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Friday, July 19, 2024

A Jurgen Klopp-shaped hole for Liverpool and ‘game on’ for Spurs? – The Business of Football

The original plan for this column was a nice stroll through the last five days of football biz-related news.

Then at 10.36am (UK time) on Friday, Liverpool published “a message to supporters” and the rest of the week disappeared into a Jurgen Klopp-shaped hole.

So here are a few early observations from a purely commercial point of view.

One: Fenway Sports Group (FSG) is going nowhere — not for the foreseeable future, anyway.

The idea that Liverpool’s owners were thinking about cashing in their chips was widely discussed in football’s mergers and acquisitions community about 18 months ago. The narrative was that the team had come to the end of a cycle, competing with Manchester City was not going to get any easier and here come Newcastle United.

Some industry sources pointed out that without a European Super League to look forward to, or no Project Big Picture-style shake-up of the Premier League, it was hard to see signs of significant future revenue growth. Others just believed the FSG syndicate was breaking up, with some of the investors wanting to do something else with their money, an NBA franchise, for example.

These theories coalesced when The Athletic revealed FSG was putting the club on the market in November 2022 and the sporting director Michael Edwards, the co-architect of Klopp’s title-winning team, confirmed he would be leaving at the end of that season.

But then… not much, really.

The club was taken off the market last February when FSG realised Manchester United had bagged the only two bidders looking for a multi-billion-dollar football team in the northwest of England but a small stake was sold to an obscure private equity firm in September.

And now FSG is losing its single most important employee at Liverpool and that means uncertainty — and uncertainty is bad for business. If nobody wanted to buy them when they still had one of the best managers in the world, a man loved by the fanbase, who is going to buy them now?

In fact, a new narrative is already forming: would Klopp leave if he thought somebody with deeper pockets was about to appear on the horizon?

Or maybe he is just tired.

Read more on The Athletic:

Two other thoughts spring to mind. Within two hours of that video appearing on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, it had been watched 17million times. How’s that for engagement?

But do you know what was missing? Branding. Plain jumper, jeans, a blurred view of the training ground as background — there are clearly some messages no sponsor wants to be linked with.

That said, anyone going to the club website would have been greeted with a pop-up message telling them this was their “last chance” for free global delivery on orders over £50 from the club shop.

At 12.36pm, two hours after Klopp’s video dropped, these were the top 16 trending words on UK X, in order: Klopp, Gerrard, #YNWA, Anfield, De Zerbi, Fergie, Leverkusen, Shankly, Stevie G, Wenger, Ange, Gutted, Dortmund, Sir Alex, #FSGOUT, Kenny.

Someone could write a decent column based on that.

‘New deal’ for football? Don’t hold your breath

With January being the tail end of the British pantomime season (“Oh no, it isn’t” etc), The Athletic was delighted to be invited to a show at the House of Lords in Westminster on Monday.

Jointly presented by the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Football and the English Football League (EFL), the main attractions were secretary of state for culture, media and sport Lucy Frazer, EFL chairman Rick Parry, and daytime television star Dion Dublin.

The audience was packed with EFL club executives, football administrators and politicians, and they roared along to gags about independent regulation, owner-funding and parachute payments.

It was good knockabout stuff but it was missing something: a Captain Hook, an Evil Queen, a Richard Masters (the Premier League chief).

So, instead of the back and forth we have seen in other recent versions of “The New Deal for Football” panto, this one was a bit one-sided.

That said, there were some cracking lines.

For example, Parry pointed out that when he started his campaign for another look at how English football distributes its wealth in 2020, he thought an extra £285million a year would solve the EFL’s sustainability problem. The Premier League’s 20 clubs earned £4billion more than the EFL’s 72 and spent £1.6bn more on wages every year than any other league in Europe at that time.

Since then, the Premier League’s clubs have decided to increase their wage bills by a total of £500million, the funding gap to the EFL has grown to £5billion and they are collectively spending £2billion more on wages every season than their nearest European rival.

Parry also came up with a neat response to those who ask why the Premier League should share any of “its money” with the rest of the pyramid.

He noted that only six clubs have been ever-present in the Premier League since its creation in 1992. Of the remaining 14, the average length of stay in the Premier League is 13 years. The EFL has 30 teams that have spent some time in the Premier League. Can you guess what the average length of stay is for the top 14? Yep, 13 years.

For Parry, that means they have played as big a part in the Premier League’s 32-year success story as the majority of the clubs currently in the league. So whose money is it really?

Masters with the Premier League trophy in May 2022 (Michael Regan/Getty Images)

In terms of the elusive “new deal”, nobody in the audience is expecting to see it until after the government brings forward its much-anticipated Football Governance Bill.

As Masters admitted to the Culture, Media and Sport select committee last week, he has effectively given up any hope of getting his clubs to agree on how to fund the extra £900million they have reluctantly agreed to share with the EFL over six years until after they have seen what is in the bill. The league is holding a two-day meeting in early February to discuss all this but no decisions are predicted. The clubs are simply too far apart.

That means EFL clubs are in “no deal” territory, so most of them will continue to receive the same amount of solidarity funding that has them utterly reliant on their benefactors to keep the lights on.

The mood on Monday could be described as stoic but that does not mean there is not real annoyance out there, particularly among those who believed the Premier League when it told them, in various meetings, more money was coming this season.

League One’s Lincoln City, to pick just one, are widely considered to be a well-run club. But they have had to use £500,000 that their owners had earmarked for next season simply to pay this season’s bills.

Masters’ week finished with a letter on Friday from the select committee asking him to clarify the remarks he made last week when he appeared to imply Everton and Nottingham Forest, the league’s FFP bad boys, are “small clubs”.

The committee also wrote to the minister for sport Stuart Andrew to ask him where the football governance bill is (“It’s behind you!”).

Another chief executive on the move…

Tuesday brought news of a very modern football tale: two multi-club groups rowing over a compensation payment for a chief executive.

No, it was not those two multi-club groups and that chief executive. This was about Gauthier Ganaye, once the youngest-ever EFL chief executive at Barnsley, and his summer move from Pacific Media Group-owned KV Oostende to Eagle Football Group-owned RWD Molenbeek.

At first glance, this looked serious. Oostende, a team in Belgium’s second division, had filed a claim with a Brussels court for a missing payment of €100,000 (£850,000; $108,600) from RWDM.

It begged the question if RWDM is struggling to make a payment this small, why is the club’s ownership group, which is led by John Textor, talking about a bid for control of Crystal Palace and trying to bring back Karim Benzema to Lyon?

However, this one should probably have been sorted out over a Belgian beer, as it seems like this is a minor dispute between two combative investors in PMG’s Paul Conway and Eagle’s Textor, who actually get on pretty well.

Ganaye at Nice in 2019 (Valery Hache/AFP via Getty Images)

The disagreement is about whether Ganaye had any obligations to PMG when he moved to RWDM, as he had not been paid for several months at Oostende. That situation was settled in May and the Frenchman joined RWDM soon after.

It was at that point that Textor may have suggested he was willing to compensate Conway for his trouble, despite Ganaye telling him he really did not need to.

Conway is not one to leave money on the table, though, particularly in a week that started with him being trapped in a stadium toilet by angry Oostende fans (the club was relegated last season and are currently bottom of the second division, having been docked six points) and ended with an administrator being appointed to take control of the club’s finances.

Conway and his investors believe they will regain control of the club shortly, and they are also trying to get those points back, but it does not sound like Textor has taken kindly to being taken to court for hiring an out-of-work football executive.

‘Game on, Spurs for sale again’?

On Wednesday, Joe Lewis pleaded guilty to charges of insider trading in the U.S.

This was news because the 86-year-old Londoner owned Tottenham Hotspur between 1991 and 2022, when he quietly passed control of the Premier League club to a family trust.


Tottenham Hotspur chairman Daniel Levy (left) and Lewis at the 2019 Champions League final (Mike Egerton/PA Images via Getty Images)

Back then, the vibe from the club was very much “nothing has changed; business as usual”, but that became “Joe who?” when he was charged last summer.

At that point, Lewis also strongly denied the charges, which were related to him passing on stock-market tips about companies he part-owned to his girlfriends, assistants and the pilots of his private jet.

But on Wednesday he changed his tune, holding his hand up to three of the charges and saying he was “so embarrassed” and would like to apologise.

Of course, this has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with Spurs and it must just be a coincidence that within half an hour of the story breaking, a leading football dealmaker contacted The Athletic to say “Game on, Spurs for sale again”.

We shall be watching this space.

Another term for UEFA boss Ceferin? ‘Beyond comprehension’

Thursday brought surprising (and almost old-fashioned) news: someone resigning on a point of principle.

And not just “someone” but UEFA’s first-ever “chief of football”, former Croatia and Milan maestro, national hero, history graduate and now good-governance crusader Zvonimir Boban.

The point of principle is Boban thinks it is wrong for UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin to introduce term limits for senior roles as part of a raft of reforms in 2017, only to look for a loophole in them in 2024.

The loophole is Ceferin’s apparent belief that because his first term as president started in 2016, it should not count towards the three-term limit he imposed a year later. And if that is true, the Slovenian should be able to stand for another four-year term in 2027.

In another coincidence, FIFA president Gianni Infantino, managed to convince his electorate of the same thing last year, which means his reign at the game’s global governing body will stretch until 2031.

Ceferin has been telling everyone that he has not decided if he even wants to stand for another term — but Boban decided he was not going to stick around to find out. His resignation letter was a cracker, citing “deepest concerns”, “total disapproval” and things that were “beyond comprehension”.


Ceferin hands the Champions League trophy to Man City’s Ilkay Gundogan (Jonathan Moscrop/Getty Images)

All of which sets things up nicely for the UEFA Congress in Paris on February 8 when the organisation’s 55 member associations will gather to discuss Ceferin’s “amendment” and other headaches. The Athletic is aware of at least two associations that share Boban’s view of the term-limit fudge. It will be interesting to see if the rebellion grows.

But that is not Ceferin’s only concern, as the congress will also be the first big gathering since the European Court of Justice (ECJ) delivered its ruling on how UEFA responded to the launch of the European Super League in April 2021.

More clarity on that should emerge when the original ESL v UEFA case returns to the commercial court in Madrid where this legal fight started, because ECJ decisions are judgments on the application of European Union law and it is up to national courts to apply them.

That Madrid court was fairly impressed with the ESL’s case in the first place, so it will be a major shock if it takes the ECJ’s critical assessment of the UEFA rulebook in 2021 and suddenly swings behind Ceferin & Co now.

The case is scheduled to start on March 14. Bring popcorn.

Three lions on a shirt…

This brings us back to Friday, when there is only one story in Liverpool or any other town that likes football.

So we will finish with something from the other end of the spectrum, something from a place that has a reputation for never changing: Gibraltar.

Congratulations to Mark Palmer, the chief executive of National League high-fliers Solihull Moors, on his purchase of Lions Gibraltar FC.

Founded in 1966 as Lions Football Club by a group of friends who wanted to honour England’s World Cup triumph, they were given permission by the English Football Association to use the “Three Lions” as their badge, too.

In 2011, the club merged with Gibraltar FC to become Lions Gibraltar and they have spent the last decade competing in the British overseas territory’s top flight, with an ambition of competing in Europe.

They have not managed it yet but that was before they linked up with Solihull Moors, who are fourth in the National League and on target for a third trip to the play-offs in six seasons.

Palmer and Solihull Moors chairman Darryl Eales are planning to lean into the multi-club strategy, so expect plenty of movement in terms of players between the teams and marketing offers to “watch the Three Lions in Europe”.

(Top photo: Bryn Lennon/Getty Images)

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