Last June, a press release from Olympique Lyonnais (OL) announced that the club owned by French businessman Jean Michel-Aulas since 1987 would be purchased by American businessman John Textor. The new owner promised to compete with Paris-Saint-Germain's domination, stating in a press conference that he has "invested [his] own funds." Of the 523 million euros obtained, Mr. Textor is already planning on injecting 86 million in the summer transfer window. Mr. Aulas is expected to remain OL's president for the next three seasons, but he is no longer the majority shareholder.
This takeover is part of a pattern that has been observed for 10 years now in French professional football: a wealthy foreign investor coming in to take over a club's ownership.
Ligue 1 club owners
Saint-Etienne, Bordeaux and Metz were relegated this year. Toulouse, Ajaccio, and Auxerre were promoted from Ligue 2.
- Various motives: diplomacy, business, or sporting results
In France, the year 2011 was marked by the purchase by investors of two of the biggest Ligue 1 clubs. They had deep pockets and planned to inject financial sums unheard of in the French league. In 2011, Colony Capital, the majority shareholder of Paris-Saint-Germain with more than 95 % of the shares, was losing money. The fund sold 70% of its shares to Qatar Sports Investment, part of the nation's sovereign wealth fund. The nation uses football's soft power to improve its reputation. During the 2010-2011 season, PSG's budget was almost doubled, from 80 to 150 million euros, and has not stopped rising since.
In 2011, the Principality of Monaco sold two-thirds of the shares of AS Monaco to Russian businessman Dmitri Rybolovlev for one symbolic euro, after several refusals. At the time, according to an administrator of the Monegasque club, the princely family did not want to continue to "totally finance the club," whose accounts were in bad shape. The Russian businessman's investments eventually paid off and transformed Monaco into a top club, upon its return to Ligue 1 in the 2013-2014 season, at which point the club's budget was increased by 100 million euros.
- A decade-long race
While French professional clubs have increased their budgets over the years, the gradual arrival of foreign investors has more than doubled the average budget of clubs in Ligue 1, which have risen from €52 million in 2011 to €116 million in 2022.
Today, the top five Ligue 1 budgets (Paris, Lyon, Marseille, Monaco and Lille) belong to teams owned by foreign investors: Americans, Russians, Luxembourgers or Qataris. In 2022, foreign capital will represent three quarters of the total budget of Ligue 1 clubs.
French professional football is being outbid financially by foreign investors, just like the English Premier League or the Italian Serie A, which are also coveted by foreign capital. While this was still impossible 20 years ago, in the early days of football as business, the gaps are widening between clubs in the same division, like the giant PSG and its 620 million euros against AC Ajaccio – which is moving to Ligue 1 next season – and its 8.5 million euros last season, although a relative increase in the budget was confirmed by the club's president. The combined budget of Ligue 1 clubs in 2000 was 915 million euros, compared to nearly 2.4 billion euros next season. The combined budget of Ligue 1 clubs in 2000 was 915 million euros, compared to nearly 2.4 billion euros next season.
Foreign capital represents three-quarters of the total budget of Ligue 1 clubs.
Ligue 1 clubs budgets for the 2021-22 season. In green, foreign-owned clubs, and in yellow, French-owned clubs
These amounts make it increasingly difficult for small clubs to keep up with the level of financial competition. For example, Angers SCO, which is experiencing budget difficulties and is under scrutiny by French football's financial authorities, will have to change its majority shareholder in order to reclaim management of the club. On May 18, Saïd Chabane told his employees that he would sell his shares, probably to American investment group GFC, for between 65 and 75 million euros, according to L'Equipe.
- Buying a club: a risky investment
The takeover of French clubs by foreign capital has followed the same pattern for the last 10 year. Clubs with declining performances (PSG, Bordeaux...) or in a poor financial situation (Angers, Monaco...) are bought by investors hoping to move them up in the rankings.
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These buyouts are not safe investments for investors, but rather bets on the future of the clubs, as was the case with Girondins de Bordeaux, which, despite a large recent financial injection, failed to stay in first division. On the other hand, the 100 million euros in revenue that PSG received in the 2010-2011 season has turned into 556 million for the 2020-2021 season under the leadership of the club's president, Nasser Al-Khelaïfi, in the form of television rights, along with ticket and merchandise sales.
While foreign capital has been pouring in to buy French professional clubs over the past decade, French investors are losing interest in foreign sports clubs. Under Mr. Aulas' ownership, OL Group did acquire the Seattle Reign, the club where Megan Rapinoe plays. But now, the group is now owned by John Textor.
Translation of an original article published in French on lemonde.fr; the publisher may only be liable for the French version.
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