Reviews | In European football, the Americans now own the pitch

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Bill Saporito is the editor of Inc. magazine.

When the British government took control of Chelsea football club from Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich in March, three American groups quickly emerged as serious bidders for the team. One of them, led by Lakers and Los Angeles Dodgers co-owner Todd Boehly, is now set to buy Chelsea in a deal worth more than $3 billion. dollars. This is the highest price ever paid for a sports franchise.

American football players may not have excelled in England, but American investors have dominated the table. More than 20 American companies and individuals now own or hold stakes in English football teams. That exceeds the number of Americans actually playing for English clubs.

When it comes to football, America is Brazil. There is no one else who can organize the negotiators, the capital and the financial creativity like the Americans can. Because business is still America’s best game.

The Boehly Group deal is just the latest example of US dominance in football ownership. Chelsea, a west London side, is a longtime rival to Arsenal, a north London side owned by fellow American Stan Kroenke, which also owns the Los Angeles Rams, Denver Nuggets and the Colorado Avalanche. In south London, Crystal Palace is partly owned by Joshua Harris and David Blitzer, co-owners of hockey’s New Jersey Devils and basketball’s Philadelphia 76ers. Manchester United is already owned by the Glazer family, which owns football’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers, while Liverpool is owned by Fenway Sports Group, which also owns baseball’s Boston Red Sox, among other franchises.

See the game model here?

Before the organization of the Premier League in 1991, most English teams belonged to wealthy locals. They might have been good at selling sneakers, beer, or even banking, but they would prove no match for the incoming wave of American venture capitalists, petropotentates, or Russian oligarchs. Americans sniffed rising asset values, while others eyed trophies that would help sport wash away their repressive regimes or kleptocratic fortunes.

What changed? Math. As the Premier League became more competitive and popular, the value of its broadcast rights soared. Once fans could watch their teams in real time from anywhere on the planet, so did the value of club brands. What followed was a land rush: the Glazer family recognized Man U as undervalued. When it took over the team in 2005, Man U was under-leveraged – a status that made the company a ridiculously easy target for an American investor. The Glazers financed their purchase with loans backed by the assets of Man U, which enraged fans, who still dislike their owners for taking money from a club that is now underperforming.

There are ironies in all of this, of course. England is a constitutional monarchy where supporters demand a say in the management of “their” teams. Conversely, American owners such as Kroenke live in a democracy but run their franchises like monarchs once ruled their kingdoms. Supporters who make up the ‘Arsenal Supporters’ Trust’ have strongly opposed Kroenke’s takeover of the team, a protest that has been met with characteristic silence.

Can you imagine Daniel Snyder or Jerry Jones meeting with such a group? I did not mean it.

Americanization is not limited to top teams. Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shahid Khan – a classic immigrant success story – owns another London team, newly promoted Fulham, while former Disney boss Michael Eisner owns Portsmouth; actors Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney are co-owners of Wrexham.

Nor is Americanization limited to England. Frank McCourt, former owner of the Dodgers, bought Olympique de Marseille — OM — one of the most famous teams in France. In Italy, Elliott Management controls AC Milan after the former owner defaulted on its €415m debt. Rocco Commisso, the Italian-American founder of Mediacom, who played football at Columbia University, owns ACF Fiorentina (known as La Viola). Six other clubs in Italy’s top league have American owners.

Sports teams remain an asset class that almost always increases in value, so acquisition premiums are getting higher and higher. Which means the pool of potential owners, even for small teams, is limited to the billionaire class – of which the US has an outsized supply.

The Americans’ only rivals are the Middle Eastern bidders, who have unlimited budgets and often outrun them in pursuit of trophies. But the rules are being rewritten to prevent owners such as Manchester City’s Sheikh Mansour from spending significantly more than other clubs on talent. Under European football’s revised ‘financial sustainability’ rules, clubs are going to have to spend within their clubs’ means rather than those of the owners.

This, too, favors US hedgies and their cost-cutting mentality, even if it doesn’t produce championships. Which means Chelsea won’t be the last English – or French or Italian – club to be taken over by the Americans.

The English may have invented this wonderful game, but the Americans now own it.

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