The Florida financiers buying up Europe’s football teams

  • Florida’s sunshine and business-friendly policies have been drawing financiers and entrepreneurs, including a group pouring money into the sport.
  • Multi-club ownership has grown in popularity. 
  • There are about 60 multiclub groups globally, nearly two-thirds of which have emerged since 2018.

European soccer ownership is today just as likely to be
thrashed out at a Miami Beach steakhouse as in the plush restaurants of London,
Milan or Paris.

Florida’s sunshine and business-friendly policies have
been drawing financiers and entrepreneurs, including a
group pouring money into the world’s favorite sport. Among them is John Textor,
who’s just completed the buy of 80% of Belgian club RWD
Molenbeek by his sports investment means Eagle Football LLC. 

Other soccer-mad investors based in South Florida are Paul
Conway and Chien Lee, founders of Pacific Media Group LLC, Josh Wander,
managing partner at 777 Partners LLC, and Randy Frankel, co-owner of the Tampa
Bay Rays baseball team.

“More and more specialized investors have moved to
South Florida, and they love football,” Lee said in an interview. “Football
is an attractive and good asset class investment.”

Conway, who meets his contacts to discuss the evolution of
soccer at Miami Beach spots including celebrity-favorite steak restaurant chief
112 or nearby Joe’s Stone Crab, also played a part in the RWD Molenbeek
deal. 

“He’s acted like a friend,” said Jupiter Island
resident Textor. “He’s a terrific resource and already flew to Belgium with
me to introduce me to the owners of the team.”

Conway, Lee and Textor champion the multiclub ownership
form that’s grown in popularity as a way of developing stars of the game without the need for hefty move
fees. Pacific Media has spent recent years buying stakes in teams across
Europe, while Textor is already invested in Crystal Palace FC of the UK Premier
League.

“Americans are going to be owning more and more of
European football,” said Conway. “A lot will go by a multiclub
arrangement, where when one club struggles, the others might be able to help
them.”

There are about 60 multiclub groups globally, nearly
two-thirds of which have emerged since 2018, according to the International
Centre for Sports Studies (CIES). Proponents of the strategy point to cost
synergies and the possible to strike more lucrative sponsorship deals.
Critics, including fans’ body Supporters Direct Europe, say it stifles
competition and creates feeder teams with no real prospect of success.

Here’s a closer look at the main US investors buying up
European soccer. 

John Textor, founder of Eagle Football LLC

Dubbed a “virtual-reality guru” by Forbes Magazine
in 2016, Textor is chief executive officer of digital likeness
and human animation company Facebank Inc. He shot to prominence in the European
soccer world in 2021 by taking a stake in Crystal Palace. 

LAS VEGAS, NV – MAY

The south London team are slowly carving out a reputation
for exciting football under the coaching of Frenchman Patrick Vieira, the
former World Cup winner installed last summer, and could now stand to assistance
from talent developed at RWD Molenbeek.

“If you want to pursue a multiclub strategy you need to
have the global footprint for talent identification from a market respected by
the UK,” said Textor. “There is a very high level of play in Belgium,
which is only two hours outside London.”

Named in part for Crystal Palace’s club emblem, Textor’s
Eagle means is also in talks to buy a minority stake in Lisbon,
Portugal-based soccer giant SL Benfica, said Textor. Outside Europe, Eagle now
holds 90% of Brazil’s Botafogo via a $330 million deal that completed this
week, he said.

Paul Conway and Chien Lee, co-founders of Pacific Media
Group

Pacific Media’s soccer stable includes stakes in AS Nancy of
France, Barnsley FC in the UK, Denmark’s Esbjerg fB, FC Thun of Switzerland and
KV Oostende in Belgium.

A former Oppenheimer & Co. banker, Conway advocates the
high-pressing style that’s become popular in Europe’s top leagues. Ensuring a
shared approach to playing this way method it’s easy to move players around his
clubs if and when the need arises.

His teams rely heavily on data examination when recruiting and
developing young talent. Billy Beane, the ex-US baseball player who pioneered a
similar form during his time managing California’s Oakland Athletics — a
story later retold in Michael Lewis’s 2003 book “Moneyball” — sits
on Barnsley’s board. 

Barnsley qualified for the Championship play-offs last
season, taking them to within touching distance of the lucrative Premier
League. They were unsuccessful in that attempt and are now in a battle to avoid
relegation from the second-tier of English football. Nancy and Oostende have
also been struggling, with both in the bottom halves of their respective tables
in France and Belgium. 

Conway is being patient. “There are highs and lows
throughout each season,” he said. “Our goal is to grow a club in a
sustainable way, while also being a good custodian for the local community.”

Josh Wander, co-founder of 777 Partners

Wander’s 777 has built a portfolio of sports assets that
includes streaming sets and investments in British basketball. The firm
targets undervalued businesses with thorough connections to fan bases, according to its
website, and for soccer bets Wander has so far picked two of Europe’s most
historic clubs. 

Josh Wander speaks with Genoa Chairman Alberto Zangrillo
before the Serie A match between Genoa CFC and AS Roma at Stadio Luigi Ferraris
in Genoa, Italy, on Nov. 21, 2021.

In September, 777 acquired ownership of Italy’s oldest
soccer team, Genoa Cricket and Football Club, commonly known as Genoa. It
already held a minority stake in Sevilla FC, one of Spain’s most successful
outfits.

Wander knows Conway and Jim Pallotta, the former owner of
Italian soccer club AS Roma, from living in Miami. He said he’s having multiple
conversations about buying more soccer teams in Europe and in other places. 

“Having smart and honest people investing in football
globally is good for the leagues,” he said.

Although Ukrainian footballing legend Andriy Shevchenko was
appointed coach of Genoa last year, the team has won just one game in the
current league campaign and risks being relegated from Serie A at the end of
the season.

Randy Frankel, Josh Harris

Miami local Frankel has been dipping into European soccer
via investments alongside Conway. by Partners Path Capital, run by former
Tampa Bay Rays executive Michael Kalt, Frankel has been involved in Pacific Media deals including Nancy and Oostende.

Joshua Harris, co-founder of Apollo Global Management LLC,
speaks during the Milken Institute Global Conference in Beverly Hills,
California, US, on Monday, May 1, 2017. The conference is a rare setting that
convenes individuals with the capital, strength and influence to move the world
forward meet confront-to-confront with those whose skill and creativity are
reinventing industry, philanthropy and media.

“Right now, us and Pacific Media are good partners,”
he said. Goldman
Sachs Group Inc. alumnus Frankel, who has “no shortage” of
people wanting to team up for more European soccer deals, also likes the
multiclub form, which he said lets an investor learn things from different
countries and their peoples.

Josh Harris, a co-founder of private equity giant Apollo
Global Management Inc., bought a $32 million Miami mansion last year. Like
Textor, he sits on the board at Crystal Palace. Harris called time on three decades at Apollo in 2021 after missing
out on the top job at the firm. He is co-founder of Harris Blitzer Sports &
Entertainment, which he runs with Blackstone Inc. dealmaker David Blitzer.

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