JPMorgan Gets Caught Up in Europe’s Big Soccer League Blunder

Funding a revolution is always a risky business, and one of the world’s largest banks is now exposed to a very public defeat in the emotional arena of soccer.

JPMorgan Chase & Co. agreed to back Europe’s breakaway league to the tune of 4 billion euros ($4.8 billion). The plan was to create a new competition that would guarantee games and revenue for the participating clubs for years to come, and help embed the U.S. financier at the center of the most popular sport on the planet.

The size of the proposed financing meant the bank stood to receive millions of dollars in fees. Instead, the project appears doomed after most of the teams pulled out with fans, players and politicians decrying the plan. JPMorgan is now left to assess the fallout from a proposal that appears to have underestimated the potential backlash from upending a sport with deep traditions and local roots.

“It didn’t seem co-ordinated and almost didn’t seem thought through,” said Steve Greenfield, a professor of sports law at the University of Westminster. “It was business-based and lost sight of the sporting connotations.”

While the deal’s collapse isn’t likely to be too damaging to a bank that just reported a record $14.3 billion profit in the first quarter, the misstep comes at an awkward time. The bank, under the Chase brand, is planning to launch a digital-only retail lender in the U.K. this year, the first time it will expand its consumer business beyond U.S. borders.

Sport Links

The Wall Street giant, whose leveraged finance team arranged the financing, has spent years cultivating links with the soccer industry in Europe. It has advised on various club purchases and helped finance stadium refurbishments. Several of the breakaway clubs are clients of JPMorgan. The strongest links are with Real Madrid, whose president, Florentino Perez, was spearheading the Super League.

JPMorgan Gets Caught Up in Europe’s Big Soccer League Blunder

A spokesperson for JPMorgan in the U.K., where half of the 12 teams that planned the breakaway are based, declined to comment on the breakdown of the Super League and the bank’s role.

The bank always knew the outcome would hinge on the reaction by the football world, according to a person familiar with the plans. The lender is pragmatic about the outcome, the person said. A committee at the bank looks at things like credit risk, beneficiaries and business dynamics, and reputation is just one aspect, they said.

Still, some of the criticism is proving difficult to ignore. At least two bankers said they were concerned about personal security as the uproar escalated.

Wine Glasses

JPMorgan has some experience of this. When the bank previously acted on the takeover of Manchester United by the billionaire Glazer family in 2005, angry fans turned up at offices to protest. In 2011, about 50 fans raided a JPMorgan drinks reception in the English city, according to the Independent newspaper. They threw wine glasses at guests in protest of the Glazers.

Manchester United executive Ed Woodward was working for the bank when he advised the Glazers on the purchase. Woodward, an advocate of the Super League, is now stepping down at the end of 2021, the club said in a statement on Tuesday.

This time, the latest outcry wasn’t just a fringe group, but a broad response to the rebellion by a dozen of Europe’s biggest clubs, and also the format.

Closed Competition

The renegade teams, along with three more, would have been permanent members and never have to face failure to qualify for the tournament. Five more teams would be added each season to make up the 20-strong league as an alternative to UEFA’s Champions League, the most prestigious European club competition and one that’s open to clubs across the continent.

The idea had would have appealed to American investors, who are increasingly involved in financing European soccer and don’t like the risks that big clubs run of failing to qualify for the Champions League, being relegated from the top national leagues and spiraling costs and wages. But their proposal proved anathema to many European fans, as well as politicians, Prince William and some notable clients.

Paul Marshall, co-founder of hedge fund giant Marshall Wace and a Manchester United fan, retweeted a critical post of the bank by former leader of the pro-Brexit U.K. Independence Party Nigel Farage. JPMorgan is a prime broker for Marshall Wace.

The concept even drew criticism from people on JPMorgan’s payroll. The bank has been one of the most active employers of senior British politicians in recent years, hiring former Prime Minister Tony Blair as an adviser after he left office, as well as former U.K. Chancellor Sajid Javid. However, both men criticized the Super League plans.

A spokesman for Blair said he was against the proposals, according to the Daily Telegraph, while Javid told the U.K. newspaper that the move appeared to be “motivated solely by profit” and called for the clubs involved to be hit with a new super tax if the competition went ahead.

While the furore continues, one former executive at JPMorgan said the bank ultimately won’t be too concerned about the reputational impact and will continue to prioritize lucrative clients like the Glazers, who backed the proposals.

“JPMorgan’s client base is mainly corporate rather than personal, so I don’t see them suffering,” said Kieran Maguire, lecturer in football finance at Liverpool University. “They will be seen as facilitating rather than driving the project.”

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