When reclusive billionaire, Mike Ashley, bought struggling British soccer club, Newcastle United, in the summer of 2007, the team’s fans hailed its new owner and his deep pockets as potential saviour.
Chelsea owner, Roman Abramovich, is no longer the richest man in soccer. So, who is?
Not anymore. Through November 11, Newcastle was in 18th place in the standings, a spot which puts it in danger of relegation to a lower league. Club fans, called the Toon Army, are also furious with ownership because of the resignation of beloved manager, Kevin Keegan.
Ashley, who had become a fixture in Newcastle’s stands, is ready to return to the lifestyle that earned him the nickname of Britain’s Howard Hughes. He says he can’t take his kids to a game any longer out of fear they would be assaulted. After purchasing the club just over a year ago, he is looking towards selling it. "You want me out," says Ashley. "That is what I am now trying to do."
British papers have been thick with chatter of who could bid on the 116-year-old club. In those tabloids at least, Philip Anschutz emerged as a frontrunner this weekend. He’s a Denver entertainment entrepreneur who ranked 36th on our Forbes 400 list of the richest Americans, and he already owns three other soccer teams.
Anschutz’s sports holding company, AEG, denies any interest in the club, but don’t be surprised if another billionaire becomes the next Newcastle owner. The owner’s box at soccer stadiums has transformed into a billionaire’s club over the past decade.
Many of the men at the top of our rich lists have a pro-soccer team on their long list of assets. Indian magnate, Lakshmi Mittal, and racing tycoon, Bernie Ecclestone, have a stake in the London Queen’s Park Rangers.
Microsoft co-founder, Paul Allen, is part-owner of the new American Major League Soccer franchise, Seattle Sounders. Luxury goods maven, Francois Pinault, doesn’t just root for his favourite French side, Stade Rennais; he also owns them.
The reason so many clubs are in billionaire hands is their considerable expense. "I paid 134 million pounds ($206.8 million) out of my own pocket for the club," says Ashley on his Newcastle purchase. "I then poured another 110 million pounds ($169.8 million) into the club not to pay off the debt but just to reduce it. The club is still in debt." He says he’ll be paying out many more millions in the coming years to settle fees from old transfers.
If you need more evidence of the expenses of running a football club, take Russian businessman, Roman Abramovich, and his club, Chelsea, as an example. Since Abramovich’s purchase in 2003, Chelsea has been stellar on the field and captured two Premier League championships and the UEFA Champions League. Despite that, a Chelsea executive said this week that the club isn’t hoping to be profitable until the 2010-2011 season.
Anschutz might know the difficulties of the soccer business better than anybody. Anschutz is widely credited with the success of America’s pro-soccer league – no small deed in a country with relatively few soccer fans. Major League Soccer recently named its championship trophy after him in recognition of his service.
"In our darkest hour, we went through contraction," said MLS commissioner, Don Garber, at the trophy unveiling. "We were really questioning what the future of MLS would be. Anschutz stood up and said, ‘Even if I have to carry this league on my shoulders, I won’t allow Major League Soccer not to continue or grow.’"
At one point, Anschutz owned six teams in the fledgling league. It was a huge gamble that only a billionaire could afford. Now, with the MLS healthier than ever, it’s starting to pay off. We value Anschutz’s Los Angeles Galaxy as the most valuable team in American soccer – it is worth some $100 million.
The Top Six:
1. Oleg Deripaska
Net worth in March:
The Russian aluminum billionaire reportedly agreed to buy the soccer club from his native Kuban district in 2004. Deripaska hasn’t been able to prevent the yo-yo like trajectory. In 2003, the club won a promotion to Russia’s top league. The next year, it finished near the bottom of the standings and won a ticket back to Russia’s second league. It repeated this with the 2006 and 2007 seasons.
2. Roman Abramovich
Net worth in March:
The Russian commodities magnate has spent lavishly on the British club since he purchased it in 2003. According to a report in Daily Telegraph earlier this year, Abramovich spent 440 million pounds ($662.2 million) to buy the club, brought in fresh talent and built a new training center. He’s also let the club slide into the red in pursuit of success and lent it another 270 million pounds ($406.4 million) to cover losses. A Chelsea executive said recently that the club is aiming to be profitable by the 2010-2011 season.
3. Lakshmi Mittal
Net worth in November: $20.5 billion
Queen’s Park Rangers
The chief executive of steel giant, Arcelor-Mittal, bought a stake in the London-based club in 2007. He joins Formula One tycoons, Flavio Briatore and Bernie Ecclestone, as owners. The club currently plays in the Championship League, England’s second highest division, but the wealthy ownership group is aiming higher. "Our programme is to reach the Premier League within three years. I want to be in Europe (the Champion’s League) within four years," Briatore told a British paper.
4. Amancio Ortega
Net worth in March:
Deportivo De La Coruna
Ortega made his fortune with the apparel group, Inditex, which owns brands like Zara. He reportedly has a stake in the Spanish soccer club, Deportivo La Coruna. The low-profile Spanish billionaire’s team is playing well this year. La Coruna is currently in sixth place in the 20-team Primera Division.
5. Paul Allen
Net worth in August:
The Microsoft billionaire will join comedian, Drew Carey, and movie producer, Joe Roth, in the owner’s box of Major League Soccer’s Seattle franchise when it starts play in 2009. Sports ownership is a familiar territory for Allen. He already owns the National Football League’s Seattle Seahawks and the National Basketball Association’s Portland Trail Blazers. Those ties are helping out his soccer club. The team is already enjoying brisk season ticket sales, thanks to help from the Seahawks’ ticket sales office. The Sounders have already garnered some notice in the soccer world with their signing of Swedish star, Freddie Ljungberg.
6. Alisher Usmanov
Net worth in March:
Usmanov, already Arsenal’s largest shareholder with a 23 per cent stake, is still building his position. The Daily Mail reported earlier this month that the Russian picked up another chunk of stock. Also holding a position in the club is the American billionaire, E. Stanley Kroenke. London-based Arsenal is in third place in the English Premier League this season.