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“Over time we plan to make acquisitions” | Simon Bazalgette on his new advisory firm

Simon Bazalgette. Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg via Getty Images.

  • Advisory service originally planned to help rights-holders consolidate back-of-house operations
  • But pandemic has caused pivot to investment and fundraising advisory services
  • Bazalgette wants to persuade sports to pool their commercial rights

When Simon Bazalgette and his partners first conceived of a new consultancy firm for the sports business, the industry was in a completely different position to the one where it finds itself today.

The former chairman of Jockey Club Racecourses and his co-founder Paul Fisher, his erstwhile chief executive at the organisation, had originally planned to focus the new firm’s advisory efforts on venue operations, having established their credentials in this field when they launched the racecourse operator’s own consultancy venture, Jockey Club Services, in 2014.

That enterprise drew on the pair’s experiences consolidating back-of-house operations for the 15 racecourses managed by the Jockey Club, and the name and the publicity materials for their new business, Global Venues Services, suggested it would operate along similar lines.

“Our original thinking was that there was a lot of opportunity to develop and consolidate services that are provided to venues and events – security, cleaning, traffic management, car parking, catering, all that kind of stuff.” Bazalgette tells SportBusiness. “From the Jockey Club point of view, Paul Fisher and I had probably as good a level of experience, probably better, than most in that area, because we were running 15 venues, and most sports businesses only have one.”

That was before Covid-19 struck and the new firm – together with its clients – were forced to consider more immediate challenges.

Investment

“Clearly, when lockdown came and there were suddenly no events, everybody had to focus on survival,” he says. “What we’ve really become is more of a kind of fundraising and investment advisory business. If you’d asked me six months ago, that’s not what I would have expected, but there seems to be a demand in the market for that.”

Happily, Bazalgette and Fisher could also point to some experience in these areas. The pair famously created the sports industry’s first retail bond when they were at the Jockey Club to raise nearly £25m ($33m/€28m) towards the £45m cost of a new grandstand development for the Cheltenham racecourse in 2013. The creative fundraising instrument, which Bazalgette describes as a “cross between a debenture and crowdfunding”, was subsequently adopted by other rights-holders, like Lancashire Cricket Club, to raise money for large infrastructure projects on the advice of Jockey Club Services.

The bond effectively borrowed the money from racing fans and paid them a return partly in cash and partly in Cheltenham loyalty points. When the fans subsequently cashed in their loyalty points and inevitably made additional spending at the racecourse, it helped to offset the cost of the borrowing.

Bazalgette concedes that there is likely to be less appetite among rights-holders for this type of financial instrument – at least for now – given the uncertainty about when spectators will be allowed back into venues. In his experience, the current economic climate is prompting rights-holders to search for debt-financing through loans or overdrafts to overcome short-term financial hurdles. An increasing number are also looking to raise capital by selling stakes to venture capitalists.

“We’ve seen those organisations getting more involved in sport and they may see an opportunity,” he says. “Rather than just to lend money at an interest rate, I think there are definitely a number of people who we’re talking to who are interested in taking equity stakes.”

GVS formalised the pivot towards more of a fundraising and investment advisory role when it launched its first operating business: Global Venue Finance, in mid-August. The new division will help companies operating in the sports industry and equine business to access finance for the capital costs of infrastructure projects, including training facilities and new gallops for racehorse trainers.

Andrews Bowen installed the base layer for the pitch at Tottenham Hotspur’s new stadium. (Tottenham Hotspur FC via Getty Images).

As part of the new service, GVS has partnered with specialist equine and sports surfaces company Andrews Bowen, which developed and installed the competition surface for the London 2012 equestrian arena and the base layers for new pitches at Liverpool FC and Tottenham Hotspur FC. Bazalgette says advances in sports surface technology, which increase their lifespans and make them reusable, have given them ongoing value and created new lease financing options.

“With rights-holders coming out of lockdown, they need those facilities but equally where they’re cash-strapped, this gives them an opportunity to effectively make sure they can still invest in their facilities but spread the cost over five years,” he says.

Advisory board

Bazalgette describes the launch of the new service as a “first step” in providing a much wider array of structured finance options. He says the change of strategy has been helped by having Bernard Kantor, one of the founders of Investec Bank, and Trevor Watkins, global head of sports practice at legal firm Pinsent Masons, as shareholders in the new firm and members of GVS’ advisory board.

His association with Kantor goes back to a time when he was chief executive of digital music company Music Choice Europe and Investec acted as brokers in the company’s IPO. Kantor would later help establish Racing UK [now Racecourse Media Group], the management company that looks after the media rights of 34 of Britain’s racecourses, as well as RMG’s international distribution business. He also drove the building of the Investec brand through extensive sponsorship activities in horse racing, football and cricket.

Watkins has direct experience of the industry as a former chairman of AFC Bournemouth and former non-executive director of the EFL. When he subsequently started to specialize in sports law and was appointed head of Pinsent Mason’s sports practice, the Jockey Club appointed the company as its main commercial legal advisors, while the firm also went on to sponsor some of its races.

“Bernard Kantor started Investec Bank 40 years ago and built it up into a global financial institution, so he’s very well connected in terms of the investments and finance world,” explains Bazalgette. “He’s seen just about everything over the years and can advise us and make connections for us in that area. And it’s less that Trevor is a lawyer, but as a lawyer he’s effectively one of the first ports of call for anybody coming to invest in the UK in sport.”

Bernard Kantor greets the Queen in the Winners Enclosure during Derby Day at the Investec Derby Festival in 2019. (Photo by David M. Benett/Dave Benett/Getty Images for Investec).

Consolidation of costs

At the point where spectators are eventually allowed back into venues and rights-holders have more workaday problems to contend with, Bazalgette fully expects GVS to return some of its focus to advising clients on matchday operations. At that stage, he believes there will be an even greater need for organisations to control costs.

A hallmark of his and Fisher’s work at the Jockey Club was to centralise ‘back-of-house’ functions such as ticketing, accountancy and loyalty schemes across its 15 racecourses to create efficiencies and economies of scale. They then offered to provide these internal services to third-party clients in football, rugby and cricket, but also leveraged the buying power they had established for their racecourses to help these clients procure outside services more cost-effectively.

The question is, how will GVS be able to provide the same procurement savings without yet having an established services operation and without the purchasing clout of the Jockey Club behind it?

“In the short term we can act as the operational coordinator to bring in services as needed by any particular event or venue,” says Bazalgette. “This means that the venue gets the benefit of our operational experience of running major operations, plus we probably have the best insight into pricing of various services via our Jockey Club experience and should be able to negotiate the best rates.

“Over time we also plan to make acquisitions to bring these services in-house, allowing us to further improve pricing and allowing us to guarantee the quality of operational management.”

GVS has already taken a 50 per cent share of GV Finance and Bazalgette expects the firm will be able to quickly acquire additional service providers and build scale rapidly.

“Between the four partners in GVS, we have a great network of people who have expressed interest in investing in projects that we develop, so we believe we will be able to move quickly as the market comes back and potential service companies look for greater security for the future,” he says. “We are also having early discussions about creating our own investment fund which would speed up the process of making acquisitions even further.

“We would generally expect GVS to be taking investment stakes alongside partners and investors that we bring in, but there is a lot of flexibility to tailor each individual project.”

The gap in the market, as far as Bazalgette is concerned, is to consolidate even more back-of-house operations beyond the “very narrow range” currently provided by the Jockey Club.

“There are a lot of other services which are not carried out internally by the Jockey Club, but outsourced to other providers, such as security, car parking, stewarding, traffic management and cleaning,” he says. “But the same opportunity exists to bring these together to create more of a one-stop shop, creating economies of scale with a high-quality service at lower unit cost.”

Trevor Watkins, Pinsent Masons Global Head of Sports and GVS partner. (Photo by Jan Kruger/Getty Images for Soccerex).

Collective rights management

The thread running through all of Bazalgette’s thinking is the power of the collective, so it’s no surprise to hear one of the founding figures behind the Racecourse Media Group arguing that the current crisis will only create more of an impetus for sports to pool their commercial rights. He says he would like GVS to encourage rights-holders to embrace group thinking not only to keep costs down, but also to secure a greater return for these rights.

Even without Covid-19, he believes media rights have plateaued, while National Lottery revenue is drying up for many UK sports. Asked how he thinks the pandemic will reshape sport and where the real investment opportunities might be, he suggests the crisis might actually help to refine parts of the industry.

“It’s been tough for people to survive, but I think a lot of businesses will actually come out a bit stronger. I think some areas will be slightly less competitive because some companies will have gone out of business.

“We think there might be some real opportunities in areas like ticketing, for example, with good businesses that have managed to find the niche markets but perhaps need some help.

“When the market’s down is the time to get in and work out who the survivors are and who’s going to come out stronger.”

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