It’s said that the fastest way to becoming a millionaire is to first become a billionaire – and then buy a sports team.
But America’s wealthiest don’t appear to have gotten the message.
Increasingly, deep-pocketed US investors are setting their sights beyond the NFL or NBA – and are heading across the Atlantic to soccer’s English Premier League (EPL).
Today, half of the 20 EPL teams are owned, in part or in whole, by American money – and despite inconsistent returns, more might be on their way.
Formed in 1992 when 22 teams broke away from the Football League (which dates back to the 1880s), the EPL is now a global brand, watched in 188 countries, with an annual television audience of more than 5 billion people.
Since the mid-2000s, three of the biggest EPL teams – Manchester United, Liverpool, and Arsenal – have been owned by Americans.
But now Bournemouth, Chelsea, Fulham, Aston Villa, Crystal Palace, Manchester City, and Leeds United have also come under some measure of American control.
With billions of dollars (and viewers) at stake, the forthcoming sale of Manchester United by its American owners, the Glazers, has been hogging headlines on both sides of the pond.
Indeed, the decision to sell Manchester United – considered by many British soccer’s biggest prize – has seen interest from potential buyers from Qatar, as well as British chemical mogul Sir Jim Ratcliffe.
But there are rumored to be several American investors still to show their hands.
Is the price holding them back?
The Glazers are angling for a roughly $7 billion payday and if they achieve anywhere near that, it will obliterate the record $5.4 billion spent for London’s Chelsea Football Club by Los Angeles part-owner Todd Boehly in May 2022.
But what’s in it for new owners, especially Americans spoilt for choice with franchises at home?
According to Kieran Maguire, football finance expert at the University of Liverpool and presenter of ‘The Price of Football’ podcast, the EPL – despite those billion-dollar price tags – could actually be undervalued.
“The key is the price of UK sports franchises,” he tells The Post. “A few months ago, Bournemouth was bought for £120 million ($185 million) by Texan investor Bill Foley.
“That’s a bargain, especially with the strength of the US dollar against the pound and the greater costs involved in buying franchises in America.” (The Phoenix Suns, for instance, just sold for $4 billion.)
It’s also a bargain because even the worst-performing team in the EPL receives around $120 million in league prize money and shares of broadcasting revenues each year.
Still, potential investors aren’t necessarily welcomed with open arms.
There’s an inherent suspicion of foreign coaches or owners, especially Americans, a fact not helped by the mediocre job the Glazers have done at United.
Back in 2005, the family borrowed much of the $950 million needed to buy United, before they then loaded the debt back on the club itself.
The resulting burden has stifled much-needed investment in the club’s aging stadium and training facilities.
Then there’s Todd Boehly’s short time as owner of Chelsea, which has only solidified for many the belief that Americans are clueless about football.
Within weeks of arriving, Boehly sacked coach Thomas Tuchel, who had just won Europe’s foremost club competition, the Champions League, replacing him with Graham Potter, who has since overseen just nine wins in 26 games in charge, leaving Chelsea out of the EPL title race.
And let’s not forget about the spending.
To date, Boehly has spent around $720 million buying 17 new players and $357 million in January 2023 alone.
That’s more than the combined total spend of all 78 teams in Europe’s other big leagues. Even bigger clubs can’t compete.
Liverpool might be England’s most successful team but they can’t match Chelsea’s financial firepower despite having LeBron James as a stakeholder.
So can anyone make money in UK soccer amid all of these player payouts?
Yes, says Kieran Maguire.
“Look at Manchester United,” he adds. “In a good year, their revenues are around $750-800 million and they have a fanbase of around 1.1 billion people globally.
“That works out at around 75 cents per fan.
“If a new owner can just double that, suddenly you’re looking at a very profitable business.
It helps that the EPL’s annual revenues are still just half of the NFL’s $18 billion – even though, unlike the NFL or NBA, no EPL games have been staged abroad.
The lucrative prospect of a future ‘European Super League’ – as well as potential matches outside of the UK – are music to investors’ ears.
But the EPL’s popularity doesn’t always translate into profits.
When Cleveland Browns owner Randy Lerner paid $125 million for EPL team Aston Villa in 2006, for example, he pumped in $300 million over a decade, before selling to Chinese businessman Tony Jiantong Xia for just $90 million in 2016.
Forbes magazine estimated the venture cost Lerner around $100,000 for each day he was in charge.
Still, while English soccer has clearly become a plaything for billionaires, mere millionaires are also entering the fray.
In February 2021, actors Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney bought Wrexham, a Welsh club playing in the fifth tier of English football, the National League.
Since the takeover, the team has gone from strength to strength, topping their division and looking set for promotion to a higher tier of football.
And after “Welcome To Wrexham,” the Disney+ docu-series following the team’s fortunes, the town has become a tourist destination, with fans from as far afield as Australia and Canada coming to watch games.
It is, says Reynolds, “very time-consuming, emotionally exhausting, financially idiotic… and utterly addictive.”
And the price paid?
Just $2.5 million.