A Niche London Firm Outplayed JPMorgan in Super League Battle

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The fight for the future of European soccer was also a battle between two very different types of financial players.

On one side stood the venerable Wall Street giant JPMorgan Chase & Co., bankrolling a debt-driven, multi-billion euro plan to form a breakaway European Super League. Lining up against them was a boutique financial firm with links to some of the world’s richest and most liquid investors and a proposal to invest in a revamped UEFA Champions League soccer tournament.

Centricus Asset Management may be little-known outside financial circles, but amid the sound and fury of the rebel league’s unveiling it emerged as the source of a 6 billion euro ($7.2 billion) counter-proposal. The prospect of that strategic financing gave UEFA, the body in charge of European soccer, a stronger hand as it sought to stave off the American-backed Super League.

It’s an amount that could rise even higher after UEFA approved plans to revamp its the annual Champions League competition, people familiar with the matter have said, asking not to be identified discussing confidential information.

A new-look Champions League may need to be underpinned by Centricus’s billions, ensuring that global investors will play a key role in the next phase of soccer’s development, despite fan outrage over the role of money in the Super League saga.

Based in discreet offices neighboring St. James’s Palace in London, Centricus oversees $30 billion of assets. Its website lists just 21 bankers. That’s a far cry from the heft of JPMorgan, which has more than $3.7 trillion of assets under management and more than 250,000 employees.

While it isn’t yet clear which investors are behind the Centricus bid, the firm’s ability to draw on a waterfall of global capital shows how the world of finance has shifted just as much as soccer in recent decades.

High Profile

Whereas previously only a handful of global banks -- including JPMorgan -- would have been able to corral and deploy such cash, the rise of sovereign wealth funds and family offices as independent investors has made outfits such as Centricus increasingly prominent.

“We estimate that the ultra-high net worth community has wealth of at least $10 trillion globally, while their family offices hold more than $6 trillion in assets under management,” said Rebecca Gooch, director of research at Campden Wealth.

For its part, Centricus’s latest annual report says the firm “is backed by a broad range of sophisticated, long-term global investors.” A company representative declined to comment.

The firm operates at the intersection of modern global tech, culture and luxury: From 2016 Centricus played a key role advising SoftBank Group Corp. on the creation of its $100 billion Vision Fund; in 2019 it bought a 68-room luxury Italian hotel, the Capri Palace, where guests have included Oprah Winfrey and Leonardo DiCaprio; last year it submitted several offers to buy the U.S. operations of TikTok, the social media firm owned by China’s Bytedance Ltd.

It has its origins in 2016, when former Goldman Sachs Group Inc. partner Dalinc Ariburnu and Nizar Al-Bassam, an ex-Deutsche Bank AG investment banker, joined forces with Michele Faissola to start F.A.B. Partners. Faissola quickly departed amid an Italian criminal probe related to his time at Deutsche Bank, and has been CEO of a Qatari royal family office called Dilmon since January 2018, according to his LinkedIn profile. He has denied wrongdoing and is appealing a 2019 verdict, with a new trial to come.

F.A.B. expanded through the purchase of private debt manager CIFC for $333 million in 2016, then rebranded as Centricus in 2017 when it bought Halkin Asset Management.

Centricus began working with SoftBank in 2016, when former colleague and Vision Fund head Rajeev Misra asked for help finding financing.

The firm helped cement the investment by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund — a deal hashed out in October of that year when Mohammed bin Salman, then the country’s deputy crown prince, met with SoftBank founder Masa Son in Tokyo. Abu Dhabi followed with a $15 billion investment from its wealth fund Mubadala Investment Co.

Centricus also advised SoftBank on its $3.3 billion deal for Fortress Investment Group LLC and teamed up with Son on a failed bid to start a 24-team soccer tournament with FIFA. The firm also was brought in to help raise capital for a second Vision Fund, Bloomberg reported in mid-2019.

Yet its proposed deal with UEFA is arguably Centricus’s most high-profile yet, potentially placing the firm at the center of the world’s most popular sport. That brings its own challenges.

“The size of the business of sport versus the amount of media attention is extraordinary,” said Marc Ganis, founder and president of consulting firm Sportscorp. Ltd. “Rabid fan bases, media focus and politics makes operating such businesses much more complex.”

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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