While riding the subway in New York on Thursday afternoon, I noticed that my phone started to blow up. The Financial Times had just released a video interview between me and star footballer Raheem Sterling in which he said he is keen to leave his club Manchester City to play abroad.
Cue pandemonium from fans on social media. UK newspapers led their back pages on the sport’s next potential blockbuster move. The print edition of the FT, not usually one for transfer gossip, had the scoop at the top of page one. Veteran sportswriter of the Daily Telegraph Paul Hayward wondered if this was “the first time a ‘come-and-get-me-plea’ in old Fleet Street terms has made the front page of the FT?”
The Sterling interview was one of the more unusually eye-catching moments from our inaugural FT Business of Sport US Summit that took place this week (You can rewatch all sessions “on demand” here). But it wasn’t the only news to emerge from conversations with some of the biggest names in global sport. To glean our biggest takeaways from the conference, do read on. — Murad Ahmed, Sports Editor
1. Raheem Sterling sets up football’s next mega-money transfer
Raheem Sterling is sick of warming the bench for the English Premier League champions Manchester City, with Spanish coach Pep Guardiola favouring, among others, the £105m summer signing Jack Grealish so far this season.
“If there was an opportunity to go somewhere else, I’d be open to it at this moment in time,” said Sterling, indicating teams in France and Spain as preferred destinations.
Usually, a declaration like this by one of England’s and the world’s best players would trigger immediate interest from leading clubs. But teams are cutting back spending due to the roughly €8bn they have lost during the pandemic.
Clubs in Europe’s “big five” leagues — England, Germany, Spain, Italy and France — spent close to €3bn in this summer’s transfer window, well off the record €5.5bn set in 2019. Sterling’s playing contract ends in 2023. But he is the sort of exceptional talent that will attract suitors and could overcome a depressed multibillion transfer market.
2. Maverick Carter and LeBron James on the prowl for M&A
SpringHill, the media and entertainment business founded by basketball star LeBron James and longtime business partner Maverick Carter, has been valued at $725m in an investment round with private equity firm RedBird Capital, Nike, Epic Games, and the owners of the Boston Red Sox and Liverpool FC.
Carter said the firm, which produces films like Space Jam: A New Legacy and television for the likes of HBO, Apple, Netflix and others, is now poised for an M&A spree and international expansion. SpringHill has sights set on the UK, Japan and elsewhere, potentially by replicating a playbook they used in Canada, where it partnered with rapper Drake to scout for athletes and subjects whose stories can be told.
He said the new funding round will also help SpringHill take existing programming beyond screens and earphones into merchandise and experiences. “What our partnership with RedBird does is give us the ability to take our existing intellectual property, like [television programme] The Shop from HBO and expand it beyond just a show into products and franchises,” he said.
3. Ari Emanuel’s not done making mega sports deals
In a bravura performance, Ari Emanuel, chief executive of Endeavor, the giant Hollywood talent agency turned owner of sports groups such as the Ultimate Fighting Championships, shared his thoughts on the future of sports business.
Bullish as ever, Emanuel said investors should ignore doomsayers who suggest the value of sports media rights will fall as pay-TV companies, which once relied on screening live matches, suffer a decline in income as viewers switch to streaming services like Netflix.
“The revenue model in sports is just going to go up,” insisted Emanuel.
“Now when gambling comes into the mix, and probably gambling with video games, the economics are going to get pretty steep, pretty quickly.”
That was a reference to how sports leagues, broadcasters and casino operators are rushing to take advantage of the deregulation of sports gambling in the US. And it also explains why Endeavor paid $1.2bn to acquire sports betting platform OpenBet earlier this month. One of the industry’s premier power-brokers indicated there will be big deals to come.
4. DAZN’s new business strategy revealed
For years, global streaming service DAZN had blithely argued it was the “Netflix of Sport”. Detractors asked how it could ever make enough money to recoup the billions of dollars it was spending on top sports broadcast rights.
The company’s new chair, Kevin Mayer, a former top executive at Disney, sketched out a new strategy. First, it would target premium sports rights in Europe, such as screening the English Premier League and Formula One. Though refusing to comment specifically, that revelation effectively confirmed DAZN’s interest in acquiring UK broadcaster BT Sport.
Second, subscription income is not going to be enough. It would search for alternative revenue models, such as diving into sports betting. This explains the hire of Shay Segev, the chief executive of gambling company Entain, to become DAZN’s co-chief executive earlier this year. And last year’s talks to sell DAZN altogether? Those are off, too. The focus, finally, appears to be making DAZN profitable for the first time and a future IPO possible.
The myth of the NFT expert
Sports franchises have rapidly appreciated in value in recent decades, a function of the ever-increasing value of media rights and infrastructure improvements at stadiums and arenas. A mix of new revenue streams is poised to yield still further returns for club owners, among them the relatively recent introduction of NFTs, or non-fungible tokens, which are already revolutionising the market for sports collectibles.
Still, league officials like National Football League chief revenue officer Renie Anderson argue that no one has completely cracked the code on integrating blockchain technology into the existing business model. Anyone in sports who claims to be an NFT expert, she said, “is a liar”.
In the future, leagues such as the NFL may be able to place game highlights and other content on the blockchain’s ledger, giving viewers more access to favourite moments. But for now, “television isn’t going away and free TV isn’t going away”, said Anderson. “It is a great way to bridge that relationship with fans, but I do not think it is going away.’
Jon Gruden resigned as coach of the NFL’s Las Vegas Raiders after the Wall Street Journal and New York Times each reported that he had made racist, homophobic and misogynistic comments about various people around the National Football League in emails over the past decade.
Brooklyn Nets star Kevin Durant and Utah Jazz owner Ryan Smith are backing the merger of SeatGeek, an online search engine for event tickets, with RedBall Acquisition Corp, the blank cheque company co-chaired by Gerry Cardinale and Billy Beane of Moneyball fame. Altogether, SeatGeek is valued at $1.35bn including debt.
Uefa is searching for a new partner to sell the rights to the Champions League, its flagship competition, and other tournaments. Previously, European football’s governing body has worked with Swiss group Team Marketing to sell commercial agreements related to the tournament. But the new approach, in partnership with the European Club Association, signals how top clubs will get more power over how Uefa competitions are organised in future.
Arctos Sports Partners, the private equity firm, raised more than $2.1bn for its first flagship fund, as it looks to step up its investment into sports teams and leagues. The group already owns stakes in Liverpool owner Fenway Sports Group, and NBA basketball teams the Golden State Warriors and the Sacramento Kings.
The women’s Tour de France revealed a new eight-stage route next year, seeking to raise the profile of women’s cycling which has long been in the shadow of men’s road racing. Organiser Amaury Sporting Organisation has signed up Discovery and NTT as broadcast and technology partners.
Barney Francis has been hired to head the global production business of IMG, the talent agency owned by Endeavor. Francis has previously been among the most powerful executives in UK sports broadcasting as the former managing director of Sky Sports.
Simon Massie-Taylor was named the new chief executive of Premiership Rugby, the English club competition in which private equity firm CVC Capital Partners has a 27 per cent stake. He leaves his role as chief commercial and marketing officer at the Rugby Football Union, the English governing body, and replaces Darren Childs, who stepped down earlier this year.
IT’S TIME TO POP SOME BOTTLES!
— Tyler Milliken (@tylermilliken_) October 12, 2021
Baseball’s World Series begins later this month, and the Boston Red Sox are continuing a Cinderella run towards the championship. After just eking out a spot in the playoffs on the final day of the regular season, they won a one-off wild-card matchup against their arch-rival New York Yankees before going on to defeat the Tampa Bay Rays in the next round. Maybe more surprising was the team’s choice of celebratory music, Swedish pop star Robyn‘s “Dancing On My Own”. The Red Sox can be seen dancing to track in the clubhouse here.
Scoreboard is written by Samuel Agini, Murad Ahmed and Arash Massoudi in London, Sara Germano, James Fontanella-Khan, and Anna Nicolaou in New York, with contributions from the team that produce the Due Diligence newsletter, the FT’s global network of correspondents and data visualisation team