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Americans are taking over English football everywhere

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LONDON – Carlisle United are hardly the first name that springs to mind when it comes to English football. The team from the small cathedral city in the far north-west corner of the country have only ever played in the top league for one season (1974-75) in their history. They are currently battling to stay in the third tier.

For Florida-based businessman Tom Piatak, though, the club were just what he was looking for – as Carlisle United became at least the 34th team in English football to get a United States investor – one punching below their weight based on their stadium and fan base.

“I wanted a club with considerable commercial upside,” Piatak said from Jacksonville after completing his acquisition in November.

From the Glazer family at Manchester United to Todd Boehly and his Wall Street financiers at Chelsea, the American takeover of clubs in the Premier League is not new. Yet below the world’s richest competition, the footprint on the English game is deepening and widening – and raising even more questions over who will make money and who will lose it.

More than a third of the 92 professional teams in England’s top four leagues now have some form of US ownership. They are spread from the top of the pyramid at Liverpool down to Wrexham, the Welsh team who play in the English fourth tier and are owned by Hollywood stars Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney. They also span the country, from Bournemouth on the south coast all the way up to Carlisle near the Scottish border.

In 2023 alone, Premier League team Everton agreed to be sold to Miami-based 777 Partners, though the deal is subject to regulatory approval. In the Championship, the league below, more American-based investors have jumped on board at Welsh club Swansea City, while hedge fund founder Tom Wagner bought Birmingham City, bringing former National Football League star Tom Brady as an investor.

Football has the capacity to garner global attention in a way few other sports can. That is key to the attraction, said Sasha Ryazantsev, who helps oversee finances at another US-owned club Burnley in the Premier League.

“US sports in general are ahead of European sports and leagues in terms of commercialisation and monetisation of various assets. However, the majority of them do not have the international reach of football,” he said.

The clamour is also down to US clubs in the Major Soccer League being too expensive – a new MLS team could cost US$500 million (S$671.5 million) – coupled with a fear of missing out on good value and historic brands in England, according to Adam Sommerfeld, managing partner at sports investment adviser Certus Capital.

“Investors have refined their criteria from 18 months ago. There is more of a desire to find a unique set of characteristics than just acquiring an English team. That has been the big shift. But a lot of clubs that are looking for investment, like Sheffield United, West Bromwich Albion and Reading, are attracting American investors,” he said.

The conundrum for many investors is to factor in the kind of jeopardy that does not exist across the Atlantic. In the US, the American football, basketball and ice hockey leagues are not tiered in the same way like in England, where clubs can move up and down the leagues depending on performance.

Owning a team in the Championship can be especially challenging because many are spending more than they earn to win a place in the Premier League, where broadcast income is more than £100 million (S$169.7 million) a year compared with less than a tenth of that at the lower level.

At Norwich City, Mark Attanasio, who owns the Milwaukee Brewers baseball team, is gradually taking control. He is under no illusion as to how difficult it might be to regain a spot in the Premier League after relegation in 2022.

Attanasio said he first started looking at investing in English football in 2008, mostly Premier League teams. He uncovered the opportunity through his friendship with fellow American Tom Werner, who is chairman of Liverpool.

“When I ‘diligenced’ Norwich, I thought it’s a small piece of the club and we will learn over time how English football works from the inside,” said Attanasio. He works alongside British celebrity cook Delia Smith and her husband, long-time owners of Norwich, and is taking his stake up to 40 per cent, matching theirs.

Indeed, there are plenty of cautionary tales out there. American investors such as Ellis Short at Sunderland and Randy Lerner at Aston Villa incurred huge losses before selling up. More recently, US owners of clubs in Europe have been the target of protests by disgruntled fans.

A group of supporters at Belgian club KV Oostende trapped Paul Conway, co-founder of investment firm Pacific Media Group, in a restroom at a game in January, blaming him for a run of poor results. Pacific Media has a stake approaching 10 per cent in English club Barnsley, according to Conway.

A demonstration against US investor John Textor at his Belgian club RWD Molenbeek caused a game to be abandoned. Textor, who blamed the suspension on a group of extremist fans, is also co-owner of Premier League team Crystal Palace. Their supporters have been displaying banners demanding changes at the London club.   

Last weekend at Chelsea, who won the Champions League in 2021, the crowd laid bare their dismay at watching the team lose at home again and now sitting mid-table. Boehly and his US-co-owners have spent more than £1 billion on players.

For one, Wagner at Birmingham City has seen the writing on the wall. While hiring and then firing coach Wayne Rooney, formerly England’s top goal scorer, the US investor has asked for patience. As well as travails on the pitch, the stadium needed emergency remedial work.

“I would ask people to recognise that fixing this club is going to take us some time. We have a plan and we have the best intentions,” said Wagner, co-founder of Knighthead Capital Management, which oversees about US$9 billion focused on such things as distressed credit.

However, Piatak is excited about his Carlisle project, focusing on securing financial stability, player development, greater community involvement, improving facilities and investing in areas that will generate future additional income.

The chairman of Florida-based Magellan Transport Logistics did not pay the sum that others needed to cough up for a big team, but he knows his new club require significant investment.

His goal is to emulate teams like Luton Town, a club with a smaller stadium than Carlisle’s who managed to win a spot in the Premier League at the end of last season. Carlisle, meanwhile, gained promotion to League One, the third tier.

The most pressing task is to stay in it, with the team sitting bottom of the table.

“I love promotion and relegation, and the traditional aspects of the English game. We have the opportunity to move up the leagues, which is so important,” Piatak said. BLOOMBERG

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