Soccer? Really?

07.11.13

English Premier League Is Now an American Billionaires’ Paradise

Forget an American football or basketball team—super-rich Americans in search of a really ‘hot property’ are scooping up English soccer clubs. Nico Hines reports on London’s new glamour.

In the eyes of the global billionaires’ club, the era of American sporting dominance is over. If Shad Khan completes the purchase of a London soccer team this month, a quarter of English Premier League clubs will be owned by Americans who are no longer satisfied with just U.S. franchises to their name.

A cadre of superrich Americans is clamoring to join Russian and Middle Eastern investors who have transformed England’s soccer league into the world’s leading playground for billionaires.

Khan, the owner of the National Football League’s Jacksonville Jaguars, is reported to be negotiating the purchase of Fulham, a mid-ranking club whose stadium stands on the banks of the River Thames in West London. It would become the fifth English team in the hands of American investors who have already owned at least one major U.S. sporting franchise, from the Cleveland Browns to the Boston Red Sox.

“The Premier League is hot property,” said Andrew Brandt, former vice president of the Green Bay Packers. “These are businessmen looking for glamour, sexiness, and excitement.”

Khan, 62, has already committed his NFL team to London; the Jaguars will play at least one game per season in England over the next four years. “London is the missing piece,” he told the Associated Press.

According to reports in The Daily Mail, Khan is in advanced talks to buy Fulham for more than $200 million from Mohamed Al Fayed, an Egyptian businessman whose son, Dodi, died in the car crash that killed Princess Diana.

Buying the soccer club would allow Khan to accelerate his rapid ascent from poor, young Pakistani immigrant to global player. An Illinois auto parts company transformed him into one of America’s richest men, worth $2.9 billion, according to Forbes, but it is the sporting investment that has boosted his profile.

“One owner takes another potential owner to a game and they’re hooked. They say, ‘I gotta have one of these too.’”

Sports investment advisers said Khan was not the only American team owner seeking an expansion into Europe. Several others are said to be exploring the possibility of bidding for English soccer teams.

Six miles from Craven Cottage, where Fulham play their home games, is the stadium where this soccer revolution began 10 years ago. Roman Abramovich invested in Chelsea with a tranche of the fortune he had accumulated in the post-Soviet scramble for Russian resources.

The oligarch’s acquisition of the club, which had been threatened with bankruptcy, became an icon of a modern London where the world’s richest came to do business, to shop, and ultimately to live.

The city is now home to more ultra-high-net-worth individuals than any other; more than 4,000 citizens are worth more than $30 million.

While Abramovich was building a championship-winning team, other foreign investors were pouring millions into buying up iconic structures like the Lloyds Building and the Harrods department store.

“The global rich are the apex predators in London’s jungle,” said Stephen Bayley, a cultural commentator in the city. “Russian gas entrepreneurs own football clubs. Chinese insurance magnates own landmarks. Arabian nomads own stores. London is reconfirming its status as a supreme marketplace where everything is for sale.”

Robert Boland, who has advised several U.S. sports investors, said American buyers want to be part of the action. Their interest in English soccer clubs is certainly not limited to the financial return.

“For Khan, it’s part of a global platform,” he said. “There’s an extraordinary exclusivity in owning a big sports team. There are only 100 or 140 top teams in the world. It’s always been the ultimate boy toy.”

Boland, a professor of sports management at NYU’s Tisch Center, said the Premier League is growing fast and that teams near the capital offer a particular allure. “An American billionaire looks at London as somewhere he can go and do business,” he said.

Among those Americans doing business in England are Malcolm Glazer and his family, who bought Manchester United after the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, John Henry, who owns Liverpool and the Boston Red Sox, and Stan Kroenke and his son, who ran U.S. basketball, ice hockey, and NFL teams before taking a majority stake in Arsenal.

An investment banker who specializes in sports deals said many of the U.S. owners have simply been caught up by the excitement of soccer, which has an unparalleled global reach. “One owner takes another potential owner to a game and they’re hooked,” said Andrew Kline, the founder of Park Lane. “They say, ‘I gotta have one of these too.’”

Kline said English teams could prove a better investment than established U.S. franchises because there is often room for improvement in the way the organizations are run commercially.

“When you can infuse your British long-standing training and management of athletes with a long history of monetizing the game, then it becomes interesting,” he said.