Jan 31, 2023
Italy’s Serie A Football League Starts to Lure Wall Street
(Bloomberg) -- Italy’s Serie A has begun attracting major international lenders and private equity giants, as the iconic football league looks to shore up its finances after struggling for years to find backers.
Serie A, home to stars including Lautaro Martinez and Theo Hernandez, has recently received expressions of interest for financing its media business from backers including Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase & Co, and Deutsche Bank, according to people familiar with the matter.
Citigroup Inc., Apollo Global Management Inc., Carlyle Group Inc. and Searchlight Capital Partners, have also been linked, according to a report from Il Sole 24 Ore on Tuesday.
Investors have been increasingly eager to finance the media businesses of European football leagues, in a bid to tap into lucrative broadcasting revenues. In late 2021, Luxembourg-based CVC Capital Partners struck a €2 billion ($2.2 billion) agreement with Spain’s LaLiga, investing in a newly-created company that gives it a share of broadcast revenue. In return, clubs in Spain’s first and second divisions get money to invest in infrastructure, but also to repay debt and sign players.
Germany’s professional football body Deutsche Fussball Liga GmbH is also getting ready to restart talks with private equity firms about the sale of a package of media rights, Bloomberg reported on Monday.
Serie A has received seven expressions of interest and will meet within the next two weeks with possible bidders, the league’s Chief Executive Officer Luigi De Siervo said in an interview with state broadcaster Rai. Chairman Lorenzo Casini will also attend the meetings, with the executives due to report back to the league’s assembly on Feb. 24, De Siervo added.
“There’s a basic shortage of liquidity among Italian clubs, with the exception of some like Napoli and Fiorentina,” said Andrea Sartori of Football Benchmark, the sports business consultant. “Ultimately any funds raised by the league will be distributed to the clubs. They would find it much harder to raise debt individually.”
Serie A was once seen as the world’s leading football league, boasting legends of the game including Paolo Maldini and Alessandro Del Piero, but has suffered from years of financial neglect. Revenue for the Covid 19-affected 2020/2021 season was around €2.5 billion, according to Deloitte, while England’s Premier League generated more than twice as much.
A separate effort to sell a $2 billion stake in a company that would house its media rights collapsed in 2021, after failing to win over enough clubs. The investment attracted a number of suitors, including Advent International, CVC Capital Partners and Italy’s FSI fund.
Many of the top Italian clubs have built up debt, including Inter Milan at €350 million of net financial debt, according to figures compiled by Football Benchmark. AS Roma had debts of €281.3 million at the end of the 2020/21 season, and Juventus €153 million at the end of the 2021/22 season, according to the latest available figures.
The league has also had to face yet another scandal involving Juventus Football Club SpA — one of it’s most successful teams and owned by the billionaire Agnelli family — after Italy’s football federation docked 15-points following an investigation into accounting practices.
The move by international banks and funds into Serie A could provide further impetus to a trend among Italian teams of purchasing more player abroad due to fiscal benefits, Marco Valdonio, a partner at the Maisto e Associati tax-law firm, said in a phone interview.
“Italian law, under certain conditions, allows a 50% tax cut on salary withholdings when clubs buy players from outside the country,” he said. That’s of particular interest to private equity firms which generally focus on profit growth and cost cutting, he said. The impact is all the more pronounced in the football world, where salaries are negotiated on a net basis, meaning the entire cost of withholding taxes is borne by the club, Valdonio said.
The Italian league will later this year kick off an auction for broadcast rights to its next three seasons. DAZN Group Ltd in 2021 won the rights to become the main domestic broadcaster for the league, beating out Comcast Corp.’s Sky for a contract that includes about €2.5 billion in payments over its three-season lifespan.
(Additional context from paragraph 10.)
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