The landscape of multi-club organisations (MCO) across global and European football continues to grow as ownership groups constantly seek opportunities to gain and build on their competitive advantages. According to Sportsology Group research, over one-third of teams in Europe’s Big 5 leagues are involved in multi-club networks and the number of clubs involved in MCOs has more than doubled since 2020. In an ever-evolving regulatory environment, the model continues to offer new opportunities for organisations to gain a competitive edge and, therefore, will continue to grow and mature.
Despite the constant growth, UEFA’s Article 5 Integrity of the competition / multi-club ownership has limited any individual or legal entity from having “control or decisive influence” over more than one club participating in a UEFA club competition. This regulation was introduced in 1998 on the back of the ENIC Group case involving AEK Athens and SK Slavia Prague and had been challenged only once since, albeit successfully, in 2017 with the Red Bull Group case involving RasenBallsport Leipzig e.V. and FC Red Bull Salzburg.
Just last week, however, UEFA’s Club Financial Control Body accepted the admission of two clubs from three separate multi-club ownership groups (Aston Villa FC and Vitoria Sport Clube; Brighton & Hove Albion FC and Royale Union Saint-Gilloise; AC Milan and Toulouse FC) to the UEFA club competitions for the 2023/24 season. Whilst each of these groups undertook “significant changes” to the ownership structures of one of their clubs, and will have to limit cooperation until 2024, this ruling will be seen as a precedent for MCO strategies other groups look to pursue.
The added layer of competition restructuring from the 2024/25 season which will no longer see any cross-feeding between UEFA club competitions (ie: clubs that qualify for one UEFA competition will not drop into a different UEFA competition in the same season) limits the potential for conflicts and therefore opens up more opportunities for multi-club strategies to be pursued. The question that is therefore posed is: what are these opportunities?
Wider Scope of Club Acquisition Opportunities
Under previous rules, no individual or legal entity could hold control or influence over more than one club that accessed UEFA competition. This effectively either limited the addressable market of clubs to acquire for investors/clubs looking to build a multi-club model or placed a “glass ceiling” on the sporting performance of all but one club within the structure.
The precedent from each of the three recent cases, even more so than the Red Bull case given the specific limitations of cooperation that UEFA has outlined in their press release, along with imminent change of UEFA club competition structure in 2024/25 will allow investors pursuing a MCO model to cast a wider net in terms of acquisition opportunities.
One of the key considerations groups have had to take into account in building multi-club network has been the rise in fan protests at clubs that are perceived to be “secondary” or “tertiary” in a wider structure. With the right governance and ownership structures now, however, this offers an opportunity to groups to mitigate this key risk.
Driving Performance to Achieve Financial Sustainability
The vast majority of football clubs across European Football continue to be loss-making entities. Outside of the Premier League, the two leagues that have seen the highest penetration of cross-country multi-club influence are France’s Ligue 1 and Belgium’s Pro League. 50% of clubs across these two leagues are involved in multi-club structures. In 2021/22 every club in Ligue 1 posted an operating loss whilst just five Belgian Pro League clubs returned a positive net financial result over the last five-year aggregate period.
Inevitably, for these clubs to achieve financial sustainability there will need to be wholesale changes to how these clubs are run. Even then, though, the reality is that these clubs are heavily reliant on two levers to look to grow their revenue: (1) income from player trading and (2) revenue from UEFA club competition.
For clubs outside of the traditional Big 5 leagues, revenues from UEFA competition represent upwards of 25% of total revenue. Access to UEFA competition is not only a direct contributor to a club’s top line but also raises the baseline of average player value allowing clubs to generate incremental revenue in the player trading market.
Building beyond a single point of failure
A common pitfall we have seen in multi-club structures looking to build a larger player trading system is the reliance on a single point of failure. This occurs when the sole purpose of a club acquisition is to recruit and/or develop talent to move to an anchor or halo club.
Our analysis shows that the sole reliance on intra-group transactions leads to a decline in financial performance and a key driver of success is building multiple points of exit for talent to generate player trading revenue.
Without needing to limit the sporting performance of clubs within a multi-club organisation, the baseline average player value can be increased across multiple clubs and therefore allow the wider organisation to create and capture player value from various points of exit.
Pitfall in MCO structures has been a single point of failure where groups look to fully integrate clubs in pursuit of promoting talent within the wider organisation. Our analysis shows that the sole reliance on intra-group transactions leads to a decline in financial performance and a key driver of success is building multiple points of exit for talent to generate revenue.
By breaking the “glass ceiling” on performance, clubs can compete and increase the baseline of player values.
Ultimately, the new precedent set and upcoming changes to UEFA club competition structure do not simplify any of the challenges organisations must navigate in developing and executing upon multi-club structures. However, the introduction and evolution of regulations such as GBE criteria, non-EU player limits, financial sustainability requirements, and loan limits create an increasingly complex operating environment for football clubs that continues to offer opportunities for clubs to gain an edge.
Within the context of multi-club structures, rather than starting from the question, “Should we be developing a multi-club strategy?” Our approach has been to assess the challenges and constraints an organisation faces within its operating environment to determine whether multi-club can be a means to capitalise on an opportunity.