The Definitive Guide to Multi Club Ownership, Episode 1: Introduction and The Pozzos

I first took an interest in Multi Club Ownerships (I like to refer to them as MCOs) back in the summer of 2012 when the Pozzo family completed their takeover of the team I support – Watford. Obviously wanting to do some research on the new owners, I looked around and found they’d been very successful with their model, which in turn made me wonder why MCOs weren’t widespread. This has changed significantly within the last five years and MCOs are quietly beginning to creep into mainstream football, and I strongly believe that whether you like the idea or not, they are here to stay and will form the future of football.

But what exactly is an MCO and what are the benefits of such a system? A multi club ownership is where an individual or company owns multiple football clubs, often in different countries. The reasoning behind each MCO differs greatly, but ultimately comes down to one factor – money.

There’s numerous ways clubs using the multi club model can benefit financially from such a system, and brand awareness is a huge factor. The football market is huge and growing quickly, and with masses of fans in Africa and the Far East wanting to support a “top” team, big clubs are starting their own teams in these areas to help push their club brand. This also has the added benefit of potentially spotting a future superstar, saving the club millions in potential transfer fees, which brings me nicely to the next reason for owning multiple clubs – player development.

Football players are more valuable than ever so it’s no wonder that owners are wanting to protect their investments and future source of income. Imagine if a top club has an 18-year-old prospect that’s not quite up to the level of the first team. Currently they could send him on loan to a club, but he might not suit the new team’s system or may not get game-time which could hinder their development, thus cutting into the potential value of the player. With an MCO, the player could be sent out to another club within the owner’s system, allowing his development to be monitored “in-house”.

However, alongside the advantages, there are disadvantages to the system. Existing fans of a club that has just been bought may not like having their club labelled as a “feeder” club, and the new owners may even want to rename the club or the ground (as seen with the Red Bull teams) which is unlikely to win them fan approval. There’s also the point of view that it’s another nail in the coffin for traditional football, with commercialism embedding itself deeper into the culture of the game.

This series will investigate each MCO that is present in football at the moment along with what purpose they’re serving, and my predicted future for each group, starting with the Pozzos.

The Pozzo Group

In 1986, Italian businessman Giampaolo Pozzo purchased his lifelong team, Udinese Calcio. The first few years of his ownership weren’t easy with implications in match fixing scandals and relegation battles. The next few years were spent as a yoyo club, bouncing between Serie A and B with little direction, however that soon changed in 1993 when Giampaolo’s son, Gino, joined the club. It was his son’s idea that would really take the club forward. As the Pozzos weren’t particularly wealthy, and couldn’t compete financially with most clubs in Serie A, he realised they needed to do things a bit differently. His idea was to set up a massive worldwide scouting network, to find young talented footballers before others beat them to it. These youngsters would help Udinese on the pitch, but then when bigger clubs came knocking, they would happily sell them on (providing the price was right). The profits from this would then be invested in more young players, meaning that when one player was sold, somebody equally as talented would be ready to take their place.

The list of players that they have “discovered” is extraordinary, and includes: Alexis Sanchez (plucked from the Chilean league for just £500k), Samir Handanović (bought on a free), Mehdi Benatia (bought on a free), Asamoah Gyan, Odion Ighalo, Sulley Muntari, Oliver Bierhoff and Gokhan Inler to name a few.

They focused on scouting undervalued markets such as Africa, Eastern Europe and South American countries such as Colombia and Chile. This allowed them to keep outgoing fees low as buying a player from a club in Colombia would cost significantly less than a player of equal ability from a country such as Brazil or Argentina.

The system was such a success that they soon had too many talented players waiting for their shot in Europe, so the next logical step was to buy a new club to send players out on loan to. Keeping with the careful financial approach they used for buying players, they applied the same methods for purchasing a new club, so in 2009 they purchased debt-ridden (and close to administration) Granada who were in the 3rd tier of Spanish football. An influx of loan players (10 in total) made their way to Granada and they sealed promotion moving up to the Segunda division. More loans made their way to Granada including the likes Allan Nyom (now at West Brom), Luis Muriel (Sampdoria), Guilherme Siqueira (Valencia) to join the likes of Odion Ighalo (Changchun Yatai) who were already there. Granada finished 5th and ended up beating Elche in the play-off final courtesy of an Ighalo goal, sealing their promotion into La Liga for the first time in the club’s history.

The model was proven to be a success once again, so the Pozzos set their sights higher – both clubs and the transfer model could be taken to new levels if they could have a club that was earning plenty of money to help bankroll the operation. Naturally they set their sights upon purchasing a club in England due to the huge TV rights deal that was about to be put into place, so in the summer of 2012 they purchased Championship side Watford for a deal believed to be in the region of £12m.

Again an influx of players joined on loan (12 from Udinese and 2 from Granada) as Watford narrowly missed out on promotion in their debut season of Pozzo ownership (losing to Crystal Palace in the play-off final) and would take another 2 seasons before promotion to the Premier League was gained.

Sadly for the Pozzos the footballing landscape has changed significantly over the last few years, teams are less willing to fork out the transfer fees they once were and are now chasing players at younger ages from further afield – stepping on the Pozzos feet in the process. It is probably the reason why the Pozzos decided to sell Granada to a Chinese investment group in the summer of 2016 (not before transferring 2 of their brightest prospects – Isaac Success and Adalberto Peñaranda to Watford first).

The Pozzos have had to adopt a different transfer strategy with Watford than they have with Udinese and Granada – the Premier League is simply too competitive with too much at stake to field a team mostly made of young talented prospects, so they’ve built a team of decent seasoned pros instead. In the future as Watford become more established in the Premier League I fully expect them to invest in some talented youth players, and use Udinese to prepare them for football at a higher level. They can also use Watford’s significant income to buy players who were previously financially out of the reach of Udinese (such as the transfer of Sven Kums to Watford from Gent for €10m last summer, who then instantly went to Udinese on loan).

The Pozzos have shown themselves as shrewd owners who are always one step ahead of the competition, and I expect both Udinese and Watford to thrive under their ownership for years to come.

Join me in Episode 2 as I investigate the behemoth that is the City Football Group, and whilst you wait for that, make sure you give me a follow on Twitter (@From_The_Wing).

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