As Leeds United prepares to face Premier League champions Liverpool on Saturday in the club’s first match in English football’s top tier in 16 years, owner Andrea Radrizzani is looking to bigger challenges.
Leeds’ return to the world’s most valuable domestic football competition guarantees around £100m in revenues this season, through its share of the Premier League’s broadcasting contracts worth £9.2bn. But Mr Radrizzani has greater ambitions — turning the club he bought in 2017 into a business worth up to £1bn.
“The target in five years is to be behind the ‘Big Six’”, he told the Financial Times, referring to the richest clubs in the Premier League; Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United, Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal.
“If we get there in terms of sports results and we have a very solid business . . . then we can be [worth] in the region of £600m-£1bn.”
Such outsized ambition for a newly-promoted team comes from Leeds’ reputation as one of English football’s fallen giants.
Two decades ago, it reached the semi-finals of the Champions League, Europe’s most prestigious and lucrative club tournament. But relegation from the Premier League in 2004 and the accrual of large debts led to the club going into administration in 2007.
Promotion this season was achieved after Mr Radrizzani invested £100m into its operations over his ownership tenure. A year after buying Leeds, he hired Marcelo Bielsa, one of the world’s most influential football coaches, who has masterminded a sharp improvement in on-pitch results.
Mr Radrizzani, who through his Aser investment group also owns sports broadcaster Eleven Sports and this year launched online pay-per-view entertainments platform, LIVENow, said investors were lining up to back his plans for Leeds.
He claimed to have rejected takeover offers in recent weeks, but is willing to sell a minority stake in the club at a £270m-£300m valuation.
49ers Enterprises, the investment arm of the San Francisco 49ers NFL team, has said it is willing to increase the 10 per cent stake it acquired in Leeds in 2018.
Last year, Qatar Sports Investments, the state-backed group that owns France’s Paris Saint-Germain, also held investment talks with Mr Radrizzani. One adviser to QSI said it continued to be interested in acquiring Leeds outright.
“The 49ers are interested, Qatar is interested, there are other parties interested,” said Mr Radrizzani. “It’s more important to have a shared vision and strategy, that they are comfortable with what I want to build and achieve.”
This includes acquiring more football clubs. Mr Radrizzani said he was evaluating takeovers of other teams in the top divisions of Spain, Italy and Portugal, to create a network of clubs that would develop footballers who could eventually play for Leeds. However, he said talks over an acquisition of Italy’s Genoa are no longer active.
It is a model pioneered by the likes of Abu Dhabi-controlled City Football Group, which owns Manchester City in a portfolio of 10 club investments around the world, while energy drinks manufacturer Red Bull controls teams in Austria, Germany, Brazil and the US.
However, there are more immediate concerns. Mr Bielsa is yet to sign a new management contract for the coming season.
Though Mr Radrizzani said this was a “formality”, he added that the Argentine coach was unwilling to sign long-term employment deals.
“Let’s enjoy the season with him and then we will see where we go,” said Mr Radrizzani.
Having spent around £40m in transfer fees for Spanish forward Rodrigo and German defender Robin Koch this summer, Mr Radrizzani said the club had a budget to spend a further £35m-£50m more on two to three players to bolster its squad.
The spending comes despite straightened times at the club. Leeds made a pre-tax loss of £21.3m in the year to June 30 2019, widening from £4.3m a year earlier.
After the new season kicks off this weekend, games will continue to be played in empty grounds throughout September, with negotiations over the partial reopening of stadiums from October.
Mr Radrizzani said Leeds, which benefits from one of the biggest game attendances in England at its 38,000 seater stadium at Elland Road, had taken a revenue hit worth £30m-£40m because of the inability to have full stadiums throughout most of this year.
The club has sought new sources of income. Shirt sponsorship deals, such as with betting firm SBOTOP, have raised £9m-£10m this season, an increase from just £850,000 last season.
The club is also seeking a so-called factoring deal — borrowing money against its future income from broadcasting rights — to raise a further £30m-£50m.
Mr Radrizzani admitted his bullish belief in the club’s inexorable rise was dependent on “consolidating” its position in the Premier League over the coming years. No easy task given the history of promoted clubs quickly falling out of the Premier League.
But he added: “Why not? We’re now finally starting to play our game.”
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