The £50m purchase of Derby County Football Club by US sports marketing company General Sports and Entertainment (GSE) has once again fanned the debate about the wisdom of foreign investors – particularly those from the US – buying into English football.
As well as Derby, Manchester United, Liverpool and Aston Villa are also now under US ownership, while Chelsea and Portsmouth are controlled by Russians and Manchester City is owned by the former Thai prime minister.
Andy Suthernden, managing director of sports and marketing sponsorship at Hill & Knowlton, says US sport is “maxed out” and adds: “US investors see the Premiership is a true global property.”
GSE chairman Andy Appleby wants to turn Derby into a “global brand”. He adds that GSE will not interfere with the football side at Derby.
Derby fans are cautiously optimistic, according to Jim Wheeler, chairman of fans association The Rams Trust. He says this takeover “looks better” than previous bids for the club, adding: “GSE wants to make a long-term investment and has said the right things.”
Wheeler welcomes GSE’s plans to make Derby a global brand, but fears: “If in 12 months we aren’t challenging for the Premiership and GSE’s model starts to look shaky, the new owners might interfere with the football side.”
News that Portsmouth’s Russian owner Alexandre Gaydamak is looking to sell the club after just 18 months adds weight to the view that foreign investors are simply after a quick buck, rather than having a club’s long-term interests at heart.
But chief executive of Karen Earl Sponsorship Tim Crow says: “Portsmouth is in a good position. Maybe it’s a good time to cash in. He has not left Portsmouth in the lurch.”
Gaydamak’s investment helped Portsmouth finish ninth in the Premiership last season and he will be eyeing a return on his investment.
Liverpool’s new US owners have incurred the wrath of the fans follow after clashing with the club’s manager Rafael Benitez, who has won Liverpool the UEFA Champions League.
Liverpool Echo sports editor John Thompson says: “The supporters do not believe US owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett understand the club and have not respected its traditions, as they said they would.”
Manchester United fans also reacted angrily to Malcolm Glazer’s debt-leveraged takeover of the club. But Glazer has invested in players and not interfered with the team so the initial threat of a boycott from fans has subsided.
Similarly, Aston Villa fans appear to have warmed to US owner Randy Lerner, who has invested money in the club without being seen to be interfering.
Phil Carling, head of football at Octagon, puts Lerner’s high regard down to his team and the advice he has taken. “Keith Harris at Seymour Pierce [Lerner’s adviser] has been a safe pair of hands,” says Carling. “Nationality doesn’t matter; you have to understand the fans. There is DNA in every football club that you have to understand, or you risk alienating fans.”
Carling adds that it is unfair to expect foreign owners to understand the nuances of English football straight away: “They cannot do it on their own – it is the quality of the advice and sounding out the fan base that achieves this.”
It is important that foreign investors have goals beyond commercial gain and work hard to understand supporters and the history of clubs. But fans must also accept that their clubs are businesses too.