Foreign ownership in the Premier League – why so much and what does it mean?

Manchester City Owner Sheikh Mansour

The plight of Bill Kenwright, Robert Earl and Jon Woods is representative of many English owners. They bought in to Everton at a time when their wealth was, proportionate to the other owners, relatively impressive. Both Woods and Kenwright were born in Liverpool and grew up supporting Everton. And, like many English owners, their financial situations are now comparatively modest.

As it currently stands, Arsenal, Aston Villa, Chelsea, Fulham, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United, Queens Park Rangers, Southampton and Sunderland are completely foreign owned.

On top of that, the Russian company Thames Sport Investment owns 51% of Reading and both Swansea and West Ham are part owned by foreign investors. So, out of the 20 Premier League teams, only seven are wholly owned by UK nationals.

This poses the questions: how long will it be before there are no English owners left and what will the consequences be of a completely foreign owned Premier League?

Clearly the main factor drawing foreign investors to the Premier League is the economic potential of owning part of such a profitable league.

The latest television rights deal for the Premier League was sold for a combined total of £3b for three seasons, and that’s just for broadcasting rights in the UK. The overseas rights are expected to go for around £2b for the same period.

If you compare this to other leagues it is clear to see just how highly our league is valued. The Bundesliga rights amount to around £1b less for the same period whilst the combined total in La Liga is £510m per season. That’s roughly half of the amount received by English clubs.

In fact the average club in La Liga will receive far less than that as the vast majority of that money goes to either Barcelona or Real Madrid.

That leads us on to the second point. Because the Premier League shares the financial packages amongst their teams the league is far more competitive. This means the potential to buy a struggling team and improve it is far greater than it would be in leagues like Spain’s.

Shirt sponsorship is also higher than any other league in the world with €128m received last season by Premier League clubs. The next highest was the Bundesliga with €121m.

So, it is clear to see why overseas investors are attracted to the Premier League. However, if our league is so profitable why aren’t more English investors attracted to owning English clubs? The fact is that despite it being the most profitable league in the world it is still hard to turn a profit owning a football club. So, for wealthy individuals looking to own a football club England is clearly the most attractive prospect yet that individual still has to have extortionate amounts of money in the first place to think about buying a club.

Perhaps there just aren’t enough people in the UK who are both incredibly wealthy and fans of football. Moreover, with every new billionaire who buys in to the Premier League the requisite level of wealth an owner needs to succeed increases.

In reality, outside of the US, there are probably very few countries that do have enough billionaires to own every single top-flight club. Therefore it makes sense that wealthy individuals from different countries would relocate their passion for football to one country. That just happens to be us.

What, then, does this mean for the future of English football? That these foreign owners love football should not be in doubt. No owner would pour so much money in to something they had no interest in. However, some owners are definitely more preoccupied with the financial side than others and just because an owner may love football, it doesn’t mean they have an incredibly strong bond with the club they own. Unlike the fans who owned clubs in the past, unlike owners like Bill Kenwright, these foreign owners are still primarily looking out for themselves.

There is nothing wrong with foreign ownership per se. However, if these owners are not held accountable for the way in which they run these clubs then there could be dangerous issues. They, after all, have a moral responsibility to safeguard the future of these clubs for the fans. Portsmouth has served as a warning for this, and it should be a warning that is carefully heeded.

Another issue is that with so much foreign money coming in there could be a danger that wealthy English fans are forever priced out of owning part of the club they love. Finally, there is an issue, which not all English fans are against but is still a worrying prospect, with regards to moving games abroad. Just as some NFL games are now played in London at Wembley, American owners could look to play some Premier League games abroad.

The financial benefits of this might be a compelling argument but it is a dangerous road to travel down. Were it to become customary, how long would it be before games were exported to other nations?

These foreign owners may be called owners but they should be thought of as stewards. These clubs are ours. Morally, they belong to the fans. We should welcome their input as long as it benefits the English leagues. Many will argue that, considering these clubs are no longer under English ownership, it is too late to have a say in such issues yet in the Premier League we have a body that is able to provide a check on the owners. Let’s hope, for the sake of the future of English football, they exercise that right.