Why are American sports stars buying stakes in English football clubs?

Matt Slater

Dustin Hoffman has been a New York hustler, an autistic savant and a cross-dressing soap star during his 60-year acting career, but he had never played a role like the one he had when he attended the Championship play-off final at Wembley and had to act like a Leeds United celebrity co-owner.

With actual Leeds co-owners Russell Crowe, Will Ferrell, Jordan Spieth and Russell Westbrook all busy elsewhere, it was left to the two-time Oscar winner to pose for selfies in the posh seats before the game against Southampton, which Leeds lost 1-0 to miss out on promotion back to the Premier League.

There as a guest of 49ers Enterprises Global Football Group LLC, the star-studded American syndicate that owns the West Yorkshire club, Hoffman looked like a leading man struggling to find his character’s motivation at times, but he seemed to enjoy the pre-match speeches and steak dinner.

While Hoffman was pretending to be a Leeds co-owner in the Wembley suite before the game, actual Leeds co-owner Larry Nance Jr was in an Irish pub down the street.

At 6ft 8in (203cm), it is hard to miss the basketball power forward, particularly when he is standing at the bar in a Leeds shirt, hat and scarf, buying everyone a drink and leading the singsong. If Hoffman was flying the flag for the club’s thespian backers, Nance more than did the honours for Leeds’ athlete investors. And it is a role the New Orleans Pelican appears to relish.

Nance Jr, who joined the ownership group when it completed its takeover of the club last summer, has been to Leeds games — and pubs — several times, contributed to charities championed by Leeds fans and spread his love of Leeds, Leeds, Leeds in podcasts and on social media.

In fact, he ran into another Leeds co-owner at work two months ago, when the Pelicans hosted the Indiana Pacers, with fellow 49ers Enterprises investor and point guard T.J. McConnell playing for the latter. The NBA duo posed for a picture doing “Leeds salutes” and the club posted it on their Instagram feed with the tag “All Leeds, Aren’t We!”, a reference to one of the club’s anthems.

But co-owners of English football clubs bumping into each other during North American sports fixtures is no longer the black swan event it once was — Nance Jr had already played the Los Angeles Clippers’ Westbrook three times this season before he met McConnell on the court. Buying a piece of an English football club appears to have become as commonplace for your moderately successful MLB, NBA, NFL or NHL player as buying beachfront property or a ranch used to be.

What started with LeBron James and Liverpool in 2011 truly blossomed in 2023, with the 49ers gang buying into Leeds, former NFL star JJ Watt and his wife Kealia, an ex-USWNT player, taking a stake in Burnley, and Tom Brady turning up to buy beers and drive social-media engagement at Birmingham City.

It’s gone from widespread indifference towards soccer to data-driven searches for the right football partner for your investment portfolio in one generation of professional athletes.

How did this happen? What, apart from a round of drinks, do they bring to the table? And what do they get back?

“Many are attracted by the passion fans have for football here — I don’t think they see the same passion for teams in the U.S,” says Andrew Umbers, a partner at Oakwell Sports Advisory, a London-based strategic and financial advisor in the sports sector.

“It is also an opportunity to grow their personal brands outside the U.S. and the same thing works in reverse, as the key international market for English clubs at the moment is the U.S. So, if you can bring in an American superstar like LeBron James or Tom Brady, who can give you massive reach in the U.S. for a small amount of equity, why wouldn’t you?”

LeBron James watching Liverpool in 2011 (Andrew Yates/AFP/Getty Images)

James’ involvement with Liverpool stems from his business relationship with the sports marketing agency owned by Fenway Sports Group (FSG), the American conglomerate that bought the English club in 2011.

At that time, ‘King James’ had just taken his talents from the Cleveland Cavaliers to the Miami Heat as a high-profile free agent and was becoming a global megastar. The connection with Liverpool brought his talents to the attention of fans across Africa, Asia and Europe, while Liverpool’s link to him opened doors for the club in North America.

As part of the marketing deal with FSG, James got a two per cent stake in its new football investment worth just under £5million, or a little over $6million — a small reward in the context of a career that has already earned him more than $1billion, according to U.S. business outlet Forbes.

In 2021, James and his long-standing business manager Maverick Carter swapped that stake in Liverpool for a piece of FSG itself, which made them co-owners of baseball’s Boston Red Sox and ice hockey’s Pittsburgh Penguins, too. Two years later, they were given more shares in FSG to deepen the bond.

In terms of how that bond manifests itself, the club, James and Nike have teamed up to produce a range of merchandise — an “LFC X LeBron” jersey with YNWA, as in “You’ll Never Walk Alone”, Liverpool’s anthem, on the front is for sale on the club website for just under £80, while the basketball tracksuit will set you back £155 — and he can always be counted on to post a timely message on his social media channels.

It is unclear exactly how much of FSG they now own, but even one per cent of a group valued at north of $10billion would be worth $100million. It seems the relationship has been mutually beneficial (and that is even before we consider the possibilities of an LBJ-fronted, FSG-backed, NBA expansion team in somewhere such as Las Vegas).

The Brady/Birmingham bond is much newer, of course, but the seven-time Super Bowl winner now owns 3.3 per cent of a club who have just been relegated to English football’s third tier. Just to continue the “all the threes” theme, those 330 “class B” shares have a nominal value of 3.3 pence, or 2.6 cents.

Brady’s shareholding is actually in Shelby Companies Ltd, the takeover vehicle used by U.S. investment firm Knighthead Capital Management to buy the EFL club last year. The name “Shelby Companies” is a nod to the, erm… conglomerate owned by the family of that name in the Birmingham-based period crime drama Peaky Blinders.

As to how this linkage of legends occurred, the 46-year-old Brady met Knighthead boss Tom Wagner when their sons attended the same school in New York.

With the former quarterback moving into the lifestyle-brand phase of his career, he and Wagner first teamed up to invest in a Major League Pickleball franchise with former women’s tennis number one Kim Clijsters (see, it is not just random American athletes and English football), before buying into a British sports car racing team. (James, for what it is worth, has also invested in pickleball — a tennis-like racket sport.)

Whether or not Brady has actually committed any of his own money to Birmingham is unclear. When Wagner announced that his friend had become the chair of a new club advisory board, he referred to Brady “investing and committing his time and extensive expertise” to help the club become a “respected leader in nutrition, health, wellness and recovery”. When you are as busy as Brady, time is money, I guess.

Like Nance Jr, Brady has done his bit at the bar with fans before games and he also apparently made the club “the most talked-about football team in the world” when his minority ownership was announced last year, with Wagner claiming the news generated “over 17 billion positive media impressions“. He did not say how many negative ones Brady delivered.

“What we are talking about here is crossover halo effects,” explains Laurie Pinto, a veteran sports industry dealmaker on both sides of the Atlantic.

“These athletes bring their fanbases, which are primarily American, to the party and they mingle with the fanbases of these 100-plus-year-old football clubs, which, for the big clubs, are global. Everyone’s a winner.

“But there is more to it than that. These guys know sport, so they’re obviously going to be interested in sports-related investments. The top NBA guys have contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars, even the average players are earning tens of millions, and they’ve all got sophisticated financial advisors.

“But buying into U.S. sports franchises is difficult for them. First, there is the high cost, simply because of the scarcity value of American teams and their high valuations. But they also can’t do it while they’re still playing. LeBron can’t invest in the NBA until he finishes his playing career, but there was nothing to stop him from owning a piece of Liverpool.

“English football also has a very low cost of entry for these guys, so it is a low-risk, medium-reward type of investment. And it looks fun. They have all seen Ted Lasso and Welcome To Wrexham and they fancy some of that themselves.

“It has taken a while, but soccer has become cool in the U.S. — and it is only getting cooler. This ownership trend is not slowing down any time soon.”

Tom Wagner, CEO Gary Cook and Tom Brady, in sunglasses, watch Birmingham (Cameron Smith/Getty Images)

Pinto’s point about the impact of Welcome To Wrexham, the documentary series about the transformation of a lower-league club under celebrity ownership, needs underlining. While this article is specifically about athletes investing in English football clubs, many of them fancy themselves as Ryan Reynolds-like stars and all of them would like to have the Canadian actor’s knack for marketing.

Whether Watt can do for Burnley, or Brady for Birmingham, what Reynolds and business partner and fellow actor Rob McElhenney are doing for Wrexham is a question for another day. But it is safe to say their money will need to be more patient than Rob and Ryan’s if they are looking for financial returns.

Pinto makes another good point, though, about the fact that hundreds of U.S.-based professional athletes can now afford to invest in European football clubs if they want to.

Nance Jr, for example, is by no means an NBA star. He plays 20 minutes a night off the bench for a mid-ranking team, but that makes him more than $10million a year. A footballer as a youngster, Nance Jr had been looking for a team to buy into for several years before he heard about the opportunity to buy into Leeds via Rudy Cline-Thomas, one of the most successful players’ agents in the NBA.

It was Cline-Thomas who also brought in Westbrook and former Golden State Warrior Andre Iguodala. Cline-Thomas, who has family connections to the city of Leeds, is now a vice-chairman at the club, but this was not even his first visit to the English football rodeo.

A year before he joined the 49ers Enterprises group, which is the investment arm of the San Francisco NFL team of the same name, Cline-Thomas had been part of a 15-strong syndicate called Argyle Green that bought a 20 per cent stake in Plymouth Argyle for £4million. Then of League One, Argyle were promoted to the Championship the following season, where they remain, thanks to finishing one place and one point above Brady’s Birmingham in the one that just ended.

Cline-Thomas has had to sell his Argyle shares, but the story of that investment ticks many of Pinto’s boxes.

The Argyle Green group was put together by Michael Mincberg, a Florida-based property investor, and David, his sports-lawyer brother. Their links to the worlds of business and sport brought in Cline-Thomas, who is now more entrepreneur than agent, and two football-mad European players from Florida-based National Hockey League team Tampa Bay Lightning, Victor Hedman and Ondrej Palat.

Hedman, who is Swedish, and Palat, from the Czech Republic, could probably attend a game at Argyle’s Home Park stadium in their hockey gear and still not be recognised, but they have both won the NHL title twice and Hedman is one of the league’s best defencemen of the last decade.

“I probably know more about football than I know about hockey,” Hedman told The Athletic in 2022, while also admitting he was really a Manchester United fan.

“You see all these owners who are multi-billionaires,” he continued. “Obviously, this is a smaller club, smaller investment. But they played Chelsea last year and lost in extra time. They’ve been on the big stage and done well. You’ve got to compete against those teams.

“For a guy who has a competitive edge, it’s a lot of fun to see those games. There are less games, so they’re more important games, one a week, so the build-up is more special compared to (games in the NHL, where teams play 82 regular-season games before two months of best-of-seven play-off series to decide the champions). Football is a religion in England, so to be a part of that is going to be a great ride.”

It is interesting that Hedman brought up the topic of religion, as many older, more experienced club owners would no doubt tell him, LeBron, Tom and the rest that investing in English football is the ultimate test of faith and the rewards are out of this world.


(Top photos: Getty Images)

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