Wilson, football finance expert at Sheffield Hallam University. “One is that these clubs are vastly more expensive than they used to be and, as a result, far fewer potential British investors can afford them.
“The second is that the impact of television exposure means the net has been widened more than anyone could have imagined. There’s also definitely money to be made by buying football clubs as a result of the recent TV deals.
“A number of these owners now, though, are what we call them trophy asset hunters. Abramovich was one when he took over at Chelsea – he wanted to hold that Champions League trophy above his head and say to the rest of the world that he had built this club, which is effectively what he was able to do.”
According to analysts, the “biggest carrot” lies in the EPL’s “product value” with £5.13bn in television rights deal for 2016-19 with added appeal for overseas investors.
London-based football journalist Malcolm Row says: “The new English Premier League demonstrates it remains one of the most attractive investment opportunities in European sport. The evidence of the past year has been compelling.”
FIFA, the world-controlling football body based in Zurich, says the EPL has the “biggest pull” for overseas owners. Row adds: “The impetus continues to be the money flooding into the game from broadcasting deals. Contracts that come into effect this season increase the value of the league’s domestic broadcast rights to £5.13bn. Accountancy firm Deloitte is forecasting that this will bring champions Leicester City revenues of at least £155m in the 2016-17 financial year, regardless of this season’s performances.”
Dan Jones, head of Deloitte’s sport business group, notes: “If ever there’s a repeat of last season’s achievements could propel this towards £200m this season – not bad for an outfit that boasted revenues of just £31m in 2014.”
But Jones warns that China will be the biggest game changer in reflecting a very significant step-up in its drive to become a soccer powerhouse although currently ranks 71st in FIFA global ranking out of 211 countries.
THE CHINESE THREAT
He says: “They’re going for the biggest carrots because they are harnessing on the product value. China’s global football mania must be seriously noted as they have a very long line of European football clubs to be taken over. Especially under football fan president Xi Jinping, China has ambitions of hosting the World Cup and the country’s top companies and richest entrepreneurs have rushed to pick up stakes in foreign clubs and buy foreign players for huge wages.”
For example, a consortium of Chinese state investment funds, China Media Capital and CITIC Capital, bought about 13 per cent of City Football Group which controls Premier League giants Manchester City, New York City in the US Major League Soccer and Melbourne City in Australia. This month the group bought Uruguayan side Atletico Torque and they also have a minority stake in Japan’s Yokohama Marinos. The deal was worth about 265 million pounds (us$400 million).
West Bromwich Albion is another prominent target. Yunyi Guokai Sports Development, a Chinese investment fund headed by construction tycoon Lai Guochuan, bought an 88 per cent stake in the Premier League club, for an estimated US$250 million (230 million euros) in August 2016. Guochan says his aim is to establish Albion at the top of the league but he has not yet spent big at the club. The purchase completed a Chinese sweep of nearly all the top clubs around the Midlands city of Birmingham.
Aston Villa, tipped for EPL promotion next season, comes under Recon Holdings, a fund controlled by businessman Tony Xia, acquired the club for 76.5 million pounds (US$96 million) in June 2016. Recon specialises in information technology, healthcare, logistics and culture. Xia replaced coach Roberto di Matteo with Steve Bruce after just 11 games. And Villa lies sixth in the latest Championship table
The fury of Wolves, the lead favourites to be promoted to the EPL, cannot be discounted. The Fosun conglomerate, which owns the Club Med holiday resorts and is owned by Guo Guangchang, one of China’s biggest tycoons, bought Wolves in July 2016 for an estimated 45 million pounds (US$59 million), according to British media.
The last Premier League champions under English ownership were Arsenal in 2003/04 in the days before the main stakeholders in the club were from the USA and Uzbekistan.
Few could argue that Abramovich – who has long since stopped handing Chelsea managers blank cheques – and Sheikh Mansour at Manchester City have put as much in as they are getting out.
“In many ways the ownership at Manchester City has reflected what a traditional British business man would have done – they’ve played a big role in regenerating an area and have tried to create a community-centred club,” says Wilson.
In the six years since the Bangkok‑based duty-free magnate Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha bought the club, Leicester have gone from the lower reaches of the Championship to the Champions League, while acquiring a substantial following in Thailand.
This is a great success story and probably not a single fan will begrudge the chairman’s decision to put himself – rather than, say, Claudio Ranieri – on the cover of the programme for their first Champions League match, or question the team’s public show of mourning for the late Thai king. To anyone outside the Leicester ranks, however, it might look a bit odd, even a bit uncomfortable, to see a 132-year-old English football club acknowledging its new allegiance so explicitly.
Accept it. It’s a reality of football life.
The “Home of Football” will continue to be invaded by foreign money and such will continue to be the extent of the foreign invasion in the English top flight that the talks of other similar moves will hardly raise a flicker of surprise.
Get ready for more take-over revolutions. The blunt truth of the matter is the reluctance to put clubs, many with well over 100 years of heritage and tradition behind them, in overseas hands has long since passed.