MADRID — Atletico Madrid is revamping its training facilities. Sevilla and Valencia are rebuilding their stadiums. Sporting Gijon is expanding its youth academy.
Spanish clubs this week are meeting to showcase and discuss projects funded by their shares of the $2.1 billion that private equity group CVC Capital Partners is investing in the Spanish league. Real Madrid and Barcelona opposed the deal and are not part of the agreement that gave Luxembourg-based CVC a 8.25% stake in a new company that manages TV rights from the Spanish league, whose two-day conference began Tuesday.
The 2021 deal was the first of its kind in Europe’s top soccer leagues, but CVC has since made a similar investment in the French league and is competing with Blackstone, another private equity firm, for a stake in the media rights of the German league.
Here’s a look at how private equity and other investment funds are building a presence in global soccer — despite pushback from some clubs, federations and fans.
Investors seized the opportunity when clubs became cash-strapped during the coronavirus pandemic and now are thriving in a niche few of them had fully explored before. More than one-third of the teams in the top five European leagues currently have financial backing from private equity, venture capital or private debt firms, according to a report released late last year by financial data company PitchBook. They have invested some 5 billion euros ($5.4 billion) in Spain, France, Italy, Germany and England, up from less than 66 million euros ($71 million) in 2018, PitchBook said.
“Part of the economic reality of this is that these businesses were distressed after COVID,” said Jonathan Lutzky, an operating partner at holding company 777 Partners. “There was a unique opportunity the past three years to kind of get in at a good price point.”
Miami-based 777 Partners entered the club-ownership business a few years ago and today has stakes in Genoa in Italy, Vasco da Gama in Brazil, Standard Liege in Belgium, Red Star in France, Melbourne Victory in Australia, Hertha Berlin in Germany and Sevilla in Spain. Its purchase of English club Everton is pending final approval from the Premier League.
The multi-club ownership approach often relies on investing in small- and medium-sized clubs with lower valuations and greater growth potential. More than 40% of clubs in the top five European leagues have been linked to multi-club owners, according to PitchBook.
“You just get a lot of advantages that you don’t get from owning a singular club,” Lutzky said. “The more clubs that you own, the more data points that you have, the more flexibility that you have in your strategy, the more synergy you can create. When you own multiple clubs you can learn what the best practices are in different domains. And then all the clubs benefit.”
Other investors with multi-club ventures include California-based private equity firm Silver Lake, which has a stake in Abu Dhabi-controlled City Football Group. The group’s flagship team is Manchester City, and it has other partnerships with clubs in the United States, Japan, Spain and Brazil.
Other industry players include Sixth Street Partners, which has deals unrelated to ownership with Real Madrid and Barcelona in Europe, and Clearlake Capital, which recently acquired Chelsea. RedBird Capital Partners purchased controlling interest of both AC Milan in Italy and Toulouse in France, and has a stake in Fenway Sports Group, which owns Liverpool in England.
Some of the hurdles to this model involve UEFA’s rules on multi-club ownership created to protect the integrity of its competitions when the teams could be drawn to play each other during the season. On a strict reading of the rules, UEFA should block one of the teams in the multiple ownership network from entering the same European competition.
INVESTING IN LEAGUES
Instead of buying stakes in individual clubs, CVC took a different approach by investing nearly 2 billion euros ($2.1 billion) in the Spanish league in a long-term deal.
Spanish club Mallorca, partly owned by Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr and former NBA great Steve Nash, was among the teams that used the up-front money from CVC to pay its debts and make infrastructure improvements. The club remodeled its stadium to start generating more revenue so it can eventually make up for what it relinquished to CVC through the sale of some of the league’s TV rights.
“We have grown 43% regarding tickets, sponsorship and other income from the stadium and we want to grow in revenue around 83% in the next two or three years,” Mallorca CEO Alfonso Díaz told The Associated Press. “So we are doubling the revenues in comparison with how we were before (the CVC deal). In two or three years we could be in a position that we would have probably needed 10 years to be in without the deal.”
CVC also committed to invest 1.5 billion euros ($1.6 billion) in the French league in exchange for a 13% stake in a new commercial subsidiary managing TV rights.
CVC and Blackstone, whose senior executive David Blitzer has a share in German club Augsburg, are the two prospective buyers in talks with Germany’s Bundesliga on taking a stake of up to 8% in marketing revenues for 20 years in return for an up-front payment.
“La Liga was the first top league to do it, but now every day you hear more news about new deals, whether it’s in Germany, Brazil, Mexico,” said Jaime Blanco, the Spanish league official overseeing the CVC partnership. “It’s a very enticing proposition when you can have a partner with knowledge of the industry that can improve practices and also inject funds. I wouldn’t be surprised to see more of these deals happening.”
NOT FOR EVERYONE
Real Madrid and Barcelona rejected the CVC deal saying it made more financial sense for the investors than the clubs. Athletic Bilbao also opted out, and — along with Madrid — is suing the league.
The dissenting clubs said CVC was never a strategic partner, but rather a financial investor that was involved in a wide range of sectors other than soccer and that was just looking to maximize profits. They said clubs shouldn’t have renounced their independence and mortgaged their economic future.
“La Liga’s deal with CVC is a scourge for Spanish football,” Real Madrid president Florentino Pérez told club members in a general assembly last year. “For this reason, we trust that, given its irregularities, it will be permanently annulled by the Spanish courts. We cannot allow our heritage to be taken away from us because our present and our future depend on it.”
French club Le Havre also sued over the CVC deal with the French league because it was unhappy with the proposed division of the money. The French National Financial Prosecutor’s Office was also assessing a complaint on possible misappropriation of funds when the French league’s trading company was created following the partial transfer of capital.
Italian clubs rejected a collective deal with CVC a few years ago, though individual clubs have been more open to foreign investors despite traditionally being family owned.
In Germany, many fans are strongly opposed to bids by private equity groups to get involved with the Bundesliga, fearing it would mean a loss of control and accountability in a league where most clubs are controlled by their members. Protests have intensified since December and often led to games being paused as fans threw chocolate coins, tennis balls and other objects on the field.
The arrival of these new investors prompted some countries to make regulatory changes in order to accommodate their investments.
The presence of 777 Partners in Brazil — where it also owns television rights — only became possible after a 2021 law allowed clubs to become anonymous soccer corporations. That change also made it possible for former Brazilian soccer great Ronaldo to take a 90% stake in Cruzeiro, and for U.S. businessman John Textor to invest in Botafogo, both first-division clubs.
Argentina is also working to change legislation so investors can start bringing money to the country.
Nearly all other major soccer nations are already taking advantage of that added boost, and the amount of investment in the industry is only expected to increase worldwide.
“There is going to be more and more demand than we’ve seen before,” Lutzky said. “And all of these investors that are getting in are going to add value to the teams that they acquired, and so it may become more attractive for investors in the future to buy these stakes because it’s sort of been systematized by institutional investors.”
Associated Press writers James Ellingworth, Graham Dunbar, Daniella Matar, Samuel Petrequin, Joseph Wilson, Debora Rey, Eleonore Hughes and James Robson contributed to this report.
AP soccer: https://apnews.com/hub/soccer