Russian Billionaire Finds Novel Way to Avoid Breaking Premier League Investor Rules

  • USM to become Liverpool-based team’s training ground partner
  • Usmanov ally Moshiri became club’s biggest investor in 2016

Alisher Usmanov.

Photographer: Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg

Billionaire Alisher Usmanov has found a way to support his longtime business partner,  Everton Football Club majority owner Farhad Moshiri, while still complying with Premier League rules that ban investors from owning stock in multiple teams.

Usmanov’s USM Holdings will become the Liverpool-based team’s first training-ground sponsor and will gain certain marketing rights, Everton said Thursday in a statement, without revealing financial details. The facility has been renamed USM Finch Farm under the terms of the five-year contract.

The deal brings Usmanov and Moshiri back together in having ties to the same team. The two men previously had a joint share of a company that owns 30 percent of the Arsenal Football Club. Premier League rules forbid investors from owning stock in multiple teams, forcing Moshiri to sell his portion to Usmanov in order to complete his acquisition of 49.9 percent of Everton last year.

Usmanov, Russia’s seventh-richest man, introduced Moshiri to soccer investment, Moshiri told Everton shareholders at the club’s annual meeting two days ago.

“We do most things together,” Moshiri said. Usmanov is an avid Arsenal fan, whose efforts to have full control of the club have been frustrated. The club’s former shareholders preferred to sell their stock to American businessman Stan Kroenke in 2011.

Usmanov has considered ways of getting involved in Everton financially since at least November, and has sought to invest in Moshiri’s project in a way that doesn’t flout the rules, according to a person briefed on the plans. British politician David Owen, a former adviser to Usmanov, has visited the club’s Goodison Park stadium.

Uzbekistan-born Usmanov has a fortune of $13.1 billion, according to Bloomberg data. He’s the biggest shareholder in USM Holdings, a group created in 2012 to consolidate the billionaire’s interests, which include miner Metalloinvest and Russian telecommunications operator MegaFon PJSC. Moshiri, a former accountant, also owns stock in USM.

Holding Company

It’s unclear whether the Premier League will seek more information about the training-ground agreement, which comes after growing speculation that Usmanov planned to invest in Everton. USM, which also has stakes in companies including Alibaba Group Holding Ltd., Spotify Ltd. and Airbnb Inc., is the first holding company to sponsor a Premier League team.

Moshiri became Everton’s biggest shareholder in February and cleared the club’s debts with an 80 million-pound ($99 million) interest-free loan. He’s promised to revitalize a team that’s fallen behind the top performers on and off the field. Everton’s 121.5 million pounds of revenue for the year through May 2016 is less than a quarter of the amount taken in by Manchester United, the league’s richest team. Everton won its last trophy 21 years ago.

"The naming of Finch Farm, and the extensive package of marketing rights, provides USM and the businesses within our group with unique year-round global media exposure,” Ivan Streshinsky, a member of USM’s board, said in the statement. “We’ve done considerable research into what this partnership can deliver for us and we’re very excited about the difference this will make as we continue to build our brands.”

Should Everton qualify for European club competition, the agreement is likely to face scrutiny from regional governing body UEFA. The Nyon, Switzerland-based organization will treat the deal as a so-called related-party transaction, and could possibly sanction the team if it determines USM has paid above fair market value. Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City, owned by Gulf royalty, have been penalized in the past.

No ‘Museum’

The sponsorship income may help Everton to develop a new stadium. The club is looking for permission to build an arena in Liverpool’s dock area. Everton hasn’t won an English league championship for almost 30 years, and Moshiri vowed he wouldn’t allow the club to become a "museum.”

"We don’t have all the time in the world," he said at the annual meeting. "We have a window to establish ourselves and we’ll do everything we can. We need a sustainable base to be among the elite. It takes time but we’re committed. That’s why we’re here."

Building a new stadium is "massive,” Mike White, an Everton shareholder, said in an interview. Failure to deliver on promises made over several years has led to the criticism of the club’s board from "large sections of the fans," he added.

"We want some decent players, play well and ultimately we want to be challenging for honors," White said.

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