opinion | In European football, Americans now own the pitch

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Bill Saporito is an editor at Magazine Inc..

When the British government wrested control of Chelsea Football Club from Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich in March, three American corporations quickly emerged as serious bidders for the team. One of them, led by Los Angeles Lakers and Dodgers co-owner Todd Boehly, will now buy Chelsea in a deal worth more than $3 billion. It’s the highest price ever paid for a sports franchise.

American soccer players may not have excelled in England, but American investors have led the table. More than 20 American companies and individuals now either own or have interests in English football teams. That actually outnumbers Americans to play for English clubs.

When it comes to football business, America is Brazil. There are no other people who can organize dealmakers, capital and financial creativity like Americans. Because business is still America’s best game.

The Boehly Group deal is just the latest example of United States dominance in football ownership. Chelsea, a west London team, is a long-time rival of Arsenal, a north London team owned by another American, Stan Kroenke, who also owns the Los Angeles Rams, the Denver Nuggets and the Colorado Avalanche. Crystal Palace in south London is partly owned by Joshua Harris and David Blitzer, who are co-owners of the New Jersey Devils in hockey and the Philadelphia 76ers in basketball. Manchester United is already owned by the Glazer family, who own the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, while Liverpool is owned by the Fenway Sports Group, which also owns baseball’s Boston Red Sox, among others.

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Do you see the game pattern here?

Before the Premier League was organized in 1991, most English teams were owned by local wealthy. They might be good at selling sneakers, beer, or even banking, but they would prove no match for the wave of American venture capitalists, petropotentates, or Russian oligarchs that came their way. Americans sniffed at rising fortunes while others eyed trophies that would help them launder their repressive regimes or kleptocratic fortunes.

What has changed? Maths. As the Premier League became more competitive and popular, the value of its broadcasting rights exploded. Once fans could see their teams anywhere in the world in real time, so did the value of clubs’ brands. What followed was a country frenzy: the Glazer family recognized Man U as underrated. When it gained control of the team in 2005, Man U was underfunded – a status that made the company a ridiculously easy target for an American investor. The Glazers funded their purchase with loans backed by Man U fortune, which enraged fans who still deeply dislike their owners for taking money from a club that is now underperforming.

There are, of course, some ironies in all of this. England is a constitutional monarchy, with supporters demanding a say in how “their” teams are run. Conversely, American owners like Kroenke live in a democracy, but run their franchises much like monarchs once ran their kingdoms. The fans who make up the Arsenal Supporters’ Trust have vocally opposed Kroenke’s takeover of the team, a protest met with the characteristic silence.

Can you imagine Daniel Snyder or Jerry Jones meeting with such a group? Didn’t think so.

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Americanization is not limited to top teams. Shahid Khan, owner of the Jacksonville Jaguars – a classic immigrant success story – owns another London team, newly promoted Fulham, while former Disney boss Michael Eisner owns Portsmouth; Actors Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney are co-owners of Wrexham.

Americanization is not limited to England either. Frank McCourt, a former Dodgers owner, bought Olympique de Marseille – OM – one of the most famous teams in France. In Italy, Elliott Management controls AC Milan after the previous owner defaulted on its €415m debt. Rocco Commisso, the Italian-American founder of Mediacom who played soccer at Columbia University, owns ACF Fiorentina (known as La Viola). Six other clubs in Italy’s top division have American owners.

Sports teams remain an asset class that almost always appreciates in value, so acquisition premiums continue to grow. That means the pool of potential owners, even for smaller teams, is limited to the billionaire class — of which the United States has an outsized supply.

The Americans’ only competitors are bidders from the Middle East, who have unlimited budgets and often exceed them in the hunt for trophies. But the rules are being rewritten to prevent owners like Manchester City’s Sheikh Mansour from far outpacing other clubs for talent. Under European football’s revised ‘financial sustainability’ rules, clubs must spend within their clubs’ ability and not within their owners’ budget.

This also favors the American hedgehogs and their thrift mentality, even if it doesn’t produce championships. That means Chelsea won’t be the last English – or French or Italian – club to be taken over by Americans.

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The English may have invented this wonderful game, but the Americans now own it.

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