Investing in top European football globally upgrades profile and brand value of an investor and the Premier League is the game’s cash cow.
Before Newcastle United’s takeover, backed by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF), half of the Premier League’s 20 teams had foreign ownership. Now there’s a super-rich addition to the list.
It is said that the Saudi Arabian-backed acquisition of the Magpies passed the Premier League’s owners’ and directors’ test because the authorities didn’t see the PIF as a state entity. There could be arguments for and against it, but the bottom line is that another legacy English club has gone to foreign ownership.
We saw at Manchester City how state-funded money could change the entire dynamics, pulling out a club of the obscurity of also-rans to serial winners. Of course the process has inflated the transfer market, at times getting around Uefa’s Financial Fair Play (FFP) guidelines, but that’s the nature of the beast. Investing in top European football globally upgrades profile and brand value of an investor and the Premier League is the game’s cash cow.
In a little over a decade, City have risen enough to be part of the ‘Big Six’ in English football and a serious force to reckon with in Europe. The owners of Newcastle, once referred as a “wee club in the north-east” by Sir Alex Ferguson, reportedly boast of a net worth of £320 billion, around 10 times more than Sheikh Mansour at Manchester City and 50 times more than Paris Saint-Germain’s Qatari owner Nasser Al-Khelaifi. So in a few years, Newcastle are expected to seriously challenge the ‘Big Six’, or maybe, we will have a ‘Big Seven’ at the top of the pile.
But where does such proliferation of foreign investments take English football? There was a time in the 1980s, when fans used to queue up outside Old Trafford from early morning for a league match against Luton Town. Foreign investments have marginalised those fans, for the majority of them can’t afford a £70-80 matchday ticket, the standard pricing at the big clubs. There’s no reason to believe that Newcastle under its new ownership will take a different route.
Not many months ago, a group of 12 clubs in Europe attempted to launch a closed shop new competition, the European Super League (ESL). Six clubs from the Premier League – Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea, City and Tottenham Hotspur – were part of that. Faced with supporters’ fury, they eventually backtracked. But there’s no guarantee that the clubs won’t come up with a Plan B in the future.
United legend Gary Neville called the ESL plan “scandalous”, urging strict punishments. “You have got to stamp on this, it’s criminal. It’s a criminal act against football fans in this country. This is the biggest sport in the world, the biggest sport in this country, it’s a criminal act against the fans. Deduct points, deduct money, and punish them,” Neville had said on Sky Sports.
He added: “(The club owners) are bottle merchants. You never hear from these owners. In the middle of a pandemic; these lot are having Zoom calls about creating greed? Being a big club is not just about (having) a global fan base, it’s about doing the right thing. Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal – they should know better. The history and tradition of those clubs mean something. That’s gone.”
The ‘Big Six’ were given financial sanctions for their breakaway attempt, which they took in stride. One wonders if they are waiting for the next opportunity.
Apart from ‘sportswashing’ the negatives, owning a Premier League club is a profitable business and the foreign owners – Leicester City are an exception – are basically concerned about their profits, apparently caring little about the history, tradition and the importance of local fans. With Newcastle’s £305-million takeover, 11 Premier League clubs now have foreign ownerships. Given the rapid rise, it could soon be more. Mind, all changes to the Premier League rules require support from 14 clubs and with an overload of foreigners, the competition could gradually move towards a franchise-based model, similar to sports leagues in the United States, with no promotion and relegation. English-owned clubs in the top tier run the risk of getting completely outnumbered.
The majority of foreign owners look at football as an investment opportunity, keeping local sentiments at arm’s length. Naturally, a risk-free model would suit them well. For the 2020-21 season, domestic broadcast money pool for 20 Premier League clubs was £1.8 billion and the overseas pool was £1 billion. That’s guaranteed income and from that perspective, relegation to the Championship could be a big concern. Greed can upset the entire equilibrium.
Neville believes that independent regulation in English football is a must and he was at the forefront of a petition that received excellent response from supporters cutting across club colours. As the EPL threatens to move towards the FPL (Foreigners’ Premier League), a lot will depend on the fans who are the lifeblood of the game.