There are a few essentials you must nail down if you want your sports business conference to be an international success: a decent hotel, some journalists to ask questions, fancy microphones, someone to stream it, an app for doing instant polls. and Javier Tebas.
La Liga’s combative president is the postman who never fails to deliver when it comes to headlines and Tebas did not disappoint at the Financial Times’ Business of Football Summit in London this past week.
Almost without trying to be controversial, he said Barcelona’s recent antics had threatened the Spanish league’s reputation and they would not be able to buy any players next season, that Chelsea’s long contracts were an “accounting trick” to circumvent financial fair play rules and that multi-club ownership groups were a menace.
But perhaps his best-targeted grenade was lobbed in the Premier League’s direction, and it was done with a twinkle in his eye.
Asked if his recent comments about the English top flight’s dominance in the transfer market were motivated by envy, Tebas said the Spanish equivalent of “au contraire” and launched into some warm praise of the Premier League’s commercial genius.
But, just when you thought he might mean it, the 60-year-old turned on a sixpence and revealed he had been reading the UK government’s recently published white paper on football governance. This 99-page document sets out the government’s plan for creating an independent regulator for the game, as well as the introduction of a licensing scheme for clubs that could block the most indebted clubs from competing.
Tebas, who does not speak English, not only appears to have devoured this paper written in English, he even turned up at the FT event with slides based on its findings and gave journalists printed handouts of a presentation titled “Financial situation: UK vs Spain”. The latter contrasted the UK, where the government has decided there is “inadequate self-regulation” and it must “intervene”, with Spain, where the law “allows La Liga to self-regulate based on its robust economic control system”.
This came as something of a surprise to the many Premier League employees in the room, including its chief executive Richard Masters.
When the Premier League team met their La Liga counterparts before the event started, they had mentioned that Tebas might be interested in something their government had just put out on regulation. The wily old fox gave nothing away until reaching the main stage.
Staveley followed by her own TV crew
Another conference favourite is Newcastle United co-owner Amanda Staveley. She was the star turn of a panel discussion about “how investors can make money out of football” and she did not waste any time in demonstrating one way of doing it: create more content.
In true “show, don’t tell” fashion, Staveley brought her own camera crew to the event and explained it was filming a documentary for Amazon “about the behind-the-scenes work that we’re doing at Newcastle”.
The 49-year-old businesswoman said this will not be an All Or Nothing-type show, as “they’re focusing more on the commercial side”, but it had to be done as “we really do need to do everything we can to grow our revenues”.
The Athletic can reveal that talks with documentary-makers started before Staveley and her partners, most notably Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, bought the club late in 2021 but the protracted nature of the takeover stalled the project. The decision to focus on the commercial side of the business, as opposed to the football, came when head coach Eddie Howe made it clear he was not wild about becoming a documentary star.
The series is being made by Lorton Entertainment, the London-based film-finance, distribution and production company behind recent documentaries on British bands Bros and Oasis, and footballer Wayne Rooney.
The firm has links with Newcastle, though, via one of its investors, Richard Wylie, whose father is prominent north east businessman Graham Wylie, the co-founder of software giant Sage. Richard Wylie is also friendly with Kenneth Shepherd, son of former Newcastle chairman Freddy Shepherd.
Newcastle, Chelsea and the multi-club shortcut
Newcastle’s attempts to join the game’s multi-club ownership (MCO) gang is an example of the type of “behind-the-scenes work” that the Amanda Or Nothing (our suggestion for a working title) documentary might feature.
There are now more than 180 clubs worldwide belonging to larger groups or networks, with the City Football Group and Red Bull’s stable being the most famous examples.
Asked when Newcastle and their Saudi backers would start buying up clubs abroad, or taking stakes in them, Staveley said: “It’s complicated. We’re also looking at another structure that would allow us to maybe do both — maybe something a little bit different that gives us more opportunity to work with a lot more clubs.”
The Athletic has learnt that the idea Staveley and Newcastle’s other decision-makers are exploring is instead of spending five years finding the right clubs in the right markets, doing their due diligence in each case and haggling with their owners, why not just buy a stake in an existing MCO?
And, as luck would have it, there was one such group in the room: 777 Partners, the Miami-based investment firm that has bought majority stakes in Italy’s oldest team Genoa, Red Star in Paris, Belgian side Standard Liege and Brazil’s Vasco da Gama, agreed a deal for another in German Bundesliga outfit Hertha Berlin, and owns a minority stake in La Liga’s Sevilla. They have even been linked with a move for Everton.
Newcastle may have competition, though, as 777’s co-founder Josh Wander is understood to have discussed a partnership with others, including Chelsea’s co-owners Todd Boehly and Clearlake Capital, a consortium that has already shown it is willing to write cheques for coveted items.
US buyers reveal strategy
To use a football analogy, the FT event has quickly become the Premier League of football business conferences, with a star-studded cast, polished presentation and prawn sandwiches. But this year’s event was definitely more “business” than “football” with panel after panel getting stuck into asset classes, cap tables and investment horizons.
If there was an overarching theme, it was that US-based private equity firms are interested in buying stakes in big clubs, groups of clubs or entire leagues — because they think there might actually be some money in it now, providing football becomes more like them — but they are not so bothered about owning small- or medium-sized clubs or doing anything for particularly long. And their most likely return on investment is still finding somebody else to pay even more for whatever they bought than they paid, rather than making some money along the way.
So, what does that mean for fans without MBAs? Hard to say.
Perhaps the most telling moment came at the start of a panel about how to value football clubs with Mark Affolter from US asset management firm Ares, former Bolton Wanderers and Chelsea director turned sports strategy consultant Mike Forde, French club Lens’ director and banker Andreea Koenig and Kieron ‘Swiss Ramble’ O’Connor.
They were asked if they thought Manchester United will be sold within the next 12 months.
O’Connor said “yes”, Forde and Koenig both said “no”, while Affolter, who may have a dog in this fight, said “no comment”.
Former Manchester United strategy chief now working for Spurs
While Manchester United’s hierarchy wait to see what comes of their sale process, the club’s former chief strategy officer, Hemen Tseayo, has taken a role at Tottenham Hotspur, writes Dan Sheldon.
Tseayo left United last summer, as revealed by The Athletic, having been an influential figure behind the scenes for more than a decade; he also worked as their director of corporate development and head of corporate finance.
Tseayo played a central role in the team that listed the club on the New York Stock Exchange in 2012 and executed multiple refinancing transactions for the club. He also led the feasibility study, business planning and application process forUnited to launch a women’s team in 2018.
But he felt there was a ceiling to his broader strategic role and left the club in May. His departure followed Richard Arnold’s succession of Ed Woodward as chief executive and Matt Judge’s resignation from his position as director of football negotiations. Tseayo’s office was in between Woodward’s and Judge’s at United’s base in the posh Mayfair area of central London.
His role at Tottenham, which he started in mid-November, is wide-ranging. As their strategic development director, Tseayo oversees the data analysts team, helping the Premier League side improve their use of data to improve performance across the entire club.
Though Tseayo will not be directly involved in their football operations, his job is to take Spurs forward in terms of domestic and international growth. The club recently announced a 15-year strategic partnership with Formula 1 that will include the development of the first in-stadium electric karting track.
Expect sales of EFL clubs to continue
The buying and selling of clubs was also a topic of conversation in the posh seats at the Carabao Cup final last Sunday. Unfortunately for Manchester United fans, nobody had much to say about their proposed sale.
No, all the talk was about the clubs on the market in the English Football League, everyone’s host at Wembley that day. And when it comes to the second-tier Championship, it might be easier to list which of its 24 clubs are not for sale.
For example, you could buy Bristol City or Sheffield United for about £100million ($120m). With the former, you get basketball and rugby union teams thrown in, and with the latter, you have a very good chance of enjoying Premier League revenues next season.
Sheffield United takeover: Court judgements, Nigel Farage video and a ‘forged’ address
If your budget is more modest, you could pick up Preston North End for closer to £30million — they lose £12m a year but they do have a spare training ground — or Huddersfield Town for a similar price, although if owner Dean Hoyle trusts you to look after the club properly, he might give you a significant ‘mate’s rates’ discount.
And then there are clubs such as Blackpool, where the fun appears to have stopped and owner Simon Sadler might snap your hand off if you offer him an elegant way out.
Of course, all of these clubs would become more valuable if the incoming independent regulator can persuade the Premier League to share more of its broadcast income with clubs further down the football pyramid.
EFL chairman Rick Parry has spent the last few years explaining that proper regulation, via a licensing system, could see half of his 72 clubs shut down for being insolvent. But that massive vote-loser would be avoided if the Premier League ups its current solidarity payments from 16 per cent of its media revenues to 25 per cent of the combined EFL and Premier League media revenues.
EFL chairman wants government to back plans to fix ‘broken system’
That, Parry believes, combined with cost controls and a few other tweaks to the distribution model, would end his three divisions of clubs’ dependence on sugar daddies. It would also make them more attractive to would-be owners.
The Premier League, of course, is not going to jump from 16 to 25 per cent, and it also has a shopping list of demands before it agrees to send more cash down the pipe. It has not, however, put its counter-offer and caveats down in writing for the EFL to mull over. So, the losses will continue and more ‘for sale’ signs will go up.
West Brom chasing loan repayments
Another Championship club very much in the “Make us an offer, please” camp are West Bromwich Albion.
They are in 11th place, seven points off the last play-off spot, so their hopes of promotion back to the top flight after two seasons in the second division are in the balance.
If that balance tips the wrong way, West Brom can look forward — if that is the right way of putting it — to their first season without Premier League money, via merit or parachute payments, for 19 years. So, they would need every penny they can get their hands on.
The good news is they are owed more than £10million, plus significant interest, by their former owner Jeremy Peace and current custodian Guochuan Lai, who both took loans of about £5million from the club but have yet to return them.
Guochuan Lai and West Bromwich Albion: An unhappy relationship
Having missed two previous deadlines to repay his debt, Lai promised to do so “early in the new year”. As February has ticked over into March, most Albion fans have now decided the Chinese businessman has missed his third deadline.
The club’s 430 minority shareholders, who own 12 per cent of the club, have sent several polite letters to Lai’s representatives about when this loan might be repaid but have received no response.
They also note that his company, Wisdom Smart, issued a special resolution last year that said it had “cancelled” more than £25million of share capital because it was “in excess of the requirements” of the firm and could be distributed to its directors.
Good for Wisdom Smart! West Brom, however, are not so flush with cash and their fans would like it back. Plus interest.
West Brom declined to comment.
Owner’s sales pitch to The Athletic
One much-loved, largely-debt-free club for sale, with 3,000-plus careful owners.
That is pretty much the pitch from Rochdale director Guy Courtney, who got in touch with The Athletic this week after reading an article about the number of American investors looking for their very own Welcome To Wrexham-type adventure.
Courtney only got involved in the League Two club when they became the focus of a very hostile takeover attempt by a shadowy group of investors who went by the name of Morton House. The fallout from that unfortunate episode left Rochdale with a suspended six-point penalty from the EFL for breaching ownership rules.
Now fully owned by their supporters, Rochdale have struggled on the pitch and are staring relegation to the National League full in the face with 11 games to go.
“We’re all fans of Rochdale, so it’s about finding the right strategic partner to help take us forward,” says Courtney.
“We’re well-run, off the pitch, and we own our own ground. We don’t have our own training ground but we have found some land. But running a club is not easy and we need capital to modernise almost everything.
“So, if you know anyone looking for a stake in a 116-year-old club, that is not far from an airport, send them my way.”
Former England rugby player buys into Yeovil
Speaking of the National League — sorry, Guy! — let us finish with two contrasting tales from the fifth tier of English football.
First, congratulations, of sorts, to that division’s Southend United for avoiding another winding-up petition from HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) at the Bankruptcy and Companies Court on Wednesday.
Southend’s owner Ron Martin was in attendance and looked triumphant when HMRC’s barrister told the judge their £1.4million debt, plus charges and interest, had been paid off the day before, as had an unspecified “supporting creditor”, which meant the petition could be dismissed.
Martin declined to speak to The Athletic afterwards but did take our business card, saying, “your newspaper is doing quite well, isn’t it?”
We did speak to two Southend fans in attendance, though, and asked if it was “admirable that he turned up, at least?”
“Not really,” one replied. “One of his property companies is back here after lunch.”
And second, actual congratulations to SU Glovers, which, pending final Football Association approval, is the group now in charge at Yeovil Town.
The group’s two directors are Julie-Anne Uggla, the former wife of Canadian billionaire Lance Uggla, and her 29-year-old son Mark, who is listed as the group’s ultimate owner. But also part of the new regime at Yeovil is former England rugby union international Paul Sackey.
With the West Country club one point above the relegation zone nine years after spending their sole season in the Championship, the only way is up. We wish them well.