When team ownership is a foreign concept

If the Russian metal magnate Mikhail Prokhorov’s bid for 80% of the New Jersey Nets seems landmark for its foreignness, just gaze at the motherland.

In a United Kingdom whose churning internationalism can make the United States seem cloistered by contrast, foreign ownership of the 20 soccer clubs in the globally towering English Premier League has reached quite a juncture: half.

“I’m almost losing track,” said Michael Brunskill of the watchdog group Football Supporters’ Federation.

“A free-for-all at the moment,” said sports-business professor Simon Chadwick of Coventry University.


“A bit of a roller coaster,” said Alex Channon, who cherishes Manchester City and has watched the club’s ownership ricochet to a convicted former prime minister of Thailand and -- thrillingly -- to astronomically rich investors from the United Arab Emirates.

Prokhorov, 44, hopes to become just the second non-North American majority owner of a major North American sports franchise -- Japan’s Hiroshi Yamauchi bought the Seattle Mariners in 1992. But England’s Premier League now has four American owners, one Russian, one Egyptian, one Saudi, one Emirati, one Icelandic and one Carson Yeung of Hong Kong, whose purchase of Birmingham City in October nudged the foreign ownerships number to 10.

In this wild decade, the Portsmouth soccer team on the South Coast has bounced from Serbian-American owners, to French-Israeli-with-Russian-descent, to Emirati for about 10 minutes, to Saudi. Manchester United and Liverpool have gone to Americans who have shoveled onto those legendary teams debts that worry some fans.

As for the East London-based club West Ham, it might take an MBA to discern its ownership, but in a global recession that ravaged Iceland, the club’s ownership seems to have gone from two Icelandic bankers to four Icelandic banks. “No one really knows who owns some of these clubs, which is a ridiculous situation to be in,” Brunskill said.

Infrequently, foreign owners’ names have turned up in news reports alongside “human-rights abuses” and “illegal arms deals.” The Premier League’s evaluation, Chadwick said, asks only, “ ‘Are you solvent? Yes, you are.’ It doesn’t ask, ‘Are you wanted on criminal charges in another country?’ ”

Of course, the Nets have matched an NBA record for failure, with their 0-17 start. The league has hired investigators to study Prokhorov, with his fortune from nickel, palladium and gold. At least 23 of 30 NBA owners must approve the Nets’ sale and in October, Commissioner David Stern hoped and hinted they would.

That approval might produce only shrugs in the U.S., but in England, with no salary cap in the Premiership, the sale of a soccer club to rich foreigners often triggers rapture among fans. When Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich bought London-based Chelsea in 2003 and began a mind-boggling splurge on players, fans envisioned championships.

Channon, 60, has followed Manchester City, often through lean times and always in the shadow of the titanic Manchester United. He runs a fan club. He owns his seat from the club’s former stadium.

In summer 2007, these beyond-loyal Manchester City fans surfed the hopeful wave over the arrival of Thaksin Shinawatra, telecommunications magnate and a Thai prime minister deposed in a military coup in 2006. They dubbed him “Frank” from his surname’s similarity to “Sinatra.”

“I think most football fans, to be honest with you, are just glad to see money come into the club,” Channon said.

Since then, a Thai court sentenced Shinawatra in absentia to a two-year term for conflict of interest, Amnesty International asserted past human-rights abuses, and he sold the club to the Abu Dhabi United Group, which has electrified fans with a splurge for stars and a knack for community involvement.

Meanwhile, some Manchester United fans, despite their 11 domestic and two European titles since 1992, fret over the team’s swelling debt. That debt arrived with Tampa Bay Buccaneers owner Malcolm Glazer’s takeover in 2005.

But that has paled next to the anxiety in Liverpool over the soccer giant’s owners, Tom Hicks (Texas Rangers) and George Gillett (Montreal Canadiens), who have bumbled into unpopularity because, Chadwick said, “They underestimated what it takes to run a Premier League football club.”

Oddly, the cleverest foreign soccer buyer seems to be Randy Lerner, owner of a woebegone NFL franchise, the Cleveland Browns. Since purchasing the historic Birmingham-based club Aston Villa in 2006, Lerner has hired a revered manager, had his club president hunt for advice in fan chat rooms and has signed over jersey sponsorship to a local charity, and the club has nibbled at a coveted top-four slot.

Chadwick praised Lerner because the owner values “the idea of Aston Villa, as a Birmingham club, playing in the English league, as a part of Britain.”

So on a frantic globe, a foreigner thrived by going local.