General Sports Worldwide – The Estate Agency for Buying and Selling Football Clubs

General Sports Worldwide – The Estate Agency for Buying and Selling Football Clubs

 

For some, owning a sports team is like getting a seat at a casino’s top poker table — a chance to test your mettle against the best in a game of skill. For others, it is like a seat at the roulette wheel — the Devil’s game, pure luck, a sure way to turn a large fortune into a small one.

Either way, seats are opening up at these tables across Europe. The pandemic has tilted the odds further in the house’s favour, prompting many owners to decide it is time to cash in whatever they have left in front of them and let somebody else have a go.

In British football, BurnleySunderland and Wrexham have changed hands already this season, a deal is close at Wigan Athletic, the owners of Derby County and Newcastle United are in the midst of long goodbyes, and their peers at dozens of other clubs are either actively looking for a way out or open to offers. American money is snapping up Italian clubs, and it is rare for a week to pass without some overseas investor adding a club in Belgium, Denmark, France or Portugal to their portfolios.

But how do you actually buy a sports team? What can you do as a seller to avoid the “complete timewasters”? And what advice can you give after a takeover happens?

“M&A (mergers and acquisitions) in sport is typically done by banks,” explains former Derby chairman Andy Appleby. “I’ve felt for some time there was a need in this space for people like us — people who have actually owned or run teams.

“Bankers are excellent, but we really know the business. We can structure the deals, we know the high-net-worth individuals, we can staff the front offices and, most importantly, we can educate the people we bring to the table.”

That is the rationale for Appleby’s latest venture, General Sports Worldwide, and when he says “people like us”, he means people like him and former Stoke City and Wolverhampton Wanderers chief executive Jez Moxey. Between them, they have sold every type of ticket and sponsorship deal, worked at every level of a sports team’s “front office”, bought and sold clubs and, in Appleby’s case, owned teams and even an entire league.

“We’re sports executives, we know what the pitfalls are and we know what makes a good owner,” says Moxey. “When Steve Morgan put Wolves up for sale (in 2016) we had expressions of interest from 86 parties but when we examined them — and we checked all of them out — we found that only three of those could actually do the deal. Most of the rest were complete timewasters. That happens all the time. Clubs often get frustrated and end up not knowing who to trust.

“There are a lot of owners who are desperate to sell but don’t know how to get out. They are rightly worried about their legacy and don’t want to sell to someone who will just ruin it. Fans often accuse these guys of profiteering but the reality is that most of them lose millions, often because they don’t really know what they’re doing.

“This is why the first conversation you must have is, ‘Why do you want to buy a football club?’ For some, it’s all about their ego and the bright lights. That’s fine, but be honest. Can you afford it? The question should not be, ‘Can you buy it?’, it should be, ‘Can you run it?’”

The pair’s paths crossed during Appleby’s seven-year spell at Derby and they have remained in touch ever since. Late last year, they both came to pretty much the same conclusion at the same time: There are lots of sports teams for sale and we know a lot about buying and selling sports teams, let’s see if we can grab some of this action.

Now 58, Appleby is happy to admit he has made “every mistake in this game, twice” during a 35-year career in professional sport but he is far too polite to say if buying Derby in 2008 was one of those errors. It was certainly a learning experience.

“I know what’s it like to be in a run when you lose 17 out of 22 games,” he recalls. “I received 5,500 emails from Derby fans during that time — I replied to them all — and they spared no one except my mother. So, I’ve been there. I know the highs and lows, and I’m not going to sugarcoat it. It’s not an easy business.”

Appleby’s group bought Derby during their last Premier League campaign. They were 20th, with just seven points from 23 games, when he took over and their relegation was confirmed nine games later. It was record-breakingly bad.

But when he sold to Mel Morris in 2015, Appleby handed over a club who seemed on the verge of returning to the top flight. After all, they had finished third in 2014, losing 1-0 in the Championship play-off final to Queens Park Rangers. Derby fans will not need to be told they have not come any closer than that since, despite Morris pouring £200 million of his personal fortune into the club.

Appleby has never had that kind of money to play with but his time at Derby does demonstrate what he has in abundance: contacts.

The ownership group he fronted at Pride Park included Chicago Cubs owner Tom Ricketts and Yahoo Inc president and San Francisco Giants co-owner Jeff Mallett, both from Major League Baseball. And his board there boasted the talents of Tom Glick and Tim Hinchey, two executives from NBA basketball teams who have gone on to bigger jobs. Glick is now president of the NFL’s Carolina Panthers, via a stint with City Football Group, and Hinchey runs Olympic powerhouse, USA Swimming.

He has been making contacts like this ever since he left college with a master’s in sports management and joined Detroit Pistons in 1986. His timing was perfect as the Pistons were pumping, on and off the court. Within two years, they would move from the cavernous Pontiac Silverdome to The Palace of Auburn Hills, the first NBA arena financed entirely with private money.

Appleby’s job was to fill it, a task made much easier by Detroit’s “Bad Boys” winning their first NBA championship in their first season in their new home. They would win their second the following year.

After 12 years with Detroit, Appleby left and set up General Sports & Entertainment, his own agency, and a year later he bought the Fort Wayne Wizards, a nearby minor-league baseball team. Since then, he has set up a conference business for sports executives, started an artificial-turf company and founded his own family-friendly, independent baseball league in the Detroit suburbs.

“I joined the Pistons at an exciting time for the team and the league,” he says. “Most of the ideas we put in place are still being used now and I have either hired, worked for, worked with or been a peer of almost every executive at a pro franchise in the US. So, I’m a dinosaur, but in a good way.”

That’s one side of the Atlantic covered, then.

The right-hand side of the pond is where Moxey comes in.

“When we were at Derby, Jez was one of the most impressive chief executives we came up against in the Championship,” says Appleby. “In fact, I was often worried he would fleece us on a deal.”

With three promotions and three relegations, it would be fair to say there was an element of snakes and ladders to Moxey’s 16 years at Wolves.

“Yes, we made mistakes and there were relegations, even to League One,” says Moxey, who joined Burton Albion in 2017 and also sits on the EFL’s board. “Steve (Morgan) had a difficult time but we repaired that and left the club in good shape for Fosun to take it on.”

This is a reference to Moxey’s last project at Molineux, overseeing the sale of the club to Fosun, a Chinese conglomerate, in 2016.

“They looked at 18 other clubs in Europe but bought Wolves because we got the club on a secure footing,” he explains. “The foundations were all there and that is why people should look back at Steve Morgan’s time at the club as a success.”

When he sold Wolves to Fosun for Morgan, it was actually Moxey’s third experience of selling a club, having been the chief executive of Stoke in 1997 when they were bought by an Icelandic consortium, and then handled the process for Sir Jack Hayward when he sold Wolves to Morgan in 2007.

“Those experiences certainly piqued my interest and made me think there is a niche here for the right kind of person,” he says, before making the same point as Appleby that the space is currently occupied by banks and law firms.

“The deal with Fosun was actually done very quickly, because they were serious people. That’s pretty rare in our game, unfortunately, but there’s no reason it shouldn’t be more common.

“Did they come in with a plan? Definitely. Have they spent a lot of money? Absolutely. But they’ve done it right. They did their homework and they’ve followed a strategy.

“Most team owners have made their money doing something else,” says Appleby. “But what tends to happen is they get the keys to the building at 4pm on a Tuesday and they haven’t got a clue what to do. We can help them learn how to read a team’s financials, ticketing, sponsorship, food and beverage, game presentation, you name it. We can give them a running start.”

With established players in this market — from the boutique investment banks Allen & Company and Inner Circle Sports to the sports desks of bigger beasts such as Goldman Sachs — Appleby and Moxey know General Sports Worldwide’s M&A venture will ultimately be judged on results. Just like the teams they have run, then.

But they have only been open for business a month and they already have several projects on the go: an Israeli football team to sell, another in Canada and at least two European football teams looking for investment. Appleby is optimistic his network of contacts in North America will also bear fruit in baseball, basketball, ice hockey, US soccer and so on, while he is also keen for General Sports Worldwide to make an impression in the player representation and sponsorship sectors, too.

“There is so much business out there,” he says. “There are about 300-400 team owners in Europe and North America who want to sell or need help. No single firm can get all of that work.

“In the US, there are about four or five in the M&A business, 10 to 20 in the sponsorship space and perhaps 100 agencies doing player representation. But that’s nowhere near what you get in other businesses. Sport is very specialised.

“Will we seal every deal there is to be done? No. But we’ll be at the table of all the good ones, and we’ll win our share.”

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