Who Owns the Global Game?

Who Owns the Global Game?
Towards the end of 2018, Paris Saint-Germain played Liverpool in the UEFA Champions League, and in so doing, provided a microcosm of elite football’s modern globalisation. This crucial group stage match – which PSG won to keep their campaign alive - saw teams from France and England, owned by Qatari and US organizations, with German coaches, featuring players from 13 different nationalities, entertain and enthral billions of fans across the world. Yes, football today is truly a global game.

This globalisation of football is perhaps the most striking theme from the 2019 edition of Soccerex Football Finance 100. The reports shows just how internationally spread the ownership of elite football is, with 20 different countries holding a controlling stake in world’s top 100 ranked clubs by financial strength.

The greatest concentration of foreign ownership is in England where the current trend for overseas investment dates back to 1997, when the eccentric Egyptian business man, Mohamed Al Fayed – best known for his ownership of London’s iconic Harrods – purchased one of capital’s most historic teams in Fulham FC. Six years later, after Al Fayed’s Fulham had blazed a trail through the lower divisions and cemented their spot in the Premier League, Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich made a more significant investment in their West London neighbours, Chelsea FC which altered the football landscape in the UK. Five years after that Sheikh Mansour Bin Zayed Al Nahyan of the Abu Dhabi Royal Family purchased Manchester City and the landscape was changed again. The introduction of UEFA’s Financial Fair Play regulations in 2011 may have curbed the spending power of this new breed of ultra-wealthy foreign owner, but it did not diminish their interest and today the Premier League still boasts foreign ownership at 14 of its 20 clubs, covering nine different countries.

Over the course of the decade, the trend of foreign ownership has spread through Europe’s big five leagues, with the exception of the Bundesliga where German clubs voted last February to maintain the 50+1% regulation which prohibits foreign ownership. LaLiga, Serie A and Ligue 1 have all seen historic clubs like Atletico Madrid, Inter Milan and Marseille attracting significant foreign investment, nowhere more so than at Paris Saint-Germain were the club’s fortunes have been completely transformed by the riches of Qatar.

Although neither are traditional football nations, it is perhaps unsurprising, given their financial strengths, that the world’s two biggest economies – USA and China – have the biggest ownership stake in global football, with the two countries cumulatively accounting for the ownership of more than 30% of the top 100 clubs in our report. This investment in the game is reflected in its growing popularity – and the burgeoning industries – in both countries. Interestingly Japan, the world’s third largest economic market does not feature. While the lack of Japanese ownership within the European elite is stark compared with USA and China, the fact they do not feature at all is in part due to lack of suitable data to rank Japanese clubs, which are Japanese owned and who have showed signs of financial potential bringing in players like Iniesta, Podoloski and Fernando Torres.

The USA is the most dominant individual country in terms of ownership with 18% of top 100 and 23% of the top 30. Attracted by huge audiences and bringing sports marketing savvy to ensure high returns, US investment can now be seen in three of the big five European leagues, none more so than in the Premier League where US organizations own nearly as many clubs as UK companies. Add to this the flourishing of the largely US owned MLS and the co-hosting of the FIFA World Cup in 2026, and the growing US influence on world football is clear to see.

While US investment and influence looks set to grow, the investment future of China, internationally at least, may be taking a different path. Following a flurry of spending that saw Chinese businesses invest $2.5bn in the global football industry between 2015 and 2017, this investment slowed in 2018 due to government regulation changes aimed at curbing the flow of money overseas and focusing investment on internal development.  This means that the waves of Chinese investment that looked set to engulf the game have abated…for now at least. It is worth noting that just as quickly as the barriers were put up, a change of policy with the Chinese government could open the flood gates again and the country has already shown it has the appetite and the funds to make a swift and significant impact on world football.

The top two clubs the Soccerex Football Finance 100, Manchester City & Paris Saint Germain have benefitted enormously from Middle Eastern investment at a sovereign level. This seemed to be the growing trend in terms of international ownership but despite their controlling influence at the very top, Middle Eastern countries only account for 5% of the ownership of the 100 clubs ranked within the report.

Regionally, the ownership of top 100 is quiet evenly split between Asia, Europe and the Americas whereas the top 30, despite the impact of wealthy owners from USA, China and the Middle East is predominantly European owned. Interestingly though when you look at the top 30 clubs individually within their different leagues, 50% are foreign owned. 

Despite the smorgasbord of nations making up the ownership of the world’s most wealthy clubs, the most prevalent ownership group is defined not by nation but by historic bonds. The Football Finance 100 shows that 21% of the top 100 clubs are member owned including the two Spanish giants Real Madrid and Barcelona, along with most clubs in South America, Portugal and Holland. That fans are still the biggest controlling group in the heavily commercialised modern game is hugely reassuring but it is also further proof of just how global the ownership of football is; wealthy investors may have transformed the sport, the fate of football is largely still in the hands of billions of fans worldwide, ensuring a future driven by their love of the game not the profit it might make them. Long may this continue...

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