Kevin Dowd April 18, 2016
We’ve recently been documenting the ongoing love affair between private equity and professional sports in the U.S., where PE moguls own nearly a quarter of the teams in the NBA and a whole generation of former athletes is making its way into the industry. But the trend is the same across the globe, as the ever-booming business of athletics continues to draw the eager eyes of investors.
The latest example comes from England's Barclays Premier League, the most popular football league in the world.
Steve Kaplan, a co-founder of Oaktree Capital Management, is part of an investment group working to finalize the purchase of Swansea City Football Club by the end of May, the team confirmed last weekend. Kaplan and co-investor Jason Levien, a part owner of Major League Soccer’s D.C. United, would gain a 75% interest in Swansea as part of a deal that would value the Welsh club at about $200 million, according to reports.
Swansea has emerged from relative obscurity in the past decade-plus, rising from the fourth division of English football into the Premiership, where the club currently stands in 12th place out of 20 teams. Kaplan’s investment could spur the Swans to even greater growth, including a rumored expansion of their stadium.
The proposed purchase of a Premiership team by American PE buyers is the second in short succession. In December, Apollo Global Management co-founder Josh Harris and Blackstone executive David Blitzer acquired twin 18% stakes in Crystal Palace as part of a deal that involved an initial €50 million investment. Harris and Blitzer are also co-owners of the NBA's Philadelphia 76ers, a team that made headlines last week with some front-office fireworks.
Across England and the rest of Europe’s top-flight football leagues, other PE and VC owners abound. Ellis Short, the founder of Kildare Partners and a former executive at Lone Star Funds, is the owner and chairman of Sunderland. Chestnut Hill Ventures chairman and CEO John Berylson owns Millwall, and investors like Jeffrey Vinik and Seth Klarman are stakeholders in Fenway Sports Group, the owner of Liverpool.
Even more prevalent than individual owners, though, are PE firms who hold significant stakes in football clubs.
Tavistock Group, founded by the billionaire Joe Lewis, is the owner of Tottenham Hotspur. AS Roma, one of the flagship teams in Italy’s Serie A, is backed by a consortium that includes Starwood Capital Group. Paris Saint-Germain, which recently clinched its fourth consecutive Ligue 1 title in France, is owned by Qatari Sports Investments, a branch of the Qatari Investment Authority. And Hertha Berlin, an emerging powerhouse in Germany’s Bundesliga, is owned in part by KKR, which paid €61.2 million for a 9.7% stake in early 2014.
While much more common across the Atlantic, PE firms owning sports franchises isn’t unheard of in the U.S., either. TowerBrook Capital owned the St. Louis Blues of the NHL from 2006 to 2012.
In some instances, such as Roma, PE buyers are sought as a way to help clear club balance sheets of large quantities of debt. European football teams are often highly leveraged; according to a 2015 study conducted by The Daily Mail, nine of the 20 teams in the EPL carry over €100 million in debt, led by Chelsea at a hefty £958 million. But that’s not always the case. Swansea, for instance, had zero debt as of last year, according to The Daily Mail’s research.
In their bid for the up-and-coming club, Oaktree’s co-founder and his co-investors may simply see an underpriced asset with serious potential for growth. With revenue in the Premier League increasing consistently year to year—Europe's governing football body, UEFA, projects it to be the highest-earning sports league in the world by 2017—the value of its teams seems to have nowhere to go but up.