LONDON — At the tail end of last year, two Wall Street investors were searching for a soccer club to buy. Not one at the top end of the market, where blue-chip Premier League teams are valued at more than $1 billion, but something a little smaller, a little less flashy, in one of English soccer’s lower tiers.
Their requirements were simple. They were not looking for a club to transform into a championship contender. Instead, they advised their brokers, they wanted a team, effectively, as a vacation activity: one they could go and watch on a Saturday while their wives went shopping, before heading off to the theater.
Crucially, they said, they would need one sufficiently well connected to allow them to be back in New York on Sunday night: ideally, one a “stone’s throw from Heathrow.” They wanted to buy into soccer, to take charge of a club, to see if they could make a success of it, but only, really, if they could do it in London.
Theirs was not an isolated example. A prospective Premier League owner, also from the United States, advised a consultant helping him acquire a club that he would need somewhere to land his private jet nearby, the sort of requirement much more easily met in the capital than elsewhere.
“The demographics, the corporate sponsors, the socioeconomics,” said Steven Gans, a Boston lawyer and principal at Professional Soccer Advisers, who has worked with Fulham, “all make being in or near London a huge draw.”
Another consultant to foreign investors into English soccer put it more bluntly: London, he said, acts as a “giant magnet to money.” Increasingly, that magnet is powerful enough to bend and shape the very landscape of the Premier League.
Ten years ago, on the eve of the 2008-9 season, six teams in English soccer’s top division came from the capital and its general vicinity. Nine, by contrast, hailed from England’s North West, representing not only the powerhouses of Manchester and Liverpool, but also towns like Blackburn, Wigan and Bolton. Soccer’s other traditional heartlands — the Midlands, around Birmingham, and Yorkshire and the North East, home of Newcastle and Sunderland — took up the remaining five spots.
A decade on, the picture has reversed. When the Premier League opens its new season Friday, it will do so with two teams from the Midlands (Leicester and West Bromwich Albion), one apiece from Yorkshire (Huddersfield), the North East (Newcastle) and Wales (Swansea City), and only six from the North West.
That leaves almost half the division filled with teams from London and nearby areas, and from England’s affluent south coast. Inexorably, it seems the power base of English soccer is shifting south.
When Gino Pozzo — scion of the family that has long owned the Italian team Udinese — was looking for an English club to buy, he considered several factors. “The profile of the club, the fan base, the potential for growth,” all came into consideration, he said. “But just as with any business, geography is important.”
He and his father, Giampaolo, looked at a number of prospective teams but ultimately settled on Watford, on the northern edge of London’s urban sprawl. “Being close to London has a lot of advantages, and in a globalized game, you have to try to find as many as you can,” he said.
Principally, Pozzo said, London appeals to overseas players. Watford’s training facility sits next to Arsenal’s on the M25, the highway that rings London and, for many inside the city, marks the boundary of civilization.
“It is a great reference,” Pozzo said. “When we are talking to a player, we can say that the place they will work the most is next to Arsenal. They know that moving to Watford, they will have exactly the same experience of work as they would if they were moving to Arsenal.”
London’s pull on imported players is well established. In 2014, Alexis Sánchez acknowledged that he turned down a move to Liverpool in favor of Arsenal because he preferred to live in the city. Years earlier, in the days when Liverpool had a substantial Spanish enclave, Fernando Torres and his countrymen would regularly take the train to the capital on their days off.
Today, a number of players at clubs in the regions — even English ones — commute to work from London. Midfielder Morgan Schneiderlin signed for Southampton as a young player partly because it was close to London, and partly because it was so close to his native France that he could still listen to French radio. At least one team in the North East, conscious of all of that, reportedly has toyed with the idea of moving its training base to London to make it a more enticing destination.
It is not just players, however, who are drawn south. That is where the money is, something recognized by both Manchester clubs and Liverpool, all of whom now boast commercial offices in the capital, an acceptance that their most important revenue streams do not rise in their hometowns.
That, in particular, gives clubs in and near the city an advantage with potential investors.
“Obviously, if the choice is between buying Liverpool and Crystal Palace, then Liverpool, a globally recognized name, is a worldwide opportunity,” Gans said. “But all things being equal, London would ideally be the preference, across the board.”
In part, that is a straightforward business decision: Everything from the value of land to the price of tickets is higher in London, making any club a potentially more lucrative investment. When Shahid Khan, owner of the N.F.L.’s Jacksonville Jaguars, decided to invest in Fulham in 2013 — then of the Premier League — the location of the club’s atmospheric, romantic stadium on the banks of the Thames was not the only attraction. Just as important was the fact that the stadium’s roof is visible on the Heathrow flight path, making it valuable real estate for any advertiser hoping to expose a product to tens of millions of potential customers.
“There is a London premium,” said David Bick, chairman of Square1 consulting, a financial public-relations firm that has been engaged by a number of prospective owners. “A club worth a billion in the north would be worth a billion and a half in London.”
There is more at play, however, than mere economics. London can offer more of everything to an overseas investor: more lavish homes, more exclusive lifestyle, more international schools for the children, more flights home, more trips to the theater after games and, crucially, more status. The same attraction holds for their contemporaries in other industries, and the executives they employ to run their clubs. As with players, London tends to get first pick.
Not every club in the capital has a happy story to tell, of course. Foreign investment has proved disastrous and unpopular at Charlton and at Leyton Orient. Khan’s reign at Fulham began with relegation. Even Arsenal fans are hardly universally enraptured by Stan Kroenke’s stewardship. London’s magnetism is not always a magic bullet.
The evidence, though, would suggest that it is sufficiently strong that it is exerting a considerable influence on the demographics of the English game. Soccer’s historical heartlands in the country lie in the North. Its 21st century heartbeat, though, is increasingly in — or as close as a private jet can get to — London.
Published at Fri, 11 Aug 2017 01:16:30 +0000