How American investors are slowly taking over English football

In the heart of English football, Carlisle United, a team with a modest history, finds itself in the hands of Florida-based businessman Tom Piatak, marking the 34th American takeover in English football. From the Premier League to the lower tiers, US investors are reshaping the landscape, seeking unique opportunities and historic brands. However, challenges arise with the tiered system, financial risks, and the need for patience, as owners like Piatak aim to secure stability, community involvement, and future income for their clubs.

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By David Hellier and Demetrios Pogkas

Carlisle United is hardly the first name that springs to mind when it comes to English football. The team from the small cathedral city in the far northwest corner of the country has only ever played in the top league for one season in its history. It’s currently battling to stay in the third tier.

For Florida-based businessman Tom Piatak, though, the club was just what he was looking for, as Carlisle United became at least the 34th team in English football to get a US investor: one punching below its weight based on its stadium and fan base. “I wanted a club with considerable commercial upside,” Piatak said from Jacksonville after completing his acquisition in November.

From the Glazer family at Manchester United to Todd Boehly and his Wall Street financiers at Chelsea, the American takeover of clubs in the Premier League isn’t new. Yet below the world’s richest competition, the footprint on the English game is deepening and widening — and raising even more questions over who will make money and who will lose it.

More than a third of the 92 professional teams in England’s top four leagues now have some form of US ownership. They’re spread from the top of the pyramid at Liverpool down to Wrexham, the Welsh team that plays in the English fourth tier and is owned by Hollywood stars Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney. They also span the country, from Bournemouth on the south coast all the way up to Carlisle near the Scottish border.

In the past year alone, Premier League team Everton agreed to be sold to Miami-based 777 Partners, though the deal is subject to regulatory approval. In the Championship, the league below, more American-based investors have jumped on board at Welsh club Swansea City while hedge fund founder Tom Wagner bought Birmingham City, bringing former NFL star Tom Brady as an investor. In short, whenever a club comes up for sale, the likely buyers are mostly American.

Football has the capacity to garner global attention in a way few other sports can. That’s key to the attraction, said Sasha Ryazantsev, who helps oversee finances at another US-owned club, Burnley in the Premier League.

“US sports in general are ahead of European sports and leagues in terms of commercialization and monetization of various assets, however, the majority of them do not have the international reach of football,” he said.

Josh Wander, co founder of 777 Partners, is under scrutiny over the firm’s potential takeover of Everton. Photographer: Robbie Jay Barratt/AMA/Getty Images

The clamor is also down to US clubs in the Major Soccer League being too expensive — a new MLS team could cost $500 million — coupled with a fear of missing out on good value and historic brands in England, according to Adam Sommerfeld, managing partner at sports investment adviser Certus Capital.

“Investors have refined their criteria from 18 months ago,” he said. “There is more of a desire to find a unique set of characteristics than just acquiring an English team. That has been the big shift. But a lot of clubs that are looking for investment, like Sheffield United, West Bromwich Albion and Reading, are attracting American investors.”

The conundrum for many investors is to factor in the kind of jeopardy that doesn’t exist across the Atlantic. In the US, the main American football, basketball and ice hockey leagues aren’t tiered in the same way. A club in England can move up and down the leagues depending on performance.

Read More: Who Really Owns Your Football Club?

Owning a team in the Championship can be especially challenging because many are spending more than they earn to win a place in the Premier League where broadcast income is more than £100 million ($126 million) a year compared with less than a tenth of that at the lower level.

At Norwich City, Mark Attanasio, who owns the Milwaukee Brewers baseball team, is gradually taking control. He’s under no illusion as to how difficult it might be to regain a spot in the Premier League after relegation in 2022.

Mark Attanasio is gradually building his stake in Norwich City. Photographer: Kyle Grillot/Bloomberg

Attanasio said he first started looking at investing in English football in 2008, mostly Premier League teams. He uncovered the opportunity through his friendship with fellow American Tom Werner, who is chairman of Liverpool Football Club.

“When I diligenced Norwich, I thought it’s a small piece of the club and we will learn over time how English football works from the inside,” said Attanasio. He works alongside British celebrity cook Delia Smith and her husband, longtime owners of Norwich, and is taking his stake up to 40%, matching theirs.

Indeed, there are plenty of cautionary tales out there. American investors such as Ellis Short at Sunderland and Randy Lerner at Aston Villa incurred huge losses before selling up. More recently, US owners of clubs in Europe have been the target of protests by disgruntled fans.

A group of supporters at Belgian club KV Oostende trapped Paul Conway, co-founder of investment firm Pacific Media Group, in a restroom at a game in January, blaming him for a run of poor results. Pacific Media has a stake approaching 10% in English club Barnsley, according to Conway.

A demonstration against US investor John Textor at his Belgian club RWD Molenbeek caused a game to be abandoned. Textor, who blamed the suspension on a group of extremist fans, is also co-owner of Premier League team Crystal Palace. Its supporters have been displaying banners demanding changes at the London club.   

Aston Villa fans protest against owner Randy Lerner before a match in Birmingham in May 2016. Lerner sold the club following the team’s relegation from the Premier League that month. Photographer: James Baylis/AMA/Getty Images

Last weekend at Chelsea, which won Europe’s elite Champions League just three years ago, the crowd laid bare its dismay at watching the team lose at home again and now sitting mid-table. Boehly and his US-co-owners have spent more than £1 billion on players.

For one, Wagner at Birmingham City has seen the writing on the wall. While hiring and then firing coach Wayne Rooney, formerly England’s top goal scorer, the US investor has asked for patience. As well as travails on the pitch, the stadium needed emergency remedial work.

“I would ask people to recognize that fixing this club is going to take us some time,” said Wagner, co-founder of Knighthead Capital Management, which oversees about $9 billion focused on such things as distressed credit. “We have a plan and we have the best intentions.”

Piatak at Carlisle, too, has a plan. It’s focused on securing financial stability, player development, greater community involvement, improving facilities and investing in areas that will generate future additional income. The chairman of Florida-based Magellan Transport Logistics didn’t pay the sum that others needed to cough up for a big team, but he knows his new club requires significant investment.

Carlisle United were promoted at the end of last season but are currently battling to stay in the third tier of English football. Photographer: Stu Forster/Getty Images Europe

His goal is to emulate teams like Luton Town, a club with a smaller stadium than Carlisle’s yet that managed to win a spot in the Premier League at the end of last season. Carlisle, meanwhile, gained promotion to League One, the third tier. The most pressing task is to stay in it, with the team sitting bottom of the table. Carlisle’s only time in the top flight came in the 1974-75 season.

“I love promotion and relegation and the traditional aspects of the English game,” Piatak said. “We have the opportunity to move up the leagues, which is so important.”

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