Multi-Club Ownership - For the Good of the Game?
Alongside the rise of investment from sovereign wealth and private equity funds, sport has also seen an increase in multi-club/franchise ownership groups. These groups, often spanning across different sports, leagues, countries, and continents, allow investors to diversify their portfolios and spread their risks.
However, in football, the rise of the Multi-Club Ownership (MCOs) model poses a challenge for how the sport is governed and has implications on current and future financial regulation. MCOs acquire multiple football clubs, building a network of related teams in the process. This, consequentially, has a knock-on effect on player transfers, commercial opportunities, and the overall competitive balance of football across the globe.
In this article, we discuss the benefits of MCOs for both clubs and owners, the potential competitive advantages clubs can gain through MCOs, and whether the existing financial regulations are fit for purpose given the increasing number of MCOs within the sport.
One of the key benefits for clubs under an MCO structure is the ability to leverage centralized governance infrastructure and apply lessons learned from across the group. By centralizing key departments at the portfolio level, and incentivizing knowledge sharing within the group, MCOs can apply synergies and implement best practices with each new acquisition, leading to a more effective and efficient operation. Additionally, the centralized governance structure within an MCO brings with it opportunities for financial benefits in the form of cost savings and potentially increased revenues.
Sponsorships and Commercial Deals
Operating under an MCO allows clubs to benefit from sponsorships and other commercial deals negotiated at the group level, while also increasing individual brand awareness for each respective club. For example, an MCO could negotiate a group sponsorship agreement with a kit manufacturer or shirt sponsor covering a number of teams within the group, including the flagship club.
Agreements of this kind would be beneficial for all parties involved. The sponsor increases its own profile by being associated with the flagship club, while also getting instant access to a variety of markets through the other clubs in the agreement. At the group level, the homogeneity created by having clubs within the group playing in similar kits creates a stronger brand identity, whilst also boosting the brand profile for the smaller clubs by further associating them with the flagship club. Additionally, a group agreement would allow the MCO to secure a competitive rate that may have been unattainable for a solitary club.
Player Scouting, Acquisition, and Development
The other major financial benefit for clubs in an MCO structure relates to how players are scouted, acquired, and developed. A common feature of MCOs is the application of a uniform strategy, across all portfolio clubs, set at a group level by a Sporting/Technical Director. When trickled down to each club, this results in a global scouting network, acquiring local talent with the group’s playing style in mind. These players will then be brought into an academy, through which they will be developed to play in the MCO's preferred playing style.
While this does not represent an immediate cost saving, this network of local scouting and academies at the club level can lead to a significant competitive and financial advantage as players move within the group from smaller clubs to the flagship club. By transferring or loaning players “in-house”, MCOs can ensure that a player’s development is not hampered by being played in an unfavorable position, or by being asked to perform a different role, protecting their value.
Additionally, by acquiring players from within the group, clubs save both time and money on scouting, as players are already a known quantity within the network. Furthermore, the receiving club acquires a player tailor-made to their playing style, reducing the time required to bed them in.
“In-house” Transfer Agreements
As exemplified by the transfer of Hassane Kamara between Pozzo family-owned clubs Watford and Udinese, “in-house” transfers can be leveraged to alleviate financial constraints for clubs within the group. Kamara, initially purchased by Watford in January 2022 for £4m, and who went on to be Watford’s player of the season, was subsequently sold to Udinese in August 2022 for £16m.
However, Kamara was then loaned straight back to Watford for the 2022/23 season. Although prima facie, this transfer does not benefit Udinese, it allowed Watford to recognize an £8m profit on Kamara while retaining his services, and strengthening their cash flow at a time when they were negotiating contracts with other star players. While "in-house" transfers of this kind raise questions regarding their fitness and propriety, they also have implications on competitive balance.
The most recognizable transfer strategy within MCOs is the feeder club model. This can be mutually beneficial to both clubs, with the best-performing players transferring to the “parent” clubs” and the “feeder” club receiving transfer income, as well as occasional loan transfers of youth team players to develop while remaining in the MCO structure.
Such a relationship can be seen between Red Bull owned, RB Leipzig (RBL) and FC Red Bull Salzburg (FCS). Since 2015, twelve players have transferred directly from FCS to RBL, with transfer fees totaling £119.75m. Eight of these players, bought for a total of £73.85m have subsequently been sold for a total of £117.50m, generating £43.65 profit RBL. The cumulative market value of the four players still playing for RBL has risen by £26.32m since their relevant transfers. For perspective, there have only been four transfers from RBL to FCS in the same period. [i]
Although centralized governance structures provide a wealth of benefits to clubs and owners within MCOs, there is a regulation to limit the effects of centralized governance on the integrity of competition.
UEFA’s regulations on common ownership prohibit teams from competing in the same competition where a single person or entity has a de facto control over both clubs. For clubs under common ownership to compete in the same competition, they must demonstrate that there are disparities within the clubs’ corporate matters, financing, personnel, and sponsorship arrangements.
On only one occasion since 2002 has UEFA’s rule on common ownership been considered. RBL and FCS both qualified for the 2017/18 Champions League and had to make significant structural changes in order for both teams to be admitted to that season’s edition. Therefore, as long as MCOs are willing to sacrifice centralized operations to an extent satisfactory to UEFA regulations, mutual competition is allowed. However, while many smaller clubs within more centralized MCO structures may not have short-term goals of European Football, UEFA regulations do raise questions over the investor's long-term footballing ambitions for those clubs.
Financial Sustainability Regulations
In addition to the on-field benefits, being part of an MCO also provides opportunities for clubs to improve their financial position, and potentially exploit loopholes in existing financial regulation. UEFA’s recently introduced Financial Sustainability Rules (FSR) are built upon three pillars: solvency, stability, and cost control. The new cost control regulation, known as the squad cost ratio, states that a club's outlays on wages, agents’ fees, and amortization costs must be less than 70% of club revenues. [ii]
In a scenario where an MCO owned club requires to decrease their squad cost ratio, it is possible that group sponsorship agreements and in-house transfers could be used to achieve this. By selling players within an MCO, and then receiving those players back on loan, clubs will recognize a profit on the sale for the purposes of FSR and bring down their squad cost ratio.
When considering group sponsorship agreements in respect of FSR, it is also possible that the accounting treatment of this contract at the club level could be engineered to assist a club in complying with the squad cost ratio. The allocation of revenue from a group-level sponsorship to each of the clubs under the agreement is not required to be split evenly, which provides MCOs with an opportunity to funnel revenues from group sponsorships to their clubs complying with FSR. With no current guidance or regulation on how group sponsorships should be treated from an accounting perspective, group sponsorships are another tool that can be utilized to improve their squad cost ratio.
Fair Value Regulations
Although MCOs bring opportunities to improve squad cost ratios, the FSR regulations also require all transactions to be made at “fair value”. This means that financial arrangements for sponsorships and player transfers must be accounted for on an “arm’s length” basis. Where there are doubts amongst the Club Financial Control Body (CFCB) board, it can request an adjustment of the proceeds resulting from the transfer of a player, or the allocation of sponsorship monies.
However, there is currently no precedent or evidence to indicate how UEFA would view the accounting treatment for a club under a group sponsorship agreement or the transfer of players within MCOs. Furthermore, while there is a clear means to value a sponsorship agreement, this is considerably more difficult with regard to transfers, specifically the valuation of a player.
While age, injury record, marketability, and contract length, are all attributable factors, a player’s worth comes down to how much the selling club desires weighted against how much the buying club is willing to pay. An MCO structure circumvents this issue and allows for “in-house” transfers at an inflated value stipulated by the shared owner/s. Given the regulations, it is unlikely any club would want to pique the interests of the CFCB by hyper-inflating the value of a transfer, but whether MCOs will be deterred from increasing the value of in house transfers by smaller, nominal values remains to be seen.
The Future of MCOs
Recent trends have shown that the existence of MCOs will be sustained over the coming years. Sport has developed alongside the increasingly commercialized world, resulting in significant growth in investor interest across multiple clubs and sports. However, how the governance and regulation of MCOs evolves will define their development in the long term. Another factor that must be considered is whether investors will prefer multi-sport ownership (MSOs), which bring with them their own regulatory considerations, particularly in relation to conflicts of interest. Nonetheless, in the immediate future we expect continued investment in Football, the question is whether they remain satisfied with just one club, or one sport.
[i] All figures have been taken from https://www.transfermarkt.co.uk/
[ii] A full copy of UEFA’s new regulations can be found here
Kurun Bhandari, Director, and James Michaels, Associate, authored this article.