$984 billion and counting: Could the sales of Manchester United and Liverpool take Gulf investment beyond the trillion mark?
Foreign ownership has become the norm in European football, attracting investors from around the world, and Gulf states are leading the charge with goals to diversify their historically oil-based economy. With the news that the owners of the two biggest teams in English football are looking to sell, MoneyTransfers.com looks at the biggest takeovers in sport, and the growing Middle Eastern sporting empire.
As two of the biggest brand names across the globe, the news that Manchester United and Liverpool football clubs are apparently to be sold has sent shockwaves through the world of sport and finance.
Should the clubs’ current owners eventually find serious prospective buyers, the ensuing transactions could see both teams rise to the top of the list of the world’s most valuable sports teams.
While there is no real sense of who these buyers might be, it’s not entirely beyond the realm of possibility that the biggest clubs in English football could end up in the hands of the rising Gulf State Sports Empire (not its official title).
With heavy pockets and sights on reducing oil-dependence, many Gulf states are looking to diversify their economies – and sports has for some time now been the prime target.
Big fish, big pond
Manchester United being the more recent of the two clubs to be thrust into the spotlight of potential new ownership, and arguably the bigger of the North East footballing giants, likely present the more attractive investment opportunity. While names like Sir Jim Ratcliffe, Lord Jim O’Neill and Amancio Ortega have been thrown around, rumours have inevitably strayed towards notions of further Gulf state investment,
Whoever the new owner may end up being, they will have to part with a significant sum of money to take ownership of the club. The current owners, the Glazer family, will look to sell at around $7 billion, thrusting the deal straight to the top of the football club takeover A-list.
The current occupier of the top spot is Todd Boehly’s record-setting purchase of Chelsea Football Club for £4.25 billion – after he took over from Roman Abramovich following the Russian invasion of Ukraine and investigations into the Russian’s finances. However, the recent takeover of Newcastle by the Saudi Public Investment Fund has made the Tyneside outfit the richest club on the planet.
A growing empire
They join an ever-growing list of Middle-Eastern owners in European football – which currently includes Mansour Bin Zayed, who paid a reported £385 million for Manchester City; Qatar Sports Investments, who bought Paris Saint Germain for around £130 million; and Abdullah Bin Nassar Al-Thani, who purchased Spanish 2nd division team Malaga for just under $50 million.
There are now eight owners from Gulf states in European football, and their total combined investment is close to $1 trillion – and there are no signs that this is stopping. The market is growing, and Gulf nations are ahead of the curve with heavy investment over the last decade and a half.
Revenue for the European football market hit €27.6 billion in 2022, with over half of this accounted for by the Big 5 leagues, according to the Deloitte Annual Review of Football Finance in Europe. With lucrative TV and sponsorship deals pouring in, and a need for Gulf states to leave oil behind, it seems like the perfect match.
Guilty of sportswashing?
Amidst the joys of fans of clubs like Newcastle United and Manchester City, whose footballing prospects looked relatively bleak before investment, and the glitz and glamour of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, there are growing rumbles revolving around one word: sportswashing.
Grant Liberty released a report last year that found Saudi Arabia had invested over $1.5 billion in what they called a ‘sportswashing’ programme – the idea of using sports to improve a reputation of an individual or group, or even a whole nation.
Protests against Qatar’s stance on LGBT and women’s rights, as well as their treatment of migrant workers in the build up to the 2022 World Cup have also taken some of the spotlight away from the sports themselves.
For many it’s a morally grey area, while for others there is no question that the heavy investment by Gulf states in European football is a symbol of sportswashing at its best. Should fans of Liverpool and Manchester United be concerned about their potential new owners – are fans of Newcastle, Paris St Germain and Manchester City concerned? It’s hard to say.
“It’s easy to want to ‘focus on the football’ and ignore the background noise, but the truth of the matter is that buying football clubs and players doesn’t excuse years of human rights abuse,” says MoneyTransfers.com founder and CEO Jonathan Merry. “It’s arguable that the responsibility lies with national governments as well as FIFA and other footballing bodies to ensure we don’t sacrifice our principles for trophies and TV deals.”