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Financier banking on flexible football transfer strategy

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Antoine Griezmann (right) joined Barcelona from Atletico Madrid in July 2019. AFP

Financier banking on flexible football transfer strategy

Even for the heavyweights of world football, raising vast sums of cash to fund transfers can be tricky. That’s where Jason Traub’s firm 23 Capital comes in.

The company is operating at a rarefied level – it is reported to have helped finance the deals that took France’s World Cup-winning striker Antoine Griezmann from Atletico Madrid to Barcelona last year and Atletico Madrid’s purchase of Joao Felix from Benfica.

Co-founded by Traub and Stephen Duval six years ago, 23 Capital markets itself as a “capital and solutions company focused exclusively on the sports, music and entertainment sectors”.

Its USP, essentially, is that it has more flexibility than a traditional bank. It gives clubs an alternative way of raising cash to sign players and greases the wheels of the football transfer industry.

The market is huge. Clubs from Europe’s ‘Big Five’ leagues in England, Spain, Italy, France and Germany combined to spend a record £5 billion ($6.5 billion) on transfer fees during the 2019 summer transfer window, according to auditors Deloitte.

But while the numbers are eye-watering, a large proportion of the value of many clubs lies in their players, or “intangible assets” as Traub said at the company’s headquarters in London.

Traub said banks, when asked by clubs for a loan, may not take into account the value of the players. That means clubs are pushed to seek alternative financial providers.

“In a bank balance sheet of a football club, you have your stadium but then you have this significantly typically larger asset base around intangible assets – players,” he said.

“So that’s a huge amount of capital tied up. These are hundreds and hundreds of millions of pounds.”

Traub said clubs do not have the option to apply for financing as if they were a high-street store.

“I mean if you come in off the street to, for instance, Metro Bank and say, ‘Look, we have £800 million worth of intangible assets on our balance sheet so how much are you going to loan us?’

“That is going to be a quick conversation. So really that’s where we came and understood that rationale.”

Wild West

Timothy Bridge, a director at Deloitte’s Sports Business Group, said clubs had a number of avenues they could pursue to finance player transfers.

“Traditional banks may not be the outlet that provides the financing for player transfer receivables [or assets] but there are an increasing number of options for clubs,” he said.

“It is typical of a club to want to receive the money in advance, to invest on the pitch in order to try and deliver success in the shorter term.”

Traub, without going into the specifics of one player, said 23 Capital would often provide the whole fee for a transfer.

“Inevitably, the selling club wants the cash today so they go and buy somebody else and they have that war chest,” he said.

“The buying club, for a number of reasons, would like to spread those payments.”

Traub said the company stayed aloof from the finer contractual details, simply providing the funds for clients.

Traub, born in England but brought up in South Africa, believes 23 Capital has helped end the traditional “Wild West” stand-off between buying and selling clubs.

That situation led to last-minute bartering, with brinkmanship often leaving the selling club with no time to find a replacement player.

“The truth being that in the good old days, you would have these clubs wait until 10:00 pm on the 31st of August, just like the Wild West,” said Traub.

“You’d need that first club which would put liquidity into the system. You know the big club paying the big number would give the second club enough to buy. That’s the trickle-down effect.”

Traub, who worked at Investec bank before setting up 23 Capital, said the company helps clubs who want to do their business earlier in the transfer window.

The company, which employs 50 staff globally, with offices also in Barcelona, New York and Los Angeles, has a “wait-and-see” policy towards the January transfer window, which Traub said was a vastly different market from the one in the close season.

“Typically this window represents an opportunity for clubs to tinker,” he said.

“Traditionally what that means is we have a problem – either we need to bring in somebody and help see if we can beat relegation. Or we have a significant injury problem and we need to bring a player in now.”

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