When New Yorker and Major League Baseball investor Peter Freund first set eyes on Victoria Road, the home of National League Dagenham & Redbridge, he was shocked.
The 6,000 seats in the ground were old and faded, its front building falling apart. Were you to punt a ball over one of the modest little stands, you would either break the window of a local resident or lose it in an accident repair centre. Yankee Stadium it was not.
But something about the place captured his attention, and by the time he had finished watching a video of Dagenham’s 2010 League Two play-off final victory and polished off a few pints in a nearby pub, he was smitten.
Freund is one of a growing number of American investors putting his hard-earned money into the lower leagues of English football.
He was joined on the scene recently by Ohio-based investment fund ORG, which bought a 90% share in Ipswich Town from long-term owner Marcus Evans.
It is clear to see what drew Stan Kroenke, John Henry and the Glazers to the potential riches and recognition on offer in the Premier League, especially in light of recent developments regarding a European Super League.
But what is it about Leyton Orient, Portsmouth, Plymouth, Wycombe and Wrexham – a million miles away from money-spinning breakaway leagues – that is capturing the imagination of American investors?
Authentic and affordable
In general, there are two major factors prompting the current US drive for stakes in England’s lower leagues: affordability and authenticity.
The lack of relegation and promotion in American sport and the eye-watering values of the elite franchises make buying a controlling stake in them out of reach for all but the ludicrously wealthy.
It is the same story in the Premier League, but in the divisions below clubs are attainable for those with millions rather than billions of dollars to their name.
In theory at least, the structure of the sport means there is no limit to the on-field potential of their purchase, with metaphorical ceilings in England made of glass as opposed to concrete.
Promotion and relegation is just one aspect of the rich historical and cultural tapestry of English football that is proving such a seductive draw for Americans.
After all, England has a professional competitive narrative that stretches back 133 years. It is home to the most watched league in the world. It invented the sport.
But no two investments, nor investors, are the same. The best way to understand the reasons why someone from America wants to buy into the English game is to ask them.
The romantic – Peter B Freund
Memphis Redbirds owner and New York Yankees investor Freund is part of a seven-strong consortium also including ex-Everton and USA international goalkeeper Tim Howard which purchased Dagenham & Redbridge in 2018.
“I am a late-to-the-game football fan. I have been an investor in sports for the best part of a decade, predominantly baseball.
“Football has taken hold in the US, way more so than it had in the 1980s and 90s. Some of it has to do with the World Cup (in 1994) but beyond that it is the younger generation, that used to be wearing Yankees jerseys to school and are now wearing Chelsea jerseys.
“I became incredibly passionate about the English football system. I became obsessed, watching Championship matches, Premier League matches, and I thought I might do a minority investment in a Championship club, just to get my feet wet.
“I made several trips with a gentleman called Steve Horowitz from Inner Circle Sport to try and identify some opportunities but nothing really stuck for me. He called me one day and said ‘I think I have the perfect fit for you. It is a smaller club but one that will enable you to really enjoy the authenticity of English football.’
“When I first went out there it was a surprise to me. But I saw this diamond in the rough and a club that could be returned to glory. I saw videos of them getting promoted at Wembley and I thought ‘this is what I want’.
“What I have experienced in the US is that when we make improvements to the ground it is something that our fans really appreciate. During my first fans’ forum at Dagenham, we had replaced all the seats and the very first question asked was ‘we know you’ve spent money here and we appreciate the new seats, but can the seats score goals?’
“The English football culture is that there is always cynicism. Dagenham & Redbridge can trace its history back very far, to the 1800s, so I meet third and fourth generation supporters.
“There is no experience like it in the world – sharing a pint after a match with your supporters. We can either drown our sorrows or celebrate, but either way we are drinking after the match. It is the most authentic sporting experience in the world.
“They say that you never own an English football club; you just steward it for the next person that comes along.”
The fan – Humphrey Ker
Actor, comedian and writer Humphrey Ker is an executive director at Wrexham, working with Hollywood stars Rob McElhenney and Ryan Reynolds, who took over the Welsh club in February.
“I am a writer on a show called Mythic Quest, where I worked for Rob.
“All the writers tend to sit around a table at lunchtime and I would often be at one end of the table, very anti-socially watching football. I would watch a lot of Liverpool games and Rob would, to use an old-fashioned phrase, bust my balls about it, saying ‘this is boring, all they ever do is pass sideways. It is dumb and stupid and I don’t get it.’
“But he started to gravitate more towards it. When the pandemic kicked in I fed him a steady diet of football documentaries that gave him an idea of the tapestry of the whole thing. I slowly worked on him regarding the magic and wonder of football, and in true Rob fashion he tends to grasp things and run with them in a forthright and dynamic way.
“Where I decided to learn German during the pandemic, he decided to buy a football team.
“Rob has a friend in marketing and he texted Ryan to ask him if one of his companies would be interested in becoming front-of-shirt sponsor for this club I am looking to buy. And Ryan came back and said ‘well, yes, but also no as I’d rather be co-owner’.
“Rob had told him the degree to which this was not just an ordinary sport team purchase this was about more than the traditional, beefing one up and selling it for more money. It is more about using a football club as a kind of philanthropic engine. I think that struck a chord with Ryan. He texted back straight away saying ‘I want in’.
“One of the great strengths of our operation is that we know the limits of our knowledge. They are rapidly catching up and starting to understand the intricacies of English lower-league football. I had a bit of a head start as I had been to various of these places.
“The biggest factor is the fans, which is the most pandering answer in the universe but it is true. When we were floundering down at 19th in the National League we were getting 4,500 people a week, which is incredible. That is more than some League Two teams get and was a big, blinking flashing green light saying ‘come here’.
“But that (culture of English football) was the very crux behind this whole thing. Everyone I know in the States who is a big sports fan loves talking about promotion and relegation because it is an incredibly seductive idea to them.
“Rob and Ryan were very much in love with the idea that, whether it is feasible or not, you can go from below where even we are and, with good judgement, resources and luck, you can travel all the way to the top or come all the way in the other direction.”
The pragmatist – Rob Couhig
Former New Orleans Zephyrs baseball team owner Rob Couhig bought a controlling 75% stake in Wycombe from the club’s supporters’ trust in February 2020.
“I was looking for a different type of sports investment. I have been in baseball and soccer in the States and I was not convinced that soccer in America was a worthwhile financial investment. I had as good a time as I could have in baseball to the level at which I could financially participate, which was AAA, right beneath Major League.
“My wife and I like to go to Europe and we looked at numerous countries. At the end of the day I was most comfortable with the English legal system. That stability allowed me to feel comfortable about putting up my money. I knew there were reasonable ways of getting my money back if certain things went wrong.
“I’m not sure the people in the UK realise the global impact they are having with their sport. Even though every country has its own derivation and they play the same game, the scrutiny, the publicity, the attraction of eyeballs to what is going on in the UK is truly unique.
“I did not know where Wycombe was. I went there and truthfully fell in love with the place. It is an ideal set-up for an investor like myself. At the time, I could get on a flight from New Orleans and get off nine hours later after a sleep and go to work. I see it as a working investment.
“I want to achieve something not many people set out as a goal. I want to show you can run a financially sustainable model and perform at at least a Championship level.
“I want it to be the most fan-friendly venue. I want every decision to be made on the basis of whether this is going to produce more revenue at the end of the day and are we going to make a responsible return on our investment.
“A club is going to be there a lot longer than I am, so when I leave I want them to be able to say ‘wow, we had tremendous success on the pitch, but equally as important is that when he left the club it was the most financially secure institution in English football’.
“I wouldn’t say I have met with resistance. I would say there has been scepticism. Probably the biggest cultural divide is when I met with the fans last year and I wanted to play in the Championship, you could hear the murmuring in the background – ‘he doesn’t know what he is talking about; he’s an idiot’.
“Now we are in the Championship and struggling, people are like ‘well, it would have been more fun not to be here’. I don’t understand that culturally. To me, you should always be striving to do better.”
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