The massive increase in the Premiership TV deal has led to a rush of takeovers of Championship sides. But, asks Simon Moore, what do the new owners do if their clubs don’t win promotion?
“We are not looking for small-time people, we are looking for a mega-rich businessman like Roman Abramovich who wants to buy a football club for a hobby.” Dave Allen, chairman of Sheffield Wednesday, issued that invitation to potential investors in March. Wednesday, now in talks with a consortium fronted by a Chinese casino owner, are one of a group of Championship clubs who have been sounded out about a takeover in recent months. Most of the teams up for sale regularly pull in crowds of more than 20,000 and, with the average asking price around the £20 million mark, they look a much better bet than, say, Manchester City, a club treading water in the Premiership with debts of around £60m. But the new Premiership TV deal, with even the bottom-placed club guaranteed a minimum of £26.8m per season, is the principal bait that is luring potential buyers.
At Coventry, a group of American venture capitalists led by lifelong fan Gary Hopkins have come to a preliminary agreement to invest in the club. Reassurances about their involvement are said to have played a huge part in luring new manager Iain Dowie, who has quickly propelled a previously struggling team into the top half since taking over from Micky Adams in February. Wolves already have a billionaire owner in Bahamas‑based Sir Jack Hayward, but his interest has dwindled and he is known to be keen to sell. The club have engaged merchant bankers Rothschild to search for a new owner and turned down an approach from a group fronted by Graeme Souness, with chief executive Jez Moxey hinting that another bidder is expected in the summer. Souness is also said to be interested in one of his former clubs, Southampton, in conjunction with Sale Sharks owner Brian Kennedy, while Peter Wilkinson, the Harrogate‑based founder of internet company Freeserve, is said to be preparing a bid for Leeds – if the club survive in the Championship.
After nearly six months of painstaking negotiations, Milan Mandaric completed his protracted takeover of Leicester in February. As well as paying the £25m price, the former Portsmouth chairman pledged a further £30m of his own cash. Mandaric has been at pains to deny that the potential Premiership TV windfall is his motivation for taking over at the Walkers Stadium, but he has set a three‑year deadline to achieve promotion and admits that the rewards for reaching the Premiership are the reason why such a level of investment makes sense to him.
Mandaric, a controversial figure during his time at Portsmouth, has been feted by Leicester fans, while Souness’s bid for Wolves was met with enthusiasm from a large swathe of the Molineux support. But given that only three clubs can go up and that each season another three will drop down from the top level armed with parachute payments, not all of these prospective new owners are likely to achieve their aims.
As Sir Jack Hayward would testify, spending tens of millions on expensive reinforcements is no guarantee of success – Wolves laboured for the best part of a decade to get into the Premiership, then only spent one season there before relegation in 2003‑04. Without the Premier League income, wealthy backers with no long‑term ties to their club are unlikely to stick around – and that could be disastrous for a division in which many clubs are still scarred by the collapse of ITV Digital five years ago.
From WSC 243 May 2007. What was happening this month