English fans pool cash to buy their own soccer team

As more billionaires buy out clubs, raising ticket prices, fans are gathering online to take back the game.

Will Brooks wants to purchase an English soccer club. It's a fashionable thing to do these days. Billionaires, mostly Americans, have been busy buying teams. Some of the biggest names – Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool – have all been snapped up.

But Mr. Brooks is no billionaire. In fact, he's a British copywriter. And he has just £35 ($70) to spend. Still, if he can find a few people to join him – say, 50,000 – then he'll have enough to make his move.

A Field of Dreams romantic? Perhaps. But Brooks already has 30,000 fans ready to join in. With an average of 500 signing up daily on his website (www.myfootballclub.co.uk), he reckons he'll have more than £1 million ($1.98 million) to go shopping with within the month. "We can't be certain what club we will be able to buy," Brooks enthuses, though he knows the top teams will be beyond his budget. "It would be a mistake to bite off more than we can chew, and, in any case, a lot of people are saying 'please buy a club of the size that will make the journey more exciting.' "

Given their potential purse, Brooks and his 50,000 partners are likely to get a smaller club, a third- or fourth-tier organization. But they would run it. They'll vote online on the purchase, help pick the manager, and vote on which players to buy or sell. As Brooks says, it's just like popular fantasy soccer or baseball games – but it's not make-believe.

GRASS-ROOTS VS. CORPORATE OWNERSHIP

This enthusiasm for a soccer team owned and managed by common fans can be seen as something of a backlash against mega-owners who are buying into the sport as an investment, not a passion. Soccer has long had wealthy domestic patrons, but the scale of the foreign invasion in the past two years has raised eyebrows.

Russian tycoon Roman Abramovich started the trend in 2003, buying Chelsea. Since then, American sports owners Malcolm Glazer (Tampa Bay Buccaneers), Randy Lerner (Cleveland Browns), Tom Hicks (Dallas Stars and Texas Rangers) and George Gillett (Montreal Canadiens) have all followed suit.

It's not difficult to see why the English game has suddenly attracted buyers – this is the wealthiest league in the world. In the past 10 years, TV income has made the English premiership far richer than rival leagues in Spain, Italy, and Germany, with annual turnover of £1.4 billion ($2.8 billion), according to a May 30 report by Deloitte & Touche, a consulting and tax firm.

Teams are now full of international stars, some of whom can expect annual salaries of £10 million ($20 million) – and that's before endorsement deals. "One of the main things attracting US owners is the increase in value of broadcasting deals," says Alex Byars, a consultant in the sports business group at Deloitte. "The absolute numbers are very big, and that may have attracted them to thinking this league is the most commercially developed in Europe.

"Although it is not one of big four US sports, Americans acknowledge that soccer is the game with the biggest global reach," he adds.

Liverpool alone, for example, reports that it has 28 million registered fans worldwide.

But English soccer may not be the cash cow that US investors hope it to be.

Costs can exhaust the deepest pockets and revenues plummet if you get relegated to a lower division, notes Rory Miller, an expert in the financing of soccer at Liverpool John Moores University.

"In this country, you don't have salary caps, and you have to invest in academies because you don't have the college system from which to recruit," he says.

Take Leeds United. It was once a high-flying club that reached the semifinal of the European Champions League just seven years ago. Now it is relegated to the third-tier league.

A BETTER BUSINESS MODEL

Experts expect the new US owners (the Glazers at Manchester United, Hicks and Gillett at Liverpool, and Lerner at Aston Villa) to try new ideas to boost revenues. Merchandising (selling items with team logos) is close to the saturation point in England, but there may be growth potential overseas, they say.

And there are always match innovations to try. An English soccer match is a far briefer experience than, say, a baseball game; it's over in less than two hours.

But owners could try ramping up match-day retail sales and securing better deals for naming rights, an area in which US investors bring considerable experience.

But the popularity of Brooks's myfootballclub.co.uk reflects the concern that the arrival of astute US businessmen will pull the sport further away from its working-class roots. [Editor's note: The original version misstated the web address of the site.]

Ticket prices are rising sharply; the average premiership game costs £35, practically a day's take-home pay for someone on minimum wage.

This is where Brooks fits in. "The atmosphere at these games is petering away because there's a different type of supporter now. It's often corporate. The people who sing at games don't go any more," he says.

He cites friends, die-hard fans of Manchester United or Arsenal, who now "feel left out. People are ready to adopt a new club, and what better than a club where you can have a say in picking the team," he says.

There have been several cases in recent years of lower-tier clubs being rescued by supporters banding together in a trust. But decades of history helped spur those fans into action.

Miller says decisionmaking could be tricky. "The key thing, which applies to a big US investor or a group of fans, is who is going to choose the team manager and have you got the knowledge to do it," he says. "Because if you can't choose the right manager and your results deteriorate, you face the threat of relegation and a loss of revenue."

EUROPE'S TOP SOCCER CLUBS, 2005-06 SEASON

Although Manchester United recently ceded the top slot to Real Madrid, the English league has four of the top 10 and eight of the top 20 teams - more than any other country.

Club, revenues (millions of euros) nationality

1. Real Madrid 292.2 Spain

2. FC Barcelona 259.1 Spain

3. Juventus 251.2 Italy

4. Manchester United 242.6 England

5. A.C. Milan 238.7 Italy

6. Chelsea 221.0 England

7. Internazionale 206.6 Italy

8. Bayern Munich 204.7 Germany

9. Arsenal 192.4 England

10. Liverpool 176.0 England

Source: Deloitte & Touche

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