Premiership plc R.I.P

The age of publicly listed football clubs in the English Premier League seems to be coming to an end.
Premiership plc R.I.P
By Reuters
Thu 09 Aug 2007 05:49 PM

As English soccer clubs are being taken over by foreign billionaires, the era of stock market-listed clubs could soon be over with a new wave of owners opting to stay out of the financial spotlight.

But if fans, politicians and newspapers take moral umbrage at the foreign-led takeovers, few are mourning the end of the publicly listed club.

Going public became something of a craze for Premier League clubs in the mid-1990s. At its peak, fans and investors could buy shares in 10 of the 20% Premier League clubs.

Only a trio of Premier League clubs still have publicly tradable shares following the latest buyouts - which have seen Manchester City purchased by ousted Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and Newcastle bought by reclusive British retail tycoon Mike Ashley.

Only Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur and Birmingham City remain, although takeover rumours surround all three following big changes in their major shareholders in the last few months.

Heralded in the 90s as a more democratic ownership structure and a way to pump cash into clubs, stock listings have come to be seen as a mistake by many - unprofitable for investors, unrewarding for teams and costly for fans.

"What investors didn't appreciate is one of the peculiarities of football," said Christine Oughton, director of the Football Governance Research Centre at Birkbeck, University of London.

Making a profit is the overriding goal for most companies, she said: but soccer clubs have the even higher priority of winning games. They also have to pay out around 60 percent of their revenues to players.

Alan Sugar, the outspoken former Tottenham chairman and star of British TV reality show The Apprentice, claimed running Spurs had been a complete waste of time. He labelled football "prune juice economics", referring to the way revenue is washed out of clubs in multi-million pound transfer fees and wages.

He sold the last batch of his shares in the club for GBP25 million ($51 million) in June.

Sky's the limit

The big hope for investors in the 1990s was a new lucrative contract with Sky television.

While clubs were right that soaring revenues were just around the corner, the money often did not make it to bottom line as it was sucked up by spiralling player wages.

Share prices crumbled.

When American billionaire Randy Lerner bought Aston Villa, the club's shares were worth just half of the GBP11 they listed at in 1997, while Newcastle shares were 30% lower than their IPO price when Ashley scooped them up in June.

This despite a more than 1,300% rise in annual TV revenues since 1992.

Love for their club makes fans vulnerable investors. Tottenham fans would never swap their shares for stock in Arsenal, even if their fierce north London rivals did look set to deliver better profits.

Floating on stock exchanges did offer benefits, allowing teams such as Manchester United and Arsenal to raise capital to invest in stadiums.

But the need for financial transparency shackled clubs in the fast-moving and shadowy transfer market.

"People who run these clubs ultimately want to have freedom of movement," said Jim McLean, a soccer financing expert at business advisers Grant Thornton.

For some people poor profitability may matter little and the lure of owning a Premier League team remains strong, Thornton added.

"They want to enjoy the benefits and the prestige that flows from being involved in a well-known football club."

Fans

Despite racking up hefty losses, some fans view the end of the Plc era with a touch of sadness.

"They didn't get a sufficient slice to exercise financial clout but at least they had a right to turn up at shareholders' meetings and ask questions," said Malcolm Clarke, chair of Britain's Football Supporters' Federation.

Clarke said Barcelona, Real Madrid and several German clubs offered the ideal of democratic control for soccer clubs where supporters' associations wield the power.

But for now at least, English soccer clubs have settled on one kind of corporate structure. Whether their owners are foreign or domestic, they are nearly all alike in their preference for privacy.

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