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Excitement is building for the Fifa Women’s World Cup, a month-long football extravaganza that starts on July 20. What better way to start the countdown than with the co-hosts of the tournament at the Australian High Commission in London?
The Matildas, as the Aussie women are known, were in attendance after ending England’s 30-game unbeaten run in a friendly the previous night. It was a magical win, befitting of Australia House, which provided the setting for Gringotts wizarding bank in the first Harry Potter film.
With Chelsea FC striker Sam Kerr in attendance, it was a reminder of the star power that’s primed to put the spotlight on the growing momentum in the women’s game at the World Cup.
This week, we examine the implications of a record-breaking $6bn move to buy the Washington Commanders NFL team, and consider how sports groups are tapping their loyal fanbases to expand into new business lines.
Do read on — Samuel Agini, sports business reporter
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Will a $6bn NFL franchise push the league to private equity investment?
Head’s up– a new world record* for the most expensive sport club sale just dropped.
Josh Harris, the billionaire co-founder of Apollo Global Management, is nearing an agreement to buy the National Football League‘s Washington Commanders in a deal valuing the club at close to $6bn. The transaction (*pending league approval) would eclipse last year’s record $4.6bn sale of the NFL’s Denver Broncos to Walmart heir Rob Walton for the top spot for global franchise transactions.
If ratified by fellow NFL owners, it would end a tumultuous and controversial tenure under the stewardship of, who bought the team in 1999 for a then-record $800mn. In the past few years, he’s faced numerous probes into allegations of fostering a toxic workplace environment.
A deal with Harris would wrap one of the strangest sports transactions in recent memory. Several people involved in discussions around the Commanders expressed frustration about the bidding process and its relative lack of transparency compared to other recent sales, including that of Chelsea FC. Complicating the process was the decision by Jeff Bezos, the world’s third-richest person with a net worth of around $125bn, to explore a bid alongside the rapper Jay-Z.
But a sale to Harris would put a well known steward of pro-sports teams in the circle of one of the most elite clubs in the US: the network of NFL owners. Already co-owner, with fellow private equity titan David Blitzer, of the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers, the NHL’s New Jersey Devils, and the English Premier League’s Crystal Palace FC, Harris was not shy about his ambitions to add an American football team to the roster, as he told Scoreboard at our Business of US Sport conference in October.
Harris is also a minority owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers. That means his financials have effectively been provisionally vetted by the NFL and might make an approval of his purchase speedier. Hedge fund manager David Tepper followed the same playbook — holding a limited stake in the Steelers before buying the Carolina Panthers in 2011.
All the same, the biggest takeaway from the pending Commanders sale is whether such a rapid rise in NFL valuations will put added pressure on the league to consider allowing private capital investment in teams. The NFL, the wealthiest and closest-knit league of owners with strict debt limits on financing and generous revenue sharing amongst teams, is the lone US holdout against institutional investment.
Other US leagues, beginning with Major League Baseball in 2019, began relaxing such rules as club valuations skyrocketed and minority owners searching for liquidity during the pandemic looked for adequately capitalised buyers for such stakes. With American football valuations on the rise, and worries of a potential recession looming, might the NFL be next?
Fan data: the gold mine that can be hard to reach
Even the world’s biggest sports teams struggle to cash in on the loyalty of their global fanbases. Just take Manchester United, the subject of takeover interest from British billionaire Sir Jim Ratcliffe and Qatari bidder Sheikh Jassim bin Hamad al-Thani.
The English football club boasted 395mn “digital interactions” and 1.15bn video views across its social media platforms in its second quarter alone, and claims that it has 1.1bn “fans and followers”. Yet even at its peak in 2018/19, annual revenue totalled £627mn, less than £1 per fan.
There are growing efforts across sport to change the financial return on popularity. United now has 360,000 members enrolled in what it calls the “largest paid membership program in world sport”, up from 288,000 at the end of September 2022. The premium package costs £65 a year and comes with perks including merchandise and store discounts; the budget offering is £35.
The benefits of collecting a database of loyal customers can be seen elsewhere in sport. US merchandiser Fanatics is expanding into trading cards and sports betting; broadcaster Dazn is moving into gambling too, as it tries to build a destination platform for sports fans.
Fanatics chief Michael Rubin has made a business of partnering with sports leagues, teams and players. His business spans the NFL, Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association, and teams including United.
The digital-first approach to retailing means that Fanatics knows its customers, whether they’re into sweaters or hats, the sports they love, and the players they idolise. Fanatics’ database of 95mn customers is a vital asset as it expands.
Acquisitions such as the Topps trading cards and collectables business could neatly plug into its betting business; Fanatics can comb through its data to target the right audience.
Fanatics expects to make $8bn of revenue this year. United has guided that it will make revenues of £610mn in its financial year, which runs to the end of June.
That gap suggests that as more investment pours into sports teams, the drive to “monetise” fan data will only become more important. The tricky part is figuring out how to do it.
In an abrupt about-face, the Women’s Tennis Association said it would return to playing matches in China later this year, nearly two years after pulling out amid the disappearance of tennis star Peng Shuai. Peng had alleged she was sexually assaulted by a former high-ranking Communist Party official and has rarely been seen in public since. The WTA, which previously hosted about a fifth of its tournaments, including the WTA Finals, in China, concluded “we will never fully secure [its] goals” of independently confirming Peng’s safety.
It’s been two years since the botched launch of the European Super League. A number of the clubs involved have been through a turbulent time since then. Some have changed hands, others are up for sale, and a few have found themselves the subject of action by regulators.
English Premier League football clubs are cracking down on gambling sponsorship. Sort of. Teams plan to stop featuring the logos of betting companies on the front of their shirts. But nothing will prevent gambling companies from sponsoring shirt sleeves or pitchside advertising hoardings.
Boxing officials from the US and the UK have joined forces to set up a new federation for the sport in an effort to maintain its place at the Olympic Games. The current leading federation, the International Boxing Association, has close ties to Russia.
Saudi Arabia has set its sights on cricket. According to a report in The Age, the Saudi government has recently approached the owners of the Indian Premier League about launching a new Twenty20 tournament.
Tony Petitti will become the seventh commissioner of US college sports’ Big Ten Conference, presiding over an unprecedented new era of expansion. A former MLB deputy commissioner and executive at CBS and ABC Sports, Petitti succeeds Kevin Warren who will become chief executive of the NFL’s Chicago Bears. The Big Ten Conference will welcome two Los Angeles universities, UCLA and USC, beginning next year.
You know that moment in a tennis match where the umpire orders everyone in the crowd to shush? Well the NBA doesn’t have that rule, which is why one young Chicago Bulls fan was free to let out a blood-curdling screech every time a player from the opposing Toronto Raptors was up at the free-throw line. The spectator in question — nine-year old Diar — had a pretty good excuse: her dad DeMar DeRozan plays for the Bulls. The high volume intervention proved instrumental — Toronto missed more than a dozen free throws, and the Bulls won by four points.
Scoreboard is written by Josh Noble, Samuel Agini and Arash Massoudi in London, Sara Germano, James Fontanella-Khan, and Anna Nicolaou in New York, with contributions from the team that produce the Due Diligence newsletter, the FT’s global network of correspondents and data visualisation team
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