One is not enough: the growth in football’s multi-club ownership model | Business

‘One lesson from all of this is that it’s difficult to be at two clubs,” said a reflective Nancy president, Gauthier Ganaye, after their relegation to France’s third tier last month. Feted as English football’s youngest chief executive after joining Barnsley for a spell in 2018 at the age of 30, Ganaye spent last season juggling his role at Nancy with being executive president of the Belgian club KV Oostende.

Barnsley, who were relegated from the Championship in April despite reaching the playoffs last year, are, like Nancy and Oostende, part-owned by New City Capital – an investment group that also includes American investors Pacific Media Group.

“The starting brief was never that I’d be there 100% of the time,” said Ganaye of his dual roles. “Discussions are under way in order to define a structure that can allow all of the clubs in the group to function.”

Things were not much better on the pitch for the rest of New City Capital’s steadily growing portfolio of clubs. Thun – who won the domestic title as recently as 2010 – laboured to a mid-table finish in Switzerland’s second tier, fans of Esbjerg endured another season of frustration in Denmark’s second division and Den Bosch remain marooned in the Dutch second tier.

At least the investors had something to celebrate at the end of May when Kaiserslautern – the four-times German champions who sold a 10% stake to a US consortium consisting of New City Capital’s Chien Lee and Pacific Media Group’s Paul Conway in March – beat Dynamo Dresden in the promotion playoffs to return to Germany’s second tier for the first time since 2018.

From New City Capital and 777 Partners LLC to City Football Group (CFG), Bolt Football Holdings, Redbird Capital and Red Bull, owning one club doesn’t seem to be enough these days. Even Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, fresh from its controversial takeover of Newcastle, is getting in on the act with speculation it is in contention to buy the Polish club Slask Wroclaw despite strong local opposition.

Joy for Kaiserslautern after their promotion to Germany’s second tier
Joy for Kaiserslautern after their promotion to Germany’s second tier. Photograph: Oliver Hardt/Bundesliga Collection/Getty Images

“Silesia is ancestral silver,” said Wroclaw’s local government spokesperson, Wojciech Koerber, last week. “The history of this city is not something that can be sold for a few zlotys. It is not only a business project, but also a social one.”

There are strong whispers that Qatar Sports Investments – which has transformed Paris Saint-Germain into a European superpower thanks to its endless financial reserves – is attempting to build a portfolio of clubs after watching the majority Abu Dhabi-owned CFG take its expanding empire into double figures with the acquisition of the French club Troyes in 2020. CFG failed in an attempt to buy Breda in April after a furious backlash from fans of the Dutch club.

“I won’t be surprised if QSI buys a club in Portugal soon,” one source says. “They have seen how successful CFG have been in running so many different clubs around the world that they all want to do the same. The system has been refined by CFG but the idea was started by the Pozzos.”

Could QSI, which owns Paris Saint-Germain, soon buy another club – potentially in Portugal?
Could QSI, which owns Paris Saint-Germain, soon buy another club – potentially in Portugal? Photograph: Johannes Simon/Uefa/Getty Images

The Pozzos – the Italian owners of Udinese and Watford – relinquished control of their stake in Granada in 2016 after seven years at the helm of the Spanish side.

The multi-club phenomenon can be traced back much further, to a landmark case at the court of arbitration for sport in 2000 regarding two stakes owned by Enic, the company through which the English businessman Joe Lewis later bought Tottenham. The court’s ruling over Enic’s minority shareholding in AEK Athens and its majority one in Slavia Prague led to the introduction of regulations that prohibited two clubs in which a person or company had “decisive influence” from being admitted into the same Uefa club competition.

With different rules in place for every domestic league, however, a pretty big loophole remains open. Whereas the Premier League has restricted shareholding in a second club in the division to 10%, Uefa’s integrity rules permit one person to have a 100% shareholding in one club and a “non-decisive influence” shareholding in another club competing in the same competition.

There were questions asked in Germany when the American investor David Blitzer – who owns a 40% share in Crystal Palace through his company Bolt Football Holdings – bought 45% of the company that owns a majority shareholding in Augsburg at the start of 2021. But with the club membership retaining 50+1 of the voting shares, they have remained on the right side of the regulations and finished the season well clear of relegation trouble after January’s club-record signing of the America forward Ricardo Pepi in a deal worth $18m.

That has not been the only triumph for Blitzer, who was also behind Martin Broughton’s failed bid for Chelsea last month that, if successful, would have meant relinquishing his Palace shares. His Dutch club, Den Haag, missed out on promotion to the Eredivisie in the playoffs and his Belgian team, Waasland-Beveren, came close to returning to the top flight, six years after relegation.

Bolt Football Holdings has also emerged as the likely new owner of the 10-times French champions Saint-Étienne after their relegation to Ligue 2 amid dramatic scenes in their playoff against Auxerre.

RedBird – another American investment vehicle, whose partners include the Liverpool owners John Henry and Tom Werner, the NFL and LeBron James – followed up its success in guiding Toulouse back to Ligue 1 by completing the purchase of the Milan, the Italian champions, for $1.3bn.

Milan celebrate their Serie A title last month
Milan celebrate their Serie A title last month. They have been bought by RedBird, which will have a club in Ligue 1 next season thanks to Toulouse’s promotion. Photograph: Nicola Marfisi/AGF/Shutterstock

The Miami-based 777 will be hoping for similar returns after their 100% takeover of Standard Liège in March, having completed a $175.8m deal to buy Genoa in September. The sale made Standard – who have not won a domestic title since 2009 – the 10th club in Belgium’s top flight to have attracted foreign investment, and almost half of Serie A’s clubs have been sold to North American investors or consortiums since 2018.

In February, 777 spent $137m on a 70% share in Vasco de Gama after legislation last year that permitted Brazilian clubs to operate as public companies opened the door to foreign investment. A month earlier, John Textor – the American who spent a reported £87.5m to join Blitzer as a minority stakeholder at Palace in August after showing interest in Newcastle – had taken a 90% stake in Botafogo and he says he is intent on restoring the glory years at the club where Jairzinho and Garrincha made their name.

“I want it to be clear three to five years from now that there is a Botafogo way,” he said. “Failure is the best teacher.”

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