- NFL team “open” to increasing its investment in club following promotion to Premier League
- Executives eager to help improve Leeds’ commercial fortunes and in-stadium fan experience
- “The story is only beginning…there is a lot more to do,” says 49ers and Leeds executive Marathe
The San Francisco 49ers are ready to play an active role in helping Leeds United become a Premier League force both on and off the field following the club’s promotion to English soccer’s top flight for the first time since 2004.
The National Football League franchise acquired a reported 10-per-cent equity stake in Leeds, via its commercial entity 49ers Enterprises, in 2018, which was worth around £11m (€12m/$14m) at the time of investment.
As part of the partnership, veteran 49ers executive Paraag Marathe – who is the president of 49ers Enterprises and the 49ers executive vice-president of football operations – joined the Leeds board of directors.
Marathe has weekly calls with Leeds majority owner Andrea Radrizzani, with whom he has a close personal relationship, as well as the club’s director of football Victor Orta and chief executive Angus Kinnear. He has also visited Leeds numerous times since 2018, along with 49ers Enterprises director Collin Meador and 49ers majority owner Jed York.
Now, following Leeds’ long-awaited return to the Premier League, 49ers Enterprises is exploring the possibility of increasing its financial investment in the club.
Radrizzani, who is also the chairman and founder of multiterritory broadcaster Eleven Sports, has said he is open to additional external investment to help fund Leeds’ Premier League push, with talks with Qatar Sports Investments having failed to lead to a deal. It is unclear at this stage how much of the club Radrizzani is looking to sell or what additional stake 49ers Enterprises wants to acquire.
“We’re exploring the possibility of maybe becoming even bigger partners. It is something that we’re open to,” Marathe tells SportBusiness. “Hopefully it works out if he’s [Radrizzani] looking for more and we’re open to more than maybe we should try something.”
— Leeds United (@LUFC) July 18, 2020
49ers Enterprises will also look to continue to provide strategic advice in order to help improve the fan experience and layout of Leeds’ home stadium Elland Road, aid the development of a planned state-of-the-art training ground, and further bolster club revenues through other initiatives.
It is also hoped that Leeds will play at the 49ers’ venue Levi’s Stadium, either in the International Champions Cup international pre-season tournament or in an exhibition game.
“The path and the story is only beginning, it’s not the last chapter, it’s now only the second chapter in a much longer book,” Marathe adds. “Now it’s about proving that we belong and trying to climb the ranks within the Premier League so there is a lot more to do. It’s directly correlated with how much we can grow the commercial side of the business in terms of how much more we can afford on the pitch.”
Origin of the partnership
According to Marathe, 49ers Enterprises began exploring a strategic partnership with Leeds in around 2011. Marathe saw great potential in Leeds – a once great English club with a passionate fanbase that had become a shadow of its former self. However, a deal failed to materialize with the ownership group at the time.
“We had been circling around Leeds for quite some time actually, long before Andrea,” Marathe says. “Being in the business of sports for so long, you sort of know what the powerful brands around the world are, the ones that carry a lot of passion and energy, and punch above their weight…and Leeds was always one of those clubs. We had been interested because it was a sleeping giant.”
In the following years, Marathe got to know Radrizzani through a mutual friend and the Italian sports media executive visited the 49ers headquarters around 2015. The two sports industry executives became fast friends.
“We hit it off, there was a personal kinship before it evolved into a professional kinship. I gave him a tour and we spent the day together and he told me that he had been looking at some clubs,” Marathe says.
Two years later, Radrizzani took over Leeds and Marathe reached out to his new friend to inform him of 49ers Enterprises’ coincidental prior interest in Leeds. A deal was quickly reached for 49ers Enterprises to become minority partners in the then Championship club, in May 2018.
“We’ve long been fans and admirers of Leeds as a club and as a brand and I’m glad that two years ago it came to fruition,” Marathe says. “There was such opportunity but not just from a club standpoint – that the club can become bigger and have more revenue – but really because of the passion standpoint. The supporter base is so strong and powerful, it really reminds me of the 49ers fanbase, which is global and much more powerful than the average NFL club so it just struck a chord and struck a tone with us.”
Marathe is eager to make it clear that while 49ers Enterprises is keen to help Leeds as much as possible, it is Radrizzani who is the club’s driving force.
“We are all eager, enthusiastic passengers on this train – but this train is being driven by Andrea…Andrea’s vision, Marcelo Bielsa’s coaching and Victor and Angus’s leadership. Those guys have been phenomenal,” he says. “One of the things that I really admire about Andrea is he never really says if, he just says when. He’s always had that mindset since as long as I’ve known him. He really willed this to happen.”
Nonetheless, 49ers Enterprises has already helped Leeds’ rise to the top in numerous ways since partnering with the club. This has included helping to bring in new players, via the club’s capital investment, and enhancing pre-match hospitality initiatives at Elland Road.
Notably, the 49ers played a small but significant role in the hiring of Marcelo Bielsa, the iconic former Argentina and Chile national team head coach, whose leadership has proven key in Leeds’ return to the big time.
Marathe explains: “Prior to Andrea, Angus and Victor going out to find coach Bielsa, we had just completed our own search for our own head coach and [general manager]. We had put a process together which we looked at it a little bit differently where we looked for core traits first: vision, leadership, and someone who really stood as the face of the franchise that everyone – fans, players, coaches…even ownership – would look to for guidance.
“We found that with [49ers head coach] Kyle Shanahan. We documented a lot of that process and we shared that with Andrea prior to them going out to get coach Bielsa,” he says.
Perhaps it is not without coincidence that Leeds secured promotion to the Premier League just a few months after the 49ers won the NFC Championship game to reach Super Bowl LIV in Miami, Florida, in February, after five straight non-winning seasons.
The 49ers lost 31-20 to the Kansas City Chiefs in the NFL showpiece game. But the team looks poised to again be a perennial contender as it was for much of the 1980s and 1990s en route to winning five Super Bowls.
The goal now is to help Leeds become a consistent contender in the Premier League and improve the club’s commercial fortunes, both domestically and internationally.
“One fantastic thing about the way the Premier League or the [English Football League] works is that the club controls and owns its brand globally,” Marathe says. “That is different from American sports with the 49ers where we only really control the brand within our local market and anything outside of the market the NFL, as a whole, controls all 32 logos.
“So this provides a huge opportunity for clubs like Leeds, as Manchester United has already demonstrated, that they can do things in Asia and South America. That is something I’m excited to see if we can help Leeds really become more of a global force,” he says.