If you've thought about buying yourself an English Premier League soccer team over the past few years, the chances are you're wealthy and foreign. Overseas investors have bagged seven of the country's top-flight teams in the last five years, from the $218 million that Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich found for London club Chelsea in 2003, to the $1.4 billion shelled out for Manchester United a couple of years later by U.S. tycoon Malcolm Glazer (owner of the NFL's Tampa Bay Buccaneers). The investors' goal: to score a slice of the richest soccer league in the world. Buoyed by rising broadcast revenues and a lucrative fan base swelling from the U.S. to Asia, the 20 teams in English football's top league netted some $2.5 billion in revenues during the 2005/6 season. That's almost triple the levels of a decade earlier.
But not everyone's reveling in the good times. "Clubs are sitting in a pet shop window with a 'for sale sign'," laments Rogan Taylor, a Liverpool fan for almost half a century and the director of the Football Industry Group at the University of Liverpool. "[They] are not just businesses but much more important cultural and social assets for individual places ... This isn't the way these grand institutions should be traded." But with Liverpool among the Premier League's foreign-owned teams Tom Hicks, owner of baseball's Texas Rangers, and George Gillett, owner of the Montreal Canadians hockey franchise, snapped up the club in February 2007 Taylor's trying to bring the merry-go-round to a halt. His message to the team's fans: "If [they] care enough about that, there's something they can do about it."
And he's not into half measures, either. Taylor, a founder of England's Football Supporters' Association in the mid-80s, is calling on 100,000 Liverpool fans anywhere to each chip in $10,000 toward the cost of buying back the club and footing the bill for a new stadium. In return, individual fans limited to a single share in the business would each vote to elect executives to run the club. It's a model of ownership popular on the continent: Spanish soccer giants Barcelona are among several top-flight teams in the country to be owned by its fans.
A day after the launch of shareliverpoolfc.com, the website where fans can register their interest in eventually putting up cash, it's difficult to gauge the appetite for a buyout among the club's 25 million supporters worldwide. Overwhelmed by visitors the site was attracting a thousand hits a second its pages crashed out of action seven minutes after going online, but was back up Friday afternoon.
But while the level of fans' financial interest isn't yet clear, their unrest is palpable. "We have been in this business for years," Hicks told TIME shortly after buying Liverpool last year. "All team owners go through a learning curve at how to be a good owner. We both have done that ... fans want stability. Players want stability." In truth, it hasn't really worked out like that. A public spat with Rafael Benitez, Liverpool's Spanish team manager and a favorite among supporters, has done nothing for the American owners' own fan base in the city. Uncertainty over the club's ownership Dubai International Capital, which offered $300 million for the club before Hicks and Gillett swooped with a better offer, was reportedly preparing a fresh bid just last month hasn't helped, either. The result: three quarters of fans polled by the Liverpool Supporters' Network in January said they'd consider cutting back on spending on club tickets and merchandising so long as the U.S. duo were in charge.
Right now, there's no sign of that changing. "Liverpool football club is not for sale," maintains a spokesman for Hicks. (The club itself isn't commenting.) And last week, the owners agreed to some $700 million in refinancing, hinting at a longer-term commitment. For Taylor who's not had any contact with either Liverpool owner about his scheme picking up a private business that's not up for grabs in the first place seems like a pretty high hurdle. And even among Liverpool's legendarily large fan base, finding so many with enough money to pony up won't be easy. For now, though, Taylor's undeterred. "This is a market test. I don't know how widespread and deep the appetite might be," he says. "There's only one way to find out." Other goals could be within closer range. The financial target might be high, agrees Joe McLean, a partner at business advisory firm Grant Thornton, but Taylor's scheme "could produce some economic and political pressure on the board," he says. That might prompt the board to add a fan member of the scheme to its ranks. And if you can't become a club owner, sitting alongside one could well be the next best thing.