In this edition of Scoreboard, we explain how Chelsea and Manchester City have overtaken football’s traditional power teams to contest this year’s Champions League final, look at how North America’s National Basketball Association is deepening ties to Africa, and explain how a tragedy in China threatens the fast-growing sport of long-distance running, and more.
The Uefa Champions League, the pinnacle of European club football, is the trophy every player wants to win. Unsurprisingly, it’s also top of the list for the team owners and investors who pay their wages.
In this year’s final, it’s Manchester City versus London’s Chelsea, Pep Guardiola against rival top manager Thomas Tuchel; Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the Abu Dhabi royal, against Russian-Israeli billionaire Roman Abramovich.
As Richard Masters, chief executive of the English Premier League, quipped this week, at least England is “confident” of a winner in this one after Manchester United’s underwhelming penalty shootout loss against Spain’s Villareal in the final of the Europa League, Uefa’s second-tier competition.
But the meeting of City and Chelsea tells another story: how wealthy owners have gatecrashed a stage dominated by an elite group of European clubs with decades of pedigree in the competition.
It’s only the fifth time since the European Cup was rebranded in 1992-93 that one of the current five most successful clubs in the competition — Real Madrid, AC Milan, Bayern Munich, Barcelona and Liverpool — has failed to feature in the final.
Today’s match is a striking contrast to the 2004 final, the last time one of the five missed out. Seventeen years ago in Gelsenkirchen, Germany, France’s Monaco lost by three goals to Portugal’s Porto, then managed by José Mourinho. Neither side has made it back.
Chelsea and City are anything but underdogs, with a combined net spend of £1.6bn on buying players since their owners took over in 2003 and 2008, respectively.
While many of their rivals are suffering from large debts and lost revenues as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, which has cost Europe’s leading club’s as much as €8.1bn over two seasons, City and Chelsea have continued to strengthen.
According to data website Transfermarkt.com, Chelsea spent more than £220m on players this season. City’s acquisitions cost £150m. No other club spent more than £100m net of players sold.
High-profile academy stars, such as City’s Phil Foden and Chelsea’s Mason Mount suggest that investment in training facilities and coaching is paying off as well.
Domestically, City has won the Premier League three times in the last four seasons, bringing the total to five under Sheikh Mansour’s ownership, while Chelsea claimed the last of its five Abramovich-era titles in 2017. Both clubs have ambitions of replicating that success in Europe.
The signs are ominous for Europe’s old guard.
Dig deeper into the data with the FT’s preview of the Champions League final here.
Living in Los Angeles as a young financier, Tope Lawani said he had “never been so proud to be Nigerian” as he was watching Hakeem Olajuwon lead the Houston Rockets to the National Basketball Association title in 1994.
More than a quarter-century later, the co-chief executive of Canadian private equity firm Helios Fairfax Partners is an investor in a newly created entity, NBA Africa, aiming to develop more high-level basketball programming on and for the continent he calls home.
The new venture, between the NBA, Helios, and Yinka Folawiyo Group, is valued at “nearly $1bn” in enterprise value, according to league commissioner Adam Silver. Investors also include pro basketball stars Dikembe Mutumbo, Luol Deng, Grant Hill, among others.
It isn’t the first international business venture for the North American-based league, which also holds operations in China. Nor is it the league’s first venture into Africa, having already established the Basketball Africa League in co-operation with the sport’s international governing body, FIBA. NBA Africa will oversee the league’s interests in the BAL, whose inaugural season is already underway in Kigali, Rwanda.
Still, NBA Africa is the latest indication of the league’s inclination to welcome private equity investment towards its operations, as firms around the globe increasingly look to investments in sports which tend to outpace average market returns.
Lawani expanded on his firm’s thesis, telling Scoreboard this week that “sports is quite unique, in the sense that it is unscripted and no two games are ever the same. It tells its own story, that’s a feature that is attractive”.
Ultimately, ongoing trends in technology have “atomised” the number of formats for sport consumption, he said.
“You go from having a full game, on TV, at a set hour, [to] you can now break that content into highlights, clips, et cetera and deliver it over all kinds of media”, he said.
In other words, NBA Africa investors are betting there is a growing market for top flight basketball content on the continent, particularly as efforts to expand internet access to “the last billion” humans gets underway. Industry group GSMA projects that the number of mobile internet users in sub-Saharan Africa will nearly double from 272m in 2019 to 475m by 2025.
To be sure, projections are just projections. If the last year has demonstrated anything, nothing is a guaranteed bet. And the NBA knows better than most leagues that expanding overseas is a delicate enterprise, after a 2019 tweet snafu nearly derailed its business in China.
But as sport becomes increasingly global — and as media consumption habits continue to fracture — investment activity in Africa should not be overlooked.
Read the FT’s Big Read from January on efforts to upgrade African internet infrastructure here.
The deaths of 21 runners caught in a sudden storm during an ultra-marathon on a remote Chinese mountain last weekend has sent shudders through China’s booming running industry, writes Christian Shepherd in a special dispatch for Scoreboard from Beijing.
Authorities in charge of the 100km race in Yellow River Stone Forest park, in north-west Gansu province, said the accident was caused by the sudden arrival of gusty winds and lashing rain.
But survivors and Chinese media have blamed the organisers for failures to prepare for extreme events, in an industry that has grown too fast for safety regulations to keep up.
The number of marathons in China has exploded in the last five years after the national sports ministry in 2014 removed requirements for central government approval for so-called “mass participation” sporting events, part of a broader shift to boost consumption and healthy lifestyles.
Event numbers grew from only 51 in 2014 to 1,828 in 2019, according to the Chinese Athletics Association, overtaking the US as the largest national market for races.
Cross-country ultra-marathons account for a relatively small portion of the total, with around 480 such events in 2019, but their popularity has grown as China’s young, sporty and increasingly wealthy urbanites have sought out the novelty of races in far-flung locations.
Chinese ultra runners have also become some of China’s most competitive racers internationally, with many of the country’s best runners coming from humble beginnings.
Liang Jing, who was among those who died in Gansu, was one such runner. After growing up in the countryside in Anhui province, he struggled through a number of odd jobs in Hefei, Anhui’s capital, before becoming China’s top ranked 100km runner.
The shock of losing so many runners has led authorities to call a time out for cross-country races in remote locations, with at least twenty events being cancelled or suspended.
China’s sports ministry has ordered that regulation of races and safety standards be strengthened. Xi Jinping, China’s president, sent a warning to local officials that “human lives come first”.
Even so, international race organisers such as UTMB Group say that the overhaul is more likely to bring much-needed professionalisation rather than putting a halt to China’s cross-country running industry.
Inner city road marathons, which make up the bulk of China’s running industry, are also unlikely to be directly affected by the incident.
The high-level official pressure will mean high levels of scrutiny for anything in the mountains above certain altitudes for the foreseeable future, one industry insider said.
“The fact is that the Gansu race was fairly typical. It’s a small race with pretty good prize money. Local governments want to develop outdoor industries and feel pressure to put on events,” the insider said. “It was bound to happen.”
Today’s all-England Champions League final is also guaranteed an American winner, as US Soccer‘s Zack Steffen and Christian Pulisic take the field for Man City and Chelsea, respectively. This week, US broadcaster CBS Sports went to Pulisic’s hometown of Hershey, Pennsylvania to engage in a little true-or-false about the city’s local star. Did he really take a private jet to his high school prom? Find out here.