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A New Wave of American Buyers Has Set Its Sights on European Soccer

For wealthy investors priced out of the North American professional sports market, the Old Continent represents a ripe opportunity—or so they think

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Last May, Venezia FC celebrated its improbable return to Italy’s top tier, Serie A, for the first time in exactly two decades, completing a remarkable five-year rise from the fourth division. Players celebrated with a ferry ride through Venice’s storied canals, steered by gondoliers wearing traditional candy cane uniforms. Among those celebrating in the victory parade was Duncan Niederauer, the club’s American president and majority shareholder since 2020. Niederauer, the former CEO of the New York Stock Exchange, had been part of an American ownership group that first bought into Venezia in 2018, two years after the club emerged from its third bankruptcy in a decade.

Niederauer liked soccer, but mostly he and his wife liked Venice. Co-owning its beleaguered team was an excuse to visit their favorite city more often. Niederauer is a different kind of owner than the first wave of Americans who swept over European soccer more than a decade ago, snapping up many of the glamor clubs, especially in England’s Premier League. He belongs to a wealthy investor class that is nevertheless priced out of the highest levels of North American and European sports. Armed with historically cheap money, Americans like Niederauer are seizing upon a ripe investment landscape on the Old Continent by targeting lower-level clubs either in search of buyers or desperate for equity investment—teams that crept up to the financial precipice even before the pandemic.

Americans owning European soccer teams is hardly new. Eleven of the 40 top-tier clubs in England and Italy are under American ownership, and Americans own first-division teams in France and Spain. If you count minority owners, almost half of English Premier League teams are partly controlled by Americans. And that isn’t counting Fulham, which was relegated to the Championship last season, or Southampton, an American-backed takeover of which fell through at the 11th hour last summer. However, Americans have also recently taken an interest in teams that play in lower tiers or in leagues that don’t have the same prestige as the Premier League.

Some have taken to stockpiling clubs. At least three American owners are building consortia of clubs across different countries, hedging their bets, and creating economies of scale. David Blitzer, who controls pieces of the Philadelphia 76ers and New Jersey Devils, also owns part or all of England’s Crystal Palace and teams in Spain, Portugal, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Major League Soccer. Robert Platek owns Serie A’s Spezia and teams in Denmark and Portugal—he also attempted a takeover of fallen English titan Sunderland. Paul Conway built a portfolio consisting of Championship club Barnsley and teams in France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, and Switzerland and is pursuing clubs in Scotland. (Blitzer, Platek, and Conway didn’t respond to interview requests for this story.)

Niederauer’s plans don’t go that far. He’s happy with the charming club he bought into at a bargain-basement price and steered back into one of Europe’s legacy leagues.

“There is an emotional attachment,” he says. “When my wife and I don’t remember each other’s name 30 years from now, we will never forget floating down the canal with the players in the victory parade after we got promoted.”

AS Cittadella v Venezia FC - Serie B
Duncan Niederauer
Photo by Getty Images/Getty Images

There’s a significant difference in the competitive structure of European soccer compared to American sports that helps explain the economic opportunity sought by these investors.

European professional soccer resembles a ladder. Each rung represents a different level of competition. In England, there are 11 rungs: the lucrative Premier League sits at the top, consisting of 20 teams, with a kind of free-for-all beneath it. Rungs can be climbed via promotion or descended via relegation; it’s an open pyramid, in the parlance. Each ascendent level brings new spoils; a step down means a loss in earnings and prestige. All the teams exist on the same continuum, something of a meritocratic utopia. Ostensibly, all that stands between soccer’s proletariat and the elite are the resources to obtain and retain talent.

To the sport’s 1 percent, this upward mobility represents a threat it has tried to foreclose with gambits like the European Super League, a cynical attempt to pull up the ladder behind them. To a new wave of American investors, it’s an opportunity. Whereas MLS is one of the world’s few soccer leagues without a promotion-and-relegation mechanism, dooming most minor league teams, a European soccer club can rise in accordance with the cash and know-how that backs it.

“I think here in Europe it’s much more attainable to find ways to make it into a real business,” says Jordan Gardner, the American co-owner and chairman of FC Helsingor in Denmark’s second tier. “It’s still difficult, don’t get me wrong. But if you can be robust in the player transfer market and run your businesses more efficiently—of course, if you can get promoted, there are financial return opportunities there.”

Venezia’s climb up the Italian soccer ladder began in 2016, when it was promoted from Serie D, the country’s fourth division, to Serie C, culminating in its promotion to Serie A by 2021.

Niederauer says that his ownership group has spent between 25 million and 35 million euros on the club so far, between its acquisition and subsequent cash injections. That bought them a club that climbed three tiers and, now, has a solid chance to secure a second season in Serie A. (More than halfway through the season, Venezia sits in 17th place, just above the relegation zone.)

“We thought the entry point, taking into account what we knew we would have to inject to turn things around, there was still a massive value-creation opportunity,” Niederauer says.

Part of the new ownership’s plan included a revamped marketing strategy, hinging on a bet that younger soccer fans were becoming both more cosmopolitan and agnostic in choosing the teams they followed, gravitating not necessarily to the biggest brands but the teams whose identities spoke to them. Gaining visibility was a significant challenge given the club had a scant social media presence and its games weren’t broadcast on television. Ted Philipakos, the club’s American chief marketing officer, chuckles at the memory of when he started with Venezia. “Over time, it built very organically,” Philipakos says. “We opened the Instagram account and the English-language Twitter account—I mean, at zero followers. We didn’t have big budgets to plow money into sponsored ads and influencers. We did absolutely nothing like that. Very, very, very modest beginnings and slow steps. We had a strong sense of what the club should be, could be, how it should be presented. Even if it wasn’t immediate, over time we had the confidence that people would ultimately be moved by what we were doing and come to us.”

By the time the club returned to Serie A, it had sharpened its brand with distinctive uniforms and built a following that stretched far beyond the region. In the 2020-21 season, while Venezia still played in Serie B, its merchandise revenue cracked the top 10 of Italian clubs, including those in Serie A. This year, it anticipates selling at least five times as much merch. Remarkably, it estimates that 95 percent of those sales come from abroad.

On the playing side, Venezia took a contrarian approach to competing in Serie A. If the Oakland Athletics’ secret sauce in the Moneyball movement was its analytics-driven approach to finding and exploiting inefficiencies in the marketplace, Venezia’s is stability.

“We thought if you could build a different relationship with the city, the fan base, and, most importantly, the coaches and players—that felt more like a family, more nurturing, more supportive, more inclusive—magic could happen,” Niederauer says. “That was the hypothesis.”

In a league where chaotic short-termism and mismanagement are commonplace, Niederauer sees stability as a competitive advantage. Happy and secure employees perform better. That meant extending players’ contracts earlier in their existing deals. “It takes a lot of drama and anxiety out of the equation,” he says. Niederauer also said that if the team lost a few consecutive games, ownership wouldn’t publicly pressure the manager or criticize players. When he told the players that he, as club president, considered himself an employee of theirs, working to make them comfortable, they were certain that something was getting lost in translation.

It’s a novel approach to competing in Serie A. Elsewhere in the organization, Venezia has adopted boilerplate best practices for a club that isn’t on even financial footing with its competition. The club engages deeply with analytics—an operation run by Alex Menta, a 30-year-old from Philadelphia who cold-emailed Niederauer and is now “basically the de facto general manager” according to the team owner—and tries to buy young, promising players who might bring in profits from the transfer market.

“Because there is no regulation, there is no salary cap, there is no period where the club has control [of a player’s rights before they reach free agency, like in Major League Baseball], it is unfettered,” Niederauer says. “So then it’s how you manage the unfettered nature of it. We have the lowest payroll in Serie A, we have the lowest-paid coach, we have the youngest coach, we have the coach with the longest contract, we have one of the youngest teams in Serie A and we have more people on long-term deals than I bet almost any other club does. We think, for the stage that we’re at right now, that’s the only way to proceed at the moment. We’re not going to quadruple our payroll.”

The club consciously made itself a Serie A outlier in almost every way in that it has steady management with a slow trigger in a league filled with impulsive, quick-trigger clubs. “That’s not normal here,” Niederauer says. “You can move up more quickly if you do it the right way than in some other leagues because of the organizational issues that some of the other teams face.”

ACF Fiorentina v UC Sampdoria - Serie A
Rocco Commisso
Photo by Lisa Guglielmi/LiveMedia/NurPhoto via Getty Images

American owners buy European teams for different and sometimes overlapping reasons, and with divergent strategies.

Some owners run the basic billionaire’s play. It’s what Stan Kroenke did at Arsenal, and the Glazer family did at Manchester United. It’s what John Henry has done with Liverpool, albeit with much more sophistication and success than Glazer and Kroenke. Buy a famous club and tread water for a few decades as the asset appreciates, then cash out. Sit back, hope your team breaks even and competes for titles more years than not, and let your old friend inflation do its work. To wit: When the Glazers completed their hostile takeover of Manchester United in 2005, they spent over $1 billion; today, the club is valued at $4.6 billion. It isn’t coincidental, by the way, that this is the same approach taken by owners in the major American leagues, since the Glazers, Kroenke, and Henry all own teams in the NBA, NFL, or MLB, as well.

Others are in it for the content—as either a media product or for personal use. They buy teams as an emotional lifestyle decision, like baseball Hall of Famer Mike Piazza’s brief and catastrophic ownership of third-tier Italian side Reggiana. Rocco Commisso, the billionaire owner of the Mediacom cable TV provider, bought Serie A club Fiorentina after a failed effort to take over AC Milan. He said he did so because he had been born in Italy before emigrating to the United States when he was 12 and wanted to get involved in Italian soccer as a means of reconnecting with his roots. Theirs is, as soccer economist Chris Anderson puts it, “A very expensive season ticket.” They are chasing a kind of contact high from owning a team.

Actors Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney, meanwhile, put a different twist on this approach. They bought fifth-tier Welsh club Wrexham with a two-season docuseries about the entire project already sold to FX, inspired by the hit Netflix series Sunderland ‘Til I Die. Content.

But what has become more common, threatening to change the makeup of the sport fundamentally, is the American investor who treats an acquired team as an undervalued or even distressed asset, one that can be grown and flipped for profit. This new breed comes from the middle class of American investors, shut out by the stratospheric valuations of American major league sports teams (an average of $3.5 billion for NFL teams, $2.4 billion for NBA teams, and $2.2 billion for MLB teams) yet affluent enough to buy a European team and inject capital into it. They are powered by historically low interest rates, broadcasters’ unabating appetite for live sports, and an investment culture that prizes high-reward bets. Many of them believe that there is no real money to be made in the minor or independent leagues in North America, but that European clubs are undervalued and offer untapped growth and upward mobility. They are drawn to visions of new revenue streams through promotion or qualification for continental competitions, better management, an improved gameday experience, monetization of digital content, and the all-cash transfer market.

Basically, they are making a bet: that superimposing American expertise in the live sports space onto a traditional, outdated, and mismanaged European club will produce quick financial gains.

The notion, perhaps an arrogant one, goes that the American sports market is so crowded and competitive that teams have been forced to turn the monetization of every last nook and cranny of their business into a kind of lowbrow artform. Take that know-how and apply it to a very traditional soccer culture like, say, Italy’s, which got left behind in the game’s commercialization race two decades ago, and there are gains to be had.

The acquisition cost is low, with some respected European clubs selling for only a few million euros. ADO Den Haag, a historic and well-supported club in the administrative capital of the Netherlands, is reportedly close to a sale to a group of American investors led by Blitzer for a mere 6 million euros. Newcastle, a rabidly-supported Premier League team with a splendid stadium and a share of the league’s towering TV contracts, sold for roughly what the least valuable Major League Soccer team is supposedly worth. In some cases, MLS teams are valued at 13 times their annual revenue. (Which, sure.) For instance, a 10 percent stake in LAFC sold in February 2020 for $70 million, valuing the club at $700 million, although Sportico now pegs it at $860 million.

“Soccer teams [in Europe] are extraordinarily undervalued compared to sports properties in the United States,” says Anderson, a professor at the London School of Economics and the coauthor of The Numbers Game. “Is it really rational to invest in leagues in North America at the moment, given the valuation of teams? If you look, for instance, at the valuations of MLS teams, obviously they stand in no relationship to what the true underlying economic value is of those assets. So you compare that to Europe and you say, ‘Hey, I could spend a lot of money on buying the Houston Dynamo or I can take a small portion of that and buy myself a club in Serie A.’ You can have a lot of fun owning a football team and the economic risk is much, much lower.”

When Anderson cowrote his book on soccer analytics, he taught at Cornell University. But the book’s unexpected success led to a stint running Coventry City, a team in England’s third tier, and a new career consulting in the takeover of more than 20 soccer clubs. In that work, he has encountered a generation of American investors who are savvy about soccer, coming of age in a time when the sport grew popular and accessible stateside. And they see opportunity in the world’s most popular game.

“There’s an element of American optimism that goes into it as well,” he says, “where you look at how European soccer teams are managed and you say, ‘You know what, we can probably do as well or better than these guys.’”

A series of other unexpected factors buoyed that confidence. Wealthy Chinese businessmen had gone on a shopping spree in European soccer, buying 20 clubs by 2017 in support of the Communist Party’s effort to influence global geopolitics through soccer. But then the government changed its mind and more than half those clubs were sold in short order, creating a vacuum.

UEFA’s ongoing effort to make clubs act more responsibly with their finances also played a role, according to global accounting firm KPMG. This effort, it wrote in a recent report, has “aligned the European football leagues more closely to the less volatile, and more business-driven, American sports leagues.”

Then there’s the pandemic. With their stadiums closed and revenues crumbling, European clubs needed money. Owners either pursued injections of cash or decided to sell altogether. That turned a dearth of available soccer clubs into a glut, depressing their value. Now, there are bargains to be had.

Or so these new investors believe.

Stefan Szymanski is a sports management professor at the University of Michigan, coauthor of Soccernomics, and a longtime researcher on soccer and its finances, poring over clubs’ financial statements for the past few decades. He doesn’t buy it. Any of this.

“One thing that unifies all of these American owners is that they believe that owning a sports team and making money can go hand in hand,” Szymanski says. “This idea that somehow there is hidden value to be unlocked in the lower levels of European soccer seems to me to be a common theme amongst these people. And that’s the thing I’m completely struggling to get my head around. I do not know what these people are talking about. I just don’t see how they think they can do this. Unless it’s just purely a lottery ticket where they’re hoping to get extremely lucky. On average, this must be a losing bet, in my view.”

Szymanski likens this trend to a fad in the mid-2000s, when dozens of European clubs sold shares in an attempt to mimic Manchester United’s successful and way-ahead-of-its-time foray into the stock market. It was a disappointment for almost everyone else.

“I don’t see anything fundamental in the structure of soccer that’s changed in that period,” Szymanski says. “I don’t see the strategy here. Unless you just think that these people are stupid and you’re smarter. The idea that the people who have tried this in the past were idiots who didn’t know what they were doing, it’s nonsense.”

Szymanski argues that the logic driving this type of investment is flawed because soccer operates in a zero-sum market and there is no way for all of these teams to grow at once. It isn’t like a regular business that can develop a better product and tap into a consumer base by creating a new habit.

And another thing. Thirty years ago, Szymanski points out, all of European soccer combined generated less revenue than any one of the MLB, NFL, or NBA. Now, European soccer produces more cash than all three of those combined—almost doubling its revenue within a single decade, to 28.9 billion euros in the 2018-19 season. A lot of that soaring growth came from aping North American methods. As such, he reckons, the bulk of the potential all those American investors are speculating on has already been realized.

This is all a big bubble to Szymanski, liable to pop and erase a lot of investors’ capital. “The reason for this bubble,” he says, “is the oversupply of equity funds that is driving investors to ever-riskier assets because there’s a surplus of money to invest.”

Yet some investors are consciously shying away from the riskiest wagers.

When Brett Johnson was looking for an English club to buy, there was no shortage of options.

“I’ve been approached by countless people,” Johnson says. “There are a lot of clubs that are being shopped in very public processes—Sunderland, Charlton. Every week I get hit up with someone selling some club through some process.”

Johnson already owned two minor league soccer teams—with a third in the works—in the United States, headlined by the successful Phoenix Rising, and a share of a team in Denmark, FC Helsingor, where Gardner is also a partner. Next, he and his partners explored England as a new market. They “kicked the tires” on Newcastle United, which had been on the market for years, but decided against it. Newcastle was, finally and controversially, sold to Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund for a little over $400 million in October.

“You buy Newcastle and you’re sitting up in the Premier League and there’s an incredible amount of risk associated with that as a buying group in that it potentially [gets relegated to the second-tier Championship] versus the money you’re going to have to spend to truly compete with those top clubs,” Johnson explains.

In the end, Johnson and his partners settled on Ipswich Town, a club in a harbor town near England’s eastern Suffolk Coast, which wasn’t actually for sale. They bought 95 percent of the club for either $24 million or $55 million, depending on which report you go by, since Johnson won’t say. But even at the high end of that range, the purchase price was still only a fraction of the $325 million an ownership group forked over to Major League Soccer for the rights to start its newest franchise in Charlotte. And, unlike an MLS expansion fee, the Ipswich takeover included a large, renovated stadium; a devoted, multigeneration fan base regularly turning out 20,000 fans to home games; a modern practice facility; 143 years of history; and the potential to level up twice to unlock further riches if the club ever returns to continental competition.

“Ipswich is a prominent club,” Johnson says. “How often do you find a club that won the equivalent of the Premier League, that won the FA Cup, that won the UEFA Cup, has a 30,000-plus-capacity fantastic venue, has a world-class training facility? When you look at the collective assets of Ipswich, from my perspective it was an absolute no-brainer.”

But for all the value the club already represents, Johnson sees a great deal of potential, as well. Johnson, who made his money running laptop accessories company Targus before going into private equity, is upfront about pursuing a healthy return on his investment. He thinks of Ipswich as a “very long haul” play but hopes to “get promoted twice and build an asset that’s exceptionally valuable on and off the pitch.”

“I absolutely do approach this as an investment and I intend to do well with my capital and with my partners’ capital,” he says. “We take the opportunity very, very seriously. None of it is ego-driven. It’s all about recognizing how to make these assets very successful by improving them.”

This is where we probably need to get into the optics of all this.

American sports fans have been desensitized to the notion of sports teams operating as unabashed businesses. Because almost without exception, American professional franchises began as enterprises. In Europe, however, most pro sports teams started out as amateur outfits, as offshoots of social clubs, as factory teams. It is still a heresy to many Europeans that soccer should be exploited for the express purpose of profit. They see their game as a social good.

Which can turn the arrival of an owner—or a private equity fund, at that—who openly describes a newly acquired club as an asset to be grown, as an investment vehicle, into an uncomfortable arrangement.

In the best-case scenario, everybody’s interests are aligned. The new owner, like the club and the fans, stands to benefit most from improvement on the field and on the balance sheet. There is no sportswashing exercise here, like there is with Saudi-owned Newcastle, Abu Dhabi–owned Manchester City, or Qatari-owned Paris Saint-Germain. The club is not the plaything of an oligarch who might grow bored and walk away, like at Chelsea or AS Monaco. Nor is it the victim of the vulture capitalism of the Glazer family, which has siphoned hundreds of millions of dollars out of Manchester United in service to the debt it saddled the club with as part of the leveraged hostile takeover it used to acquire the club. In the lower levels of the sport, acquired clubs are usually spared Stan Kroenke’s blend of apathy and parsimony, which would relegate Arsenal from perennial Premier League contenders to underdogs.

The arrival of this investor class to scores of troubled clubs tends to be a convenient marriage.

And so while it may seem distasteful on its face, is an American owner buying your club in order to save it, stabilize it, and then flip it on for a profit really such a bad outcome?

Jordan Gardner and his investment group saw a bargain when they looked at FC Helsingor. The Danish club was in a free fall in 2019, having been relegated from the Danish Superliga and on the cusp of tumbling immediately from the second division into the economic wasteland of the third.

Gardner, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who started and sold a secondary ticketing company in 2014, already owned minority stakes in Swansea City in the English Championship, the country’s second tier, and Irish club Dundalk FC, so he had some experience in how European soccer teams function. In March 2019, Gardner’s group of 15 investors, Brett Johnson among them, bought FC Helsingor for a mere 1.2 million euros.

“Financially, the club was not in a good place,” Gardner recalls. “That was our biggest challenge once we took over. The reduction in revenues going down two divisions is massive.” Gardner says it took about a year and “a couple million more” invested back into the club to get it back on track.

Even at this nadir, FC Helsingor held promise for its American investors: Denmark appealed as a market because many Danes speak English; Helsingor is 40 minutes from Copenhagen, and the club had recently opened both a new stadium and a youth academy. Above all, the new owners thought they could quickly modernize the club’s operations. They saw Helsingor as being held back by tribalism and tradition, run by retired local businessmen as a hobby. The club operated more like a local parish than a professional sports organization.

“The businesses, if you want to call them business, in most European football clubs are just not run well or efficiently,” Gardner says. “They’re such distressed clubs and assets that as an American, if you know what you’re doing there, you can add value. There’s inherent opportunities based on the fact that [European] sport is maybe 50 years behind North American sport when it comes to commercialization, professionalization, game-day experience, hospitality—it’s light-years behind in all those fronts.”

For example, Helsingor regularly played its games on Sunday, which is traditionally a family day in Denmark, hurting attendance. So the new ownership moved games to Friday night. “We got so much pushback,” Gardner says. “People thought we were crazy. We got told we were idiots by our sponsors and locals. We did it. And guess what? It turned into a hit and now everyone loves it. That’s a small, small example of the resistance to change.”

Helsingor won promotion back to the second tier in 2020 after just one season in the wilderness. It currently sits in first place in the second division, prime position to make it back to the Superliga and complete its resurrection. “If we get promoted to the Superliga this year, we will, at least on a piece of paper, be worth significantly more than when we bought the club,” Gardner says.

FC Helsingor’s owners are nearing their vision for the team: restore it to the top division, re-establish it on that level, and then sell and buy a bigger club—like homeowners working their way up the property ladder.

“Of course, for us, we have to have some kind of exit strategy at some point,” Gardner says. “We’d be lying if we said we’d be at FC Helsingor in 25 years. Let’s be real. This is a small club that has its own limitations. If we can get to the Superliga and be a stable club and the right offer comes along, of course we’d always listen to that.”

There are, like dated houses, always other clubs to be bought cheaply and flipped for profit.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a longtime national soccer writer who has worked for ESPN, Yahoo Sports, and Fox Sports. His writing has also appeared in The New York Times. Three of his stories were notable selections in the Best American Sports Writing anthology. He was born in the Netherlands and remains an Ajax and Oranje fan, but he doesn’t really feel like talking about either right now. He teaches at Marist College.

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