News Analysis: How to sell footie takeovers to fans

West Ham is the latest football club attracting interest from foreigners. David Quainton says such deals are increasingly common but need astute PR handling.

The archetypal football chairman is changing fast. Once the meat-packing local-boy-made-good, the trend is for clubs to welcome approaches from ­further afield for a wealthy owner who can inject money - and, hopefully, success - into their team. And West Ham United is the latest club to find serious interest from overseas businessmen.

Should a deal go through it would become the latest in a succession of ­foreign acquisitions of Britain's top clubs (see below): US billionaire Randy Lerner last month completed a takeover of Aston Villa; US tycoon Malcolm Glazer's tumultuous purchase of Britain's biggest club, Manchester United, was last year; and two years ­previously, one of the world's richest men, Russian oil magnate Roman Abramovich, snapped up Chelsea.

But with the beautiful game evoking such passion among fans and stakeholders, just how difficult is it to push through a foreign deal? And what can West Ham bidders Kia Joorabchian and Eggert Magnusson do to avoid the ire that Glazer evoked during his approach for Man Utd?

‘Emotive elements'
Phil Hall Associates and Holborn PR are respectively representing the Iranian and Icelandic bidders interested in buying the East End club (PRWeek, 13 October).

‘There are three emotive elements in any football deal,' says Paul Ridley, who advised on the initial (rejected)Glazer approach for Man Utd. ‘Fans, clubs and the media. Each has to be addressed carefully.'

The Glazers' (three of Malcolm's sons are involved) ultimately successful courting of Man Utd was famously mired in controversy, with Glazer senior a massively unpopular figure among fans (as a result of the takeover, a sizeable group of disgruntled supporters even created a new club called FC United of Manchester).

According to various PR consultants spoken to by PRWeek, the family was naïve in its approach to the British media, alienating fans and share­holders alike by not reacting to criticism and allaying fears.

‘I suggested they take half a dozen journalists to Tampa, Florida, to see the set-up at their US sporting interests,' recalls Ridley. ‘They never said no, but it never happened. I don't think they perhaps considered the profile of their takeover.'

The takeover of a football club will inevitably generate media coverage disproportionate to the price of the deal - such coverage will not only be in the business pages, but on the front and back pages, too.

Ridley (and Brunswick, which was also working on the deal) ended their relationship with the Glazer bid before the successful second attempt (backed by Smithfield) got under way.

‘The Randy Lerner bid for Aston Villa was far more successful,' says Daily Mirror chief football writer Martin Lipton.

‘He ingratiated himself with the fans by coming to watch the football matches, he didn't say too much, and he engaged with the man­ager [Martin O'Neill] before he paid a pound for the club.'

Holborn MD Trevor Phillips, who represented Lerner on the Villa take­over, said the agency intentionally kept the bidder's media profile relatively low, granting only two major interviews. The agency ran an evangelistic campaign pointing out how Lerner was a genuine sports fan and how his money would benefit the club.

‘We keep it secret exactly how much he has to spend, though,' says Phillips. ‘It would only push player prices up in the future. Look at what happens when Chelsea try to buy a player.'

Abramovich's billions have, of course, transformed the British footballing landscape: since June 2003, every team seems to be looking for their own wealthy oligarch.

This has led to strange tabloid tales of foreign interest, including, incredibly, a stab at Liverpool last year by the recently deposed Thai prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra.

Abramovich's takeover of the west London club was relatively smooth, although last month a PRWeek poll showed Chelsea's reputation has taken a knock under his stewardship (PRWeek, 29 September). ‘Chelsea fans would rather be where they are today [than where they were before Abram­ovich],' says Ridley. ‘And the takeover happened almost overnight.'

Impatient journalists
But most takeovers are a long time in the making, which is a major headache for PR advisers. ‘I had to take a News of the World journalist through every detail of a bid just to explain why it was taking so long,' recalls one PR man who has worked on a foreign takeover. ‘Many seem to think you can arrive with £100m and walk away the next morning with the keys to the ground. But it takes at least four weeks to buy a house.'

Due-diligence requires thorough examination of every player contract and club asset, in order to get a realistic valuation of a club. And sports journalists are not used to such drawn-out processes.

‘Football deals do seem to take more resources than an equivalent City deal,' admits Finsbury director James Murgatroyd, who advised Man Utd during the Glazer bid.

He adds: ‘Normally you would focus on the top ten wires and newspapers, dealing with maybe two people at each. In football, the range of people interested is absolutely huge.'

Overall, though, fans generally seem more readily accepting of investment in their clubs from previously unknown individuals.

‘Fans want success,' concludes Phillips. ‘Ten years ago, foreign investment would have been frowned upon. That's not the case now.'

Foreigners in football: who advised who

Chelsea: June 2003 Roman Abramovich uses Citigate Dewe Rogerson to acquire the London club.

Hearts: February 2005 Lithuanian Vladimir Romanov takes control of the Edinburgh side, advised by Weber Shandwick's Glasgow chief Paul Mann.

Man United: May 2005 Malcolm Glazer (Smithfield) takes over Man United (Finsbury). Earlier bid had Paul Ridley Ltd and Brunswick advising Glazer.

Portsmouth: January 2006 Franco-Russian Alexandre Gaydamak uses Stuart Higgins Communications as he becomes co-owner.

Aston Villa: Sep 2006 Randy Lerner calls in Holborn PR to snaffle the Birmingham side (Buchanan Comms).

West Ham: October 2006 West Ham United FC (Phil Hall Associates) sparks interest from a consortium headed by Iranian Kia Joorabchian (also Phil Hall) and a later bid from Icelander Eggert Magnusson (Holborn).

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