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American Investors: The New Frontier

Adnan Zai

As the old saying goes, “Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.” In a time when people are using their excess cash to buy trips into space, luxury yachts, and even social media platforms, American investors have now taken to buying English Premier League teams. But is this good for the sport of football, when the club is owned by someone who knows very little about English football but is instead interested in how lucrative owning the club can be? With so many English football clubs owned by American investors, there is great worry that their mighty tradition of football will be lost.

Chelsea, Manchester United, and Liverpool are all common names on British soil, but do investors cheapen the game by owning teams from an ocean away? If the latest sale that is currently in negotiations goes through, American investors will own a majority stake in the Premier English football club, and purists are not convinced that this is a good idea.

The Latest Football Club Sale

The last sale has come about swiftly, as the Chelsea Football Club’s owner Roman Abramovich was recently sanctioned by the British government for his connections to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Almost immediately, investors around the world jumped on board, as Chelsea is one of the most well-known teams, and in the last 8 weeks the world has witnessed a feeding frenzy with tycoons and financiers on several continents trying to gain ownership of this coveted team. In the nineteen years Abramovich has owned the Blues, the team has won 19 major trophies.

The current front-runner, led by Los Angeles Dodgers part-owner Todd Boehly, is currently in a secure period of exclusive talks. If Boehly’s bid of over $3B is accepted, he would see “voting rights shared equally between him and Clearlake Capital, a California private equity firm.” Even though Clearlake has no ownership pedigree in major sports, they would have the majority share in Chelsea. Incidentally, this deal is potentially the most lucrative acquisition of a sports team on record. At the last minute last week, Boehly’s group also agreed to increase his bid by 500m to donate a larger cash amount to benefit the war victims in Ukraine.

The bidding war was not without its troubles. British petrochemicals tycoon, after earlier saying that the club was way overpriced, eventually offered 4.25 bn to buy Chelsea, but it proved too little too late. Additionally, Boehly’s bid left two consortia in the dust. The first group was led by Boston Celtics part-owner Steve Pagliuca and Larry Tenenbaum, who is the NBA chairman and Toronto Maple Leaf’s owner. Secondly, former British Airways and Liverpool FC chairman Sir Martin Broughton, along with Harris Blitzer Sports & Entertainment, would have had a controlling interest in the club.

The World Watches the Premier Football League

The importance of the Premier Football League cannot be overstated, and many sporting enthusiasts are worried about the mercenary view of these teams as the deals around the league keep flying. Over 190 countries show the English Premier League, and this sport and league have the most interest of any sports team on the planet. Traditionalists worry that hasty decisions may change what they love most of all about football.

The change in ownership from British businessmen to more of a world stage happened quickly. In 2003 when Abramovich first bought Chelsea, only one other non-British owner had ever owned a club. Interestingly, the first was former Aston Villa owner Randy Lerner, who with his family was also the owner of the Cleveland Browns. Now, less than 20 years later, investors from the United States hold more stakes in Premier League football than the English themselves do.

In 1992, when the league began, the teams were normally owned by local millionaires who were living out their boyhood dreams. This mentality of following a team from a young age, building a cult following, and living or dying by your football team and its success, is certainly changing with the onslaught of tycoons buying majority interests in teams.

In addition to the American ownership, Italian Andrea Radrizzani is currently the majority owner of Leeds United, with a 56% share. But even in this deal, minority American owners from 49ers Enterprises who own the San Francisco 49ers are possibly going to take over.

If the truth were told, the British are much less worried about Premier League team sales to America, than they were with the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia acquiring Newcastle United. Concerns about human rights violations, Saudi Arabia’s endless amount of money, and worries about the Saudi crown taking over made the British nervous.

American/ British Relationship

Not everyone is overjoyed about the sale of British football teams to American investors. If the deal goes through, American investors will own more stakes in the Premier football league than their English counterparts, with 7 teams to 6. Petrochemicals billionaire Jim Ratcliffe made it clear how he felt about foreign ownership in his late offer for the club on Friday. “This is a British bid, for a British club,” he wrote in a statement. “We believe that a club is bigger than its owners who are temporary custodians of a great tradition.”

And even if the Boehly group gains ownership of the Chelsea Blues, smooth sailing is not guaranteed between the stalwart English fans and the American investors. In 2005, Manchester United was purchased in a buyout by the Glazer family, who received death threats and protests outside the stadium. Fans of Arsenal often ask for their owner Kroenke to sell. And Liverpool fans, even though their team is at the top of their game, turned rowdy after the attempt to create a European Super League fell through.

Chelsea supporters are hoping for the best with this new deal, especially since it has come about so quickly. The club’s Supporters’ Trust wrote, “Any new owner of Chelsea FC must demonstrate its commitment to protecting supporters and the club’s heritage.”

For British football supporters, the increase in American owners is diluting the history and heritage of the game they have loved for decades. Football is more than just an investment; the history and rivalries are storied and rich. Investors with deep wallets cannot understand the nostalgia or importance of football to the culture of the British islands. And many football supporters think they shouldn’t even try.

Adnan Zai

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