Silver Lake bets on British soccer

manchestercity

Silver Lake’s expensive foray into British soccer reflects the soaring value of live matches in the streaming era and the potential for new apps to cash in on the global following of teams like Manchester City.

The U.S. private equity firm is buying just over 10% of City owner City Football Group Ltd. for around $500 million, the companies said Wednesday, valuing the group controlled by Abu Dhabi’s royal family at $4.8 billion. That’s one of the highest-ever price tags for a professional sports organization.

Silver Lake is best known for tech investments such as Dell Technologies Inc. and China’s Alibaba Group Holding Ltd., and could bring that expertise to the English Premier League club.

While the big clubs still make most of their money from broadcast rights and merchandising, they’re looking for ways to use technology to sell privileged access to fans.

Some have developed apps showing exclusive content such as player interviews, short documentaries, press conferences and even match highlights. A platform developed recently by London’s Chelsea Football Club found an enthusiastic audience.

Manchester City demonstrated the potential value of behind-the-scenes content last year when it partnered with Amazon.com Inc.’s Prime Video streaming service for an eight-part documentary charting the path to its 2018 title win.

“There are large international audiences and fan bases for Premier League clubs, particularly in Asia,” said Richard Broughton of Ampere Analysis. “There is potentially a large and arguably under-served opportunity outside the U.K. – albeit at a lower price point.”

The bigger teams will have to tread a careful path, offering enough to entice fans without upsetting the leagues that bring them TV revenue.

Income from sports broadcasts has been surging since media companies latched onto the live events as one of the remaining ways to bring in advertisers, which are increasingly moving online. The emergence of the big U.S. streaming platforms in rights contests has helped to buoy valuations for the most sought-after content.

The Silver Lake deal values the business above some of the world’s top sports names including the New York Yankees baseball team, worth $4.6 billion, and basketball giants the New York Knicks, at $4 billion, according to Forbes estimates.

Few TV shows can match the audience pulling power of a big live sporting clash. Manchester City was the world’s fifth-highest revenue generating soccer club in the 2017/18 season, according to a study by Deloitte, following a strong run of success in domestic and European competitions.

Comcast Corp.’s European pay-TV unit Sky has said recent Premier League audiences were 23% higher than last season.

“We remain very optimistic for continued increases in global football broadcast rights,” said Manchester United’s Vice Chairman Ed Woodward in an earnings call with analysts last week.

Private-equity investors have long been drawn to sports clubs and agencies. Last year, Apax Partners LLP agreed to acquire data and technology company Genius Sports, fresh on the heels of a purchase by Canada Pension Plan Investment Board and private equity firm TCV of a minority stake in Sportradar AG, another sports data analysis firm. Providence Equity Partners sold its interest in Major League Soccer’s media and marketing arm back to the league in 2017, tripling its initial investment in Soccer United Marketing.

Silver Lake is plowing more money into sports and entertainment, including an investment in Endeavor Group Holdings Inc., which runs sports leagues, hosts fashion events and represents top athletes and entertainers.

The valuation attributed to Manchester City means that it eclipses famous cross-town rival Manchester United, whose shares are listed in the U.S.

Manchester United’s market capitalization is about $2.75 billion, although “any bid by a company wanting immediate exposure in Asia would generate a significant premium if the controlling Glazer family ever decided to sell,” said John Tinker, a media analyst at Gabelli & Co.

City Football Group plans to use the deal funds to expand its business overseas and develop technology and infrastructure assets, according to a statement. No existing shareholders sold their stake, and Abu Dhabi United Group remains the majority shareholder.

Bloomberg News