Investing in football: Why bother?

There’s an old saying that the only way to make a small fortune in football is to start off with a big one and then buy a club.

Investing in the beautiful game is usually one of the surest ways to watch your cash-pile dwindle faster than lending your credit card to Paris Hilton in the January sales. Yet year after year more and more businessmen plough their hard earned money into their hometown team.

Often these people are self-made millionaires who have got to the top by being extremely astute and clever in business and finance. But with so few examples of people who have actually made any money in football, why do these investors seem to have a blind spot when it comes to the sport?

Who in their right mind would want to throw huge sums of their own money into a club, only for the supporters to end up hating you when things don’t go to plan?

"Football – that's where you throw it, right?"

Up until very recently when the global recession started to bite, the game seemed awash with cash: multi-million pound TV deals here, hefty sponsorship fees there, and Ashley Cole nearly swerving off the road after being offered ‘only’ £55,000 a week by Arsenal.

Surely getting in on the action would see you raking in more cash than Aldi supermarkets in the credit crunch?

Yet that is all a bit misleading and these big money deals really only apply to the Premier League. The rest of the football pyramid is left to feed on the crumbs from the top table, and those at the top are not all that keen on sharing.

As Simon Jordan said recently: “The problem with football is it’s hypocritical, because all of us argue that the distribution of money should be fairer, but as soon as we get in the Premier League we don’t give a f**k.”

Jordan is a perfect example of the wealthy self-made football investor who has seen no return on the millions he has ploughed into Crystal Palace. Whether or not he's your cup of tea, the Championship’s most outspoken chairman must have a certain amount of savvy after making tens of millions of pounds in the mobile phone business.

Yet for the £35m he says he has pumped into Palace in his nine-year tenure, the club has just one season in the top-flight to show for it and are now mid-table in the Championship. He once said: “I’m not at this club to make money,” and it’s a good job because it’s unlikely he’ll ever even recoup that amount, let alone make anything.

Despite being a life-long fan whose ambition was to be Palace chairman, Jordan announced last year that even he has had enough and is looking to sell up.

Palace is a bit of a Venus Flytrap for wealthy young football fans. Although Jordan has sunk a load into the club, he is far from being on the breadline and still has millions in the bank. The same cannot be said for his predecessor Mark Goldberg who acts as a walking, talking advert for keeping your cash well away from football.

Selhurst flora: "Give us yer cash..."

In 1998, Goldberg spent nearly £24m buying the club but just nine short months later, after Palace were relegated from the Premier League, he was broke. He had blown his entire £40m fortune on the club and had to call in the administrators. The stress and strain of the whole episode also caused the breakdown of his marriage which ended in divorce.

He said: “My whole goal was to phone my dad and tell him: ‘I’ve just bought Crystal Palace.’ That was a great feeling. What I should have thought more about was what I did with it once I bought it.”

Despite these cautionary tales it seems those with the money have not learned their lesson. Mike Ashley shelled out £134m to buy Newcastle United in 2007 and has since shored up the club’s finances by paying off outstanding debts.

And his reward for spending a large amount of his personal fortune to secure the club’s finances? Vitriolic hatred and abuse from the Toon Army. It reached the point where he could not even attend matches at his own club after he said he feared for his family’s safety.

Of course, not everyone who buys into a football club loses all their money, gets divorced or receives death threats. One or two canny operators have made it work for them. Ken Bates sold Chelsea to Roman Abramovich for £17m after having picked up the club for just £1 in 1982.

Doug Ellis bolstered his pension fund by £20m when he sold his Aston Villa shares to Randy Lerner, and Terry Brown charged Bjorgolfur Gudmundsson £31m for West Ham shares he'd bought for just £2m. And lest we forget, Thaksin Shinawatra who reportedly made a cool £20m in just one year as Manchester City owner.

There's one consistent element with all these deals: luck. No one could have foreseen that obscure Russian, Icelandic, American and Middle Eastern billionaires would suddenly decide a Premier League club was the latest must-have accessory.

Had they not, or had the world recession started a year or two before it did, those former owners who are now counting their millions would still be at their clubs wondering if they would ever see their money again and trying to placate angry fans about the lack of new signings.

LBW for 31, Pavilion End, bowled Willis

Buying a football club is hardly a sure-fire path to riches, but then, do people really invest in football for the returns? The Stoke City chairman Peter Coates said: “I’m 68 years old and have all the money I need. I don’t need to be making a £10m-plus investment into a football club that’s losing money. It’s clearly not a sensible investment."

He's right – it's not – but clearly the reason most wealthy investors buy into football clubs is not so much financial gain as emotional attachment. These wealthy fans probably no more expect to make money on their investment than ordinary fans do when they buy a season ticket. Doing that isn't an investment either, yet hundreds of thousands of people do it every year.

Becoming a shareholder, director or even chairman is like the ultimate season ticket: you get the best seats in the house, full access to the players and manager, and the chance to feel like you are helping the club you love.

But is it worth it? Should you invest in a football club? If you don’t mind watching millions of your pounds go down the pan while simultaneously being held personally responsible for the inevitably disappointing fortunes of the club by thousands of fans, who will most likely end up hating your guts and chanting your name preceded by “Stand up if you hate…”, then go ahead.

After all, you’ve only got your fortune, your marriage and your sanity to lose. Just ask Mark Goldberg.


For the full Rich List, see FourFourTwo magazine, out now. If quoting, credit FourFourTwo magazine and link to

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