June 14, 2021

World Champions

Driving Sport Excellence

The sports industry a growing opportunity for private equity

11 min read

The broader sports market has been heavily affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. However, market headwinds appear temporary, with the industry set to return to growth, estimated at 3% in 2021 and 8% thereafter, through to 2023. This will in turn undoubtedly catch the attention of a growing fan base – private equity, writes Chris Anguelov from Fairgrove Partners. 

The global sports industry is estimated to be worth between $400 to $500 billion, having grown steadily at around 6% per annum prior to the pandemic. Whilst Covid-19 has seen some winners (e.g. the rise of domestic fitness solutions such as Peloton, or other household-appropriate activities such as darts, snooker and eSports), the broader market has been heavily affected (circa 15% decline overall) by the lockdowns and social distancing measures which have led to event cancellations, empty stadiums, a hiatus in many amateur sports, and a reduction in certain sports retail sales. 

However, market headwinds appear temporary, with the pandemic unlikely to adversely affect the strong structural foundations of the sports industry; a return to growth is forecast in a post-restriction environment.

Private equity involvement

Historically, private equity has approached the sporting landscape with some caution, particularly at the upper-end of the market. The volatility of sporting performance has seen investment in teams largely restricted to the vanity or passion projects of high-net-worth individuals, whilst organising bodies steeped in decades of tradition and heritage have generally been regarded as overly complex to navigate. 

However, recent years have seen a notable uptick in M&A activity, as stakeholders on both sides of the equation – investors and sporting entities – have begun to recognise the partnership opportunities available both in the higher-profile market segments discussed above, and in the associated ancillary revenue streams across the broader sporting ecosystem. 

The pandemic is only likely to have heightened these interests, with temporary market headwinds (e.g. event cancellations and empty stadiums) leaving many sporting organisations cash-strapped in the immediate-term, at a time when private equity is benefiting from a low interest rate environment and significant levels of dry powder (estimated by Preqin at $1.9 trillion globally). 

European PE Deal Activity in Sports

Recent M&A examples

As private equity investment in sport has gained increasing traction, much of the public literature and thought leadership in the space has naturally trended towards the mega-deals in the sector. It is important to note that whilst such high-profile deals will always understandably generate attention, the fundamental drivers of increased private equity involvement hold throughout the industry, with macro-trends trickling down to many peripheral subsegments of the market. 

Indeed, Fairgrove Partners has seen significant deal activity at the lower/mid-market sizes, supporting investments in sports marketing (perimeter advertising), sport eCommerce (football, darts and water sports resellers), and temporary stadia solutions (in sports and music) in recent times.

Recent examples include the investment of Flywheel Partners in ES Global (a provider of structures for events), Primary Capital’s investment in Sigma Sports (a retailer for cycling and triathlon-related products) and Formula 1 McLaren Racing receiving capital injection from MSP Sports Capital. 

The attraction of sport to private equity

Many of the sport industry’s core characteristics create favourable investment conditions, with opportunities to generate significant, yet sustainable returns, over a medium-term horizon. Fairgrove has identified five key attractive fundamentals: 

Brand loyalty
The emotional connection between athletes/teams and spectators/supporters has the power to create an unparalleled bond between customers and vendors, which often lasts through a consumer’s entire lifetime. It is not uncommon for sports brands to represent entire communities, offering a level of authenticity that is difficult to replicate elsewhere – there are no suitable substitutes. This often provides significant first-mover advantage (e.g. a football club may monopolise fans in a previously unpenetrated territory), with segments of the industry typified by high customer lifetime values, low customer churn, and low customer acquisition costs as traditions of fandom are often passed on through families and friends. 

The devoted nature of these customer relationships is also the primary driver of many key ancillary revenue streams. Sponsors, broadcasters, and other media partners are attracted by the global reach and incredible levels of engagement many sports brands can offer; few other industries of a similar scale can boast such active user-bases. 

Predictable revenue streams
Recurring and contracted revenue are highly attractive to private equity, as they generate a stable base of guaranteed income. The nature of the sports industry means there are considerable opportunities for both; match/event-day revenue, seasonal merchandise, repeat sales of consumables, and long-term partnerships with sponsors, broadcasters or host cities (e.g. for venue delivery) ensure a significant proportion of income can be categorised as predictable.

Untapped commercial potential

a. Growth opportunities in established sports
Despite the scale and growth of the sports market, there remains significant scope for continued expansion in existing segments. The global digital reach of sports is only just beginning to be effectively monetised (e.g. through content aggregating platforms like Dugout [now part of OneFootball] and The Athletic), whilst evolutions in technology are still in the early stages of adoption within the industry (e.g. within performance sport and consumer data analytics). 

There has also been an increasing trend towards the disruption and revamping of established competitions and game-formats (e.g. The Hundred, the International Swimming League, the Davis Cup etc.) to target the next generation of fans and viewers.

Increasing international penetration of major sports has also created opportunities for new partnerships (e.g. public investment) and commercial growth into new territories (e.g. Middle East). 

b. Commercialisation of highly-practiced amateur sports
Many sports are failing to commercialise high participation rates. Netball and basketball are the second and fourth most played team sports in the UK respectively, after football (first) and cricket (third). However, despite the gradually increasing prominence of netball, neither have really been able to capitalise on these activity levels from a business perspective, with both being heavily reliant on public funding for their continued existence.

Selected UK Sports – Adult Participation Rates (November 2019)

c. Emerging sports
Two of the most exciting global trends are the rise of women’s sport and eSports. 1.3 billion people watched the Women’s Football World Cup in 2019 (vs. 3.57 billion who watched the Men’s tournament in 2018) and 89% of CEOs in sport highlighted the ‘growth of women’s sport’ as one of the most important trends in the sector, whilst eSports audience viewership has been growing at circa 10% per annum since 2018, and prize money grew 42% between 2018-19. 

Investment in both fields has also risen significantly; eSports in particular has seen several notable transactions of venture capital-backed streaming and gaming platforms (e.g. Twitch selling to Amazon for just under $1 billion, or Discord raising nearly $500 million), whilst Barclays recently signed a 3-year deal worth over £10 million to become the FA Women’s Super League‘s first ever title sponsor. 

A major attraction is that both sporting segments can benefit enormously from leveraging existing and successful sporting structures (clubs, leagues, fan bases, calendars etc.) which they are able to mirror and run concurrently alongside by establishing mutually beneficial partnerships. Viewed side-by-side with such established markets, the potential addressable opportunity is clearly quantifiable for investors, and the route to scaling-up appears far less daunting. 

Structural opportunities

The complex ecosystem of stakeholders within many sports has often left investors uncomfortable at the prospect of operating with a reduced degree of autonomy than they are typically used to. However, successful recent case studies (e.g. CVC’s investment in Formula 1) demonstrate that it is possible to separate the commercial and custodian duties within a sport.

Indeed, the synergistic combination of private equity’s strategic expertise and portfolio capabilities, coupled with existing stakeholders’ sport-specific knowledge and experience, can create a platform to accelerate growth and leave a sport or segment of the sporting industry in a healthier place, ahead of any potential exit. 

Case Study 2: CVC’s investment in Formula 1 is a blueprint for other PE firms considering the sports sector 

Recession proof
Whilst the pandemic has posed a unique selection of challenges for the sporting world, particularly with social distancing measures preventing event attendance, the industry has historically proven to be resilient through economic downturns. Sports consumption is generally viewed as a necessity, rather than as a luxury good, both from the perspective of active participants (due to its health and social benefits) and passive participants (given the continued rising demand in the experience economy). 

Additionally, the industry has demonstrated an admirable flexibility in its response to Covid-19’s logistical challenges. From Matchroom hosting Boxing events in Eddie Hearn’s back garden, to football broadcasters’ adoption of technology simulating crowd noise, to tennis successfully organising a fan-attended Grand Slam within the confines of one of the world’s most heavily restricted and ‘locked-down’ cities (Melbourne), the sporting world has shown tremendous nimbleness to navigate incredibly difficult times.

Structural challenges
However, the idiosyncrasies of sport are not without their challenges. Indeed, alongside the difficulties arising from the pandemic, Fairgrove Partners has identified key pillars requiring strategic navigation from investors in most subsegments of the sports market. 

Whilst not all of these pillars are directly applicable to every ancillary revenue stream, investors across the board must be mindful of the implications and knock-on effects of changing dynamics elsewhere in the sporting value chain: 

Covid-19
The pandemic has impacted the sports market significantly. Lockdowns and restrictions on social contact have led to many events either being cancelled, postponed or taking place behind closed doors, whilst general activity levels in certain sports have plummeted, with knock-on impacts being felt further down the industry pyramid (e.g. in sales of related consumables). 

Longer-term, the impacts of the pandemic are less clear. Whilst early indications seem to suggest that event-organisers will have little difficulty in enticing fans back to live-action once restrictions on attendance are lifted, the globalised nature of sport means obstacles will remain whilst countries worldwide continue to experience outbreaks.

More locally, as the economy begins to open in the UK, challenges will persist here, too; many organisations will attempt to resume operations despite having incurred significant losses over the past year or having lost key partners due to financial difficulties on their end. It is worth noting that not all trends have been negative; the pandemic has accelerated many organisations’ digitisation and direct-to-consumer models, whilst some Covid-appropriate sports have seen significant increases in participation (e.g. darts, snooker, eSports etc.).

Fans
Sports fans are unlike consumers in almost any other industry. The emotional connections fostered through supporting a region, team or individual are unparalleled. Outside investors must be prepared to embrace the strength of fan feeling and understand that investing into certain assets can impact the social fabric of entire regions. 

In such situations, a systematic exercise of public relations and a carefully constructed communications strategy are crucial to laying the foundations for a successful tenure of ownership. Indeed, nowhere has this been more evident than in the recent fan-reaction which led to the collapse (for now) of plans for leading European football clubs to launch a continental Super League to rival UEFA’s competitions.

Stakeholder ecosystem and motivations
In contrast to most traditional private equity target companies, many sports organisations were established with the intention of governing, organising, and/or facilitating the sport, rather than with commercial motivations at their core. Their ethos, membership systems, and fragmented ownership structures can create significant hurdles for investors seeking to implement growth strategies.

For example; key decisions may require heavy stakeholder voting majorities (>66%), and revenue generation may be limited by existing partnerships, spending controls (e.g. Financial Fair Play or salary caps), policies of revenue redistribution, and a concern over potential tension between sporting organisations’ commercial motivations and their duties as ‘guardians of the game’.

Thorough due diligence is imperative for private equity to clearly understand the value chain (sponsors, broadcasters, public organisations, fans, athletes, etc.), and to be able to identify which strategic levers are available, which are ‘off limits’, and which parameters can be evolved, in order to assess the feasibility of identified growth strategies. 

Political and regulatory landscape
Allied to the fragmented ecosystem of stakeholders, careful due diligence of the political landscape, both internally within sporting organisations and also externally on a more macro-level, is advised.

Many strategic positions within sporting bodies are held by former high-achieving athletes selected for their decorated past, rather than their business acumen. Whilst this creates significant scope for the growth and professionalisation of the industry, understanding the personalities of prominent individuals and the strength of relationships between key bodies is important, to help gauge the levels of potential support and resistance towards an investor’s proposed initiatives.

On a macro-level, this extends to public organisations, too. Given sport’s communal reach and the platform it provides to impact major societal issues (e.g. mental and physical health, educational attainment, sustainability, diversity, and many others), its organisations and bodies can be subject to a higher level of government intervention than private equity is traditionally accustomed to.

Investors need to ensure revenue streams are protected against any potential changes to regulation (e.g. alcohol advertising constraints), public policy (e.g. programs to increase sports participation rates) and societal trends (e.g. movements to address issues of gambling addiction).

Conclusion

For decades, the sporting industry has been marginalised by private equity; high-profile, loss-making vanity purchases within elite sport have masked a broader industry with myriad attractive characteristics, including a unique level of brand loyalty, significant opportunities for recurring/repeat revenue, and a breadth of untapped commercial potential within a traditionally recession-proof sector. 

Recent merger & acquisition activity is, however, indicative of investors’ increasing recognition of these opportunities, across all spectrums and ticket sizes in the market. 

Nonetheless, the sporting world remains complex and diverse; for investments to succeed, sporting entities must have a defined strategic vision and clearly articulated objectives to ensure they find the appropriate partners – ceding control of governance in a sector with such unique levels of heritage is a sensitive proposition, and ‘vendor’ stakeholders cannot view prospective private equity investors purely as capital partners, either in the hope that strategy will align further down the line, or assuming that they will be content with a more passive role. 

Moreover, incumbent stakeholders should recognise that the nature of private equity’s investment agenda means they are only seeking temporary, comparatively short-term, collaboration; the business will need to be prepared for private equity to exit within several years, at which point stakeholders will be forced to seek fresh investment partnerships, undergoing a similar (and often taxing) preparatory process once more. 

Likewise, private equity must recognise the idiosyncrasies of the sporting landscape and take an ‘eyes open’ approach to entering the market; thorough due diligence is of paramount importance for investors to be able to assess the feasibility of their growth strategies, and to recognise where additional diplomacy is required, either to bring customers ‘on-side’ or to align key stakeholders behind a joint mission. 

Whilst challenges remain, the opportunities within sport are clear, and successful case studies have already begun to validate the investment thesis. Investors and sporting entities will need to be mindful of potential pitfalls, but collaboration under the right conditions has the potential to drive transformative change and growth within the industry.

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