Government intervention is about to make buying a football club much harder.
It is nearly two decades since Roman Abramovich bought Chelsea Football Club for a reported £120 million. At the end of last month, Todd Boehly led a number of other billionaire businessmen and the private equity firm, Clearlake Capital, over the line in a race to acquire the West London club.
The £4.25 billion deal is the latest and greatest mega-money acquisition of a Premier League club. But despite the buyers’ collective purchasing power, the deal wasn’t simple. Sanctions placed on Roman Abramovich led the British government to take a keen interest in the deal, careful to ensure the proceeds wouldn’t slip into the oligarch’s pockets.
Nevertheless, the Boehly-led consortium is likely to be the last Premier League club buyer to have such an easy ride. A government white paper introducing new rules around club ownership is expected in the coming months, and after six directors of Premier League clubs voted to join a European Super League last year, critics expect them to be strict.
So, how do you buy a football club?
Before reaching for your chequebook, we’ve outlined four boxes that prospective owners must tick:
- Sound financial structuring – a new industry regulator will be tasked with ensuring the financial sustainability of any new ownership structures.
- Influence – The right people will be required to push the deal over the line.
- A suitable record – Prospective owners must first win the crowd
- ‘Integrity’ – a new government test will determine the suitability of candidates
Money and influence
While money is the driving force behind any deal, the new rules are expected to place greater onus on sound financial planning. An independent report published in April criticised ‘the widespread culture of clubs operating unsustainable financial practices, placing the pursuit of success over sound financial management.’
To combat this, a new independent regulator will be given the power to exercise financial oversight of clubs, including information gathering, investigation and enforcement powers. How these rules will work in practice remains to be seen, but the government white paper is expected to push for increased transparency amongst club owners.
It isn’t all about money, however. Who you know is equally important when looking to secure your own football club. The success of the Boehly-Clearlake bid, for instance, relied in-part on the influence of former Chancellor George Osbourne (a season ticket holder at Chelsea) who was brought in as an advisor.
Keeping a clean sheet
Foreign buyers underestimate fans’ influence at their peril. The Rickets Family Investment Group pulled out of their Chelsea bid—despite reaching the final shortlist—after supporter groups criticised racist comments made by Joe Ricketts in the past. That said, widespread criticism of human rights abuses committed by Saudi Arabia failed to stop the Saudi Public Investment Fund snapping up an 80% share of Newcastle United last October.
The Newcastle deal led multiple organisations, including Amnesty International, to question the suitability of the Premier League’s Owners and Directors test. According to the Premier League handbook, the test requires applicants to have no history of ‘criminal convictions for a wide range of offences, a ban by a sporting or professional body, or breaches of certain key football regulations, such as match fixing.’
A fan-led review published at the end of 2021 determined that the ‘test has failed to stop many owners who are not “fit and proper,” It’s a disaster of a system.’
The new ‘integrity’ test
In April, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport confirmed announced that the new regulator will be tasked with applying a new and ‘enhanced Owners and Directors Test’, both ahead of an acquisition of a club and on an ongoing basis. This will include a new “integrity test” for all owners and executives, and enhanced due diligence – including sources of funding – upon an acquisition.’ How these tests will apply to existing directors is not yet clear, but it is likely to make buying a football club a lot harder.
Even having passed these tests, an acquisition can still be derailed by circumstances surrounding the sale. This nearly happened to the Boehly Clearlake bid when the British government raised concerns that the sale may allow Abramovich to recoup the £1.5bn he loaned to Chelsea through a jersey-based holding company, Camberley International Investments.
Abramovich’s acquisition of Chelsea in 2003 marked a new era in Premier League football. Nineteen years later, that era is drawing to a close. Government intervention and the creation of a new market regulator suggest that buying a football club is about to become a lot harder.