Strength in Numbers: Advantages of Multi-Club Ownership in Sport
February 1, 2024
This article was originally published in Populous Magazine, our biannual publication featuring news and trends from the worlds of sport, entertainment, and major public events. Find out more, and subscribe for free, here.
Some of the world’s highest performing clubs and sports businesses have been conglomerated under powerful companies, dynasties or individuals. We explore the advantage this ownership model brings to the clubs themselves, and their athletes, sponsors and fans.
Who is global sport’s most influential person? While superstar athletes such as Coco Gauff, LeBron James and Lionel Messi stand tall as the public faces of sport that we see on a daily basis, it’s often the businesspeople behind the scenes who wield equal, if not greater influence. And one of them, billionaire landowner John C. Malone, is probably more powerful than all the others. This 82-year-old American is chairman and the largest voting shareholder of Liberty Media – currently the world’s most valuable sports empire, owner of the Formula One Group and the Atlanta Braves baseball team, with stakes in other major sports ventures. Forbes magazine values the company at just under US$21 billion.
Across the planet, sports empires are on the rise, with investors, hedge funds and even sovereign nations buying up multiple sports teams, properties and businesses, offering all the benefits and economies of scale one finds with other global conglomerates. Ranked second on Forbes magazine’s list of global sports empires is Kroenke Sports & Entertainment, whose influence extends across soccer, American football, basketball, ice hockey, indoor lacrosse and esports, thanks to their ownership of Los Angeles Rams, Colorado Avalanche, Denver Nuggets, Arsenal FC, The Guard, Colorado Rapids and Colorado Mammoth. Other leading individuals or groups include Jerry Jones (owners of Dallas Cowboys), Fenway Sports Group (Boston Red Sox, Liverpool FC and Pittsburgh Penguins), and Madison Square Garden Sports (New York Knicks, New York Rangers, Hartford
Most of these ventures are funded through private equity funds. But City Football Group, which owns Manchester City FC, New York City FC, Melbourne City FC, and other soccer clubs across western Europe, India, Japan, China and South America, is 81-per cent-owned by Sheikh Mansour, vice president of the United Arab Emirates. Then there’s the Public Investment Fund, the sovereign wealth fund of Saudi Arabia, which owns Newcastle United FC and LIV Golf.
So how does multi-club ownership benefit the individual clubs and the fans who support them? The funds’ cumulative power and expertise – and of course their vast resources – should not be underestimated. Nor should the economies of scale they can employ. Having multiple clubs and sports businesses on their books allows empires to expand fan bases internationally, tap into new markets and generate new revenue streams.
Broadcasting and media rights
For multi-club organisations, these rights can be extraordinarily lucrative with the larger clubs. But smaller clubs within the same group are often able to piggyback on media deals negotiated on behalf of these larger clubs, boosting their own presence across all media platforms.
Sponsorship and merchandising
There’s often cross-pollination in this area between the larger and the smaller clubs within the same sports group. Manchester City FC and New York City FC (both within City Football Group), for example, have the same shirt sponsor – Etihad Airways. Paris Saint-Germain FC, which is owned by Qatar Sports Investments – part of the state-run sovereign wealth fund in Qatar – has a major retail outlet in the (also state-owned) Hamad International Airport in Qatar’s capital city Doha. These mutual benefits can extend to stadium naming rights, clothing and equipment deals, club memorabilia and advertising campaigns.
It makes business sense for multi-club entities to build up fan bases in different regions of the world. For example, in July 2023, Kroenke Sports & Entertainment staged a match between Arsenal FC and FC Barcelona at SoFi stadium, home of Los Angeles Rams. It just so happens that Kroenke own both Arsenal and the Rams. Despite both teams being European, the match was a sell-out, with over 70,000 fans in attendance. Looking to grow English soccer in California, Arsenal hosted various fan events in downtown Los Angeles at the time.
Venues and facilities
When a group owns major venues on both sides of the Atlantic, clubs within their stable often share facilities. In the future we’ll surely see more NFL teams playing in English Premier League stadia and vice versa.
Athlete and coach development
With multi-club ownership, there are amazing opportunities for junior players or coaches to work their way up through clubs within the same group. In City Football Group, for example, several Manchester City FC players have been loaned to other clubs within the group: Colombian forward Marlos Moreno went to Lommel SK, while Argentinian forward Nahuel Bustos, Brazilian defender Yan Couto, Spanish forward Pablo Moreno and Kosovan goalkeeper Arijanet Muric all went to Girona FC. City Football Group coaches, too, including Erick Mombaerts, Nick Cushing and Liam Manning, have seen their careers grow as they switch between clubs within the group. All the group’s clubs are granted access to Manchester City’s tactics, coaching methods, medical information and player management methods. It’s a system that has been dubbed “the City Way”.
Larger clubs can also filter down investment into smaller clubs within the same group. This has had particular impact in women’s basketball and soccer. In the WNBA, for example, women’s teams Indiana Fever (in the same group as Indiana Pacers), Minnesota Lynx (Minnesota Timberwolves), Phoenix Mercury (Phoenix Suns), Washington Mystics (Washington Wizards) and New York Liberty (Brooklyn Nets) all enjoy excellent training facilities and access to major arenas, in part thanks to their long-established counterparts in the NBA.
“The investment funds that own these sports empires bring an immensely useful skillset and approach towards management that is having a beneficial effect on the clubs, the competitions they compete in, the athletes who play for them, and the fans and sponsors who support them.” Nicholas Reynolds, Chief Global Strategy Officer
Nicholas Reynolds, chief global strategy officer at Populous, has more than 25 years of experience working with major global sports client groups across the world. “As with all other areas of business, sport has benefitted from globalisation,” he explains. “The investment funds that own these sports empires bring an immensely useful skillset and approach towards management that is having a beneficial effect on the clubs, the competitions they compete in, the athletes who play for them, and the fans and sponsors who support them.”
Reynolds says the cumulative knowledge of these investors tends to focus on three building blocks within each of the clubs they own: the coaches and the athletes; the venue and facilities; and the back-of-house talent that ultimately runs the overall business. Despite the vast power of these multi-club and multi-sport groups, it is still occasionally possible for clubs operating singly to punch above their weight class. Perhaps the most famous example is Major League Baseball team Oakland Athletics, which, under the management of Billy Beane, revolutionised the use of data in picking team players. Beane’s story was famously told in a 2003 book by Michael Lewis, and the 2011 movie Moneyball, starring Brad Pitt.
The sports empires keep a close eye on how these Moneyball tactics play out. John W. Henry, the owner of Fenway Sports Group, used data analysis from a Cambridge physicist called Ian Graham to help select Jürgen Klopp as the new manager of Liverpool FC, who subsequently guided his team to victory in 2019 in the UEFA Champions League and FIFA Club World Cup, and in the 2019-2020 Premier League. A more recent example is at another Premier League club, Brighton & Hove Albion FC, where owner Tony Bloom has successfully deployed data analysis to recruit managers, coaches and players.
It’s not just European and North American clubs benefitting from such selection tactics. All over the planet now – from cricket’s Indian Premier League to soccer’s Chinese Super League and the National Rugby League in Australasia – leagues are implementing the winning power of data. Proof that it’s not just hard cash that leads to sporting victory. “Despite their overwhelming power, it’s good to know that the world’s greatest sports empires aren’t always guaranteed to triumph,” Reynolds concludes. “With clever tactics and analysis, even the smaller clubs have a chance of winning. Very occasionally in sport, the Davids can still beat the Goliaths.”