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Fri, Jul 06, 2007 - Page 10 News List

Asia's rich compete to buy top English soccer clubs

SPORTING GLORY Investors are not just signing a business deal when they buy into the Premiership, but making a partly rational, partly romantic decision

AFP , HONG KONG

Wealthy Asian businessmen are competing to buy top-flight English soccer clubs, attracted by the irresistible combination of profit and sporting glory.

Thaksin Shinawatra, a billionaire soccer fanatic who was Thai prime minister until ousted by the military last year, now owns 66 percent of Manchester City and looks close to completing a takeover.

And directors at promoted Premiership side Birmingham City have recently agreed to sell 30 percent of their shares to Hong Kong tycoon Carson Yeung (楊嘉誠), despite reported interest in the club from Indian steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal.

Industry experts say the trend is likely to continue as English soccer becomes ever more popular among Asia's vast and increasingly wealthy population -- bringing with it the promise of booming income from TV rights and merchandise.

"Asian businessmen want to own English football teams because they see Asia, particularly India and China, as the biggest developing market for the Premiership," said Philip Long, soccer specialist at London accountancy firm PKF.

"The worldwide love of football [soccer] is focused at the moment on the English game, and the Asian fan base is well-established and growing fast," he said.

But Long warns that Asian investors are not just signing another business deal when they buy into the Premiership.

"Anyone investing in football is making a partly rational, partly romantic decision. That can be a dangerous mix," Long said.

"It is a different type of investment to any other. Undoubtedly these businessmen know it is a sector that involves a great deal of publicity, and perhaps that's what they want. But when you buy a football club, you are taking on many responsibilities," Long said.

"During a losing streak, you must expect to have thousands of people chanting abuse at you," he said.

"Fans can be very fickle and their financial investment in the club is probably limited to their season ticket, even if they have a huge emotional investment," he said.

Long has a word of warning both for Asian businessmen craving a Premiership team and for fans who imagine a wealthy Asian buyer may turn their club into world beaters.

"There is growth in the game now but perhaps it will plateau out soon like Formula One," he said. "And we will see which of these deals actually goes through. Talking about buying a club is one way to attract headlines, but it is a different matter to completing the sale."

One British academic who is advising an overseas consortium on Premiership takeover targets agrees that it is an investment area characterized by high drama and risk.

"English soccer is the biggest league in the world with a global audience and hence is attracting international interest," he said, on condition of anonymity.

"The prestige and status are unique, and new television deals are perceived as offering new value. But the downside is that the current owners are extracting the surplus value when they exit," he added.

Several English clubs are on tour in Asia this month to boost their support in the region, with Manchester United, Liverpool, Portsmouth and Fulham all playing fixtures.

The visitors exemplify the changing face of Premiership boardrooms with Manchester United and Liverpool owned by US tycoons and Portsmouth and Fulham bought up by magnates from Russia and Egypt respectively.

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