America’s most renowned, and often vilified, National Basketball Association (NBA) star is coming to Anfield – as a minority owner. In a first-of-its-kind sports marketing deal, Fenway Sports Management (formerly New England Sports Ventures), the American owners of Liverpool Football Club, announced yesterday that they have sold a minority share in the Reds to Lebron James. In exchange for the ownership stake, FSM – led by John Henry and Tom Werner – will become the exclusive representative for James. FSM will also receive commission on promotional deals they secure for James globally. Other financial details, such as what share in Liverpool FC James received were not disclosed. FSM purchased Liverpool for $488 million last October.
The deal marks the first time an American sports star has taken an ownership share in another sports franchise while still actively playing. However, it brings comparisons to the deal Major League Soccer put in place for David Beckham in coming to America, which guaranteed him future ownership in an MLS franchise. The two parties believe the deal will be mutually beneficial, opening up new revenue opportunities across the globe – specifically in Asia – with FSM’s business savvy, Liverpool’s global reach and James’ star power. Last summers NBA free agent bidding for James in the United States made headlines from Hong Kong to Beijing, where he has been adored and closely followed since the 2008 summer Olympics.
It is the latest in a string of moves by FSM at Liverpool FC. Since last October they have brought in Anfield legend Kenny Dalglish as Manager, Damien Comolli as Director of Football and Ian Ayre as Managing Director. Like James, Ayre and Comolli both have a history and vested interest in Asia, albeit with vastly different results to date. Ayre successfully negotiated a £80 million kit sponsorship deal with Hong Kong-based Standard Chartered Bank as Liverpool’s commercial director and formerly served as COO of Total Sports Asia. Comolli has been encouraged by its current kit sponsor to bring on Asian players and was previously responsible for signing Japanese midfielder Daisuke Matsui during his time at St Etienne and South Korean full-back Young-Pyo Lee while at Tottenham. Both transfers have been widely considered major busts.
As a minority owner of the club, James will not have authoritative power over football decisions, but he will play a major role in marketing the club in Asia and beyond. Henry and Werner plan to continue Liverpool’s hefty marketing efforts in Asia this summer, announcing today that the Reds will be traveling to there this summer for a pre-season tour. The tour, sponsored by Standard Chartered, will include games in China, Malaysia and Korea. James and his business partner Maverick Carter are hungry to grow James’ brand in Asia and other emerging markets, and believe their best bet at growing that brand is on the coattails of Henry, Werner and Liverpool.
So what does this all mean for Liverpool on the field? Globally, they’re likely to see more bandwagon fans in the short term. While this may seem like a negative thing to the most avid Liverpool supporter – who has dedicated their life to following the ups and downs at Anfield – it means more revenue for the club in the long term. With more revenue comes more wage allocation and ultimately quality signings – with a few of them likely coming in Asia.