They attended three matches at Elland Road as guests of Andrea Radrizzani and what began as talk of sporting partnership with one of Radrizzani’s other companies ended today with a multi-million pound investment directly into English football.
There was plenty of intrigue over the revelation this month that Radrizzani was preparing to sell a minority stake in Leeds, just 12 months after taking 100 per cent control of the Championship club, but the arrival of an NFL powerhouse in the boardroom at Elland Road is a genuinely striking development. At an estimated cost of £10m the 49ers have followed the trend of NFL owners edging into professional soccer. The purchase of shares in Leeds via their investment arm, 49ers Enterprises, will catch attention on both sides of the Atlantic.
Radrizzani has known Paraag Marathe, the 49ers executive who will join the Elland Road board, for several years and early discussions over a working relationship between them were aimed at the 49ers forming a partnership with Aser, the investment firm founded by Radrizzani and Leeds’ ultimate parent company. Over time they evolved into conversations about the possibility of the 49ers taking a minority share in the club itself and installing Marathe as a United director. Marathe, a high-level figure in San Francisco who has worked for the 49ers since 2001, had his appointment approved by the EFL this week.
Leeds are adamant that Radrizzani’s sale of shares so soon after his buy-out of Massimo Cellino is not the first stage of plan to relinquish a larger stake or exit the club, despite a difficult first season behind him. Those around the Italian do not believe that the 49ers are positioning tanks on the lawn at Leeds or pursuing any long-term aim to turn their minority shareholding into a bigger chunk of equity. Sources at the 49ers say the purchase is about expanding their brand globally having emerging from an unstable period in their history and that they see similarities in the attempts of both clubs to rediscover their lost aura.
There is an immediate financial benefit for Leeds and Radrizzani - a seven-figure injection of cash which will assist with transfers in this summer’s window, a window the club under pressure to get right - and Radrizzani convert a loan of almost £9m owed to him by United into new shares before his deal with the 49ers was agreed. There will be questions about the use of outside funding to pay for new signings but the 49ers’ investment is being painted as a strategic deal: a way of embracing new commercial, business and sporting ideas and harnessing the strengths of a major American industry.
Radrizzani will remain in place as club chairman, with Marathe joining a board which already includes Aspire Academy head Ivan Bravo, Aser executive Andre Tegner and United managing director Angus Kinnear. Radrizzani’s shareholding has fallen below 90 per cent but control of Leeds is still his. United made a big play of the formal partnership struck with Qatar’s Aspire Academy before Christmas but their link-up with the 49ers, one of the NFL’s most recognisable teams, carries far greater credibility. The 49ers have an annual revenue in excess of £330m. Forbes, the American business magazine, values the club at more than £2bn. In context, Leeds turned over £35m in the 2016-17 financial year while Radrizzani bought out Cellino last summer for £45m.
The 49ers have been mentioned in these parts before, back in 2014 when former Leeds owner GFH erroneously claimed to have established an understanding with the NFL outfit. The 49ers’ hierarchy had no knowledge of that agreement and their purchase of shares from Radrizzani is wholly unrelated to it. Marathe’s involvement in San Francisco has ranged from commercial and financial positions to work on the playing side as director of football operations. His was central to the club’s stadium move in 2014 and Leeds hope that his input and the connection with the 49ers will improve their own performance.
Little by little, the NFL is finding its way into English football. Fulham chairman and prospective Wembley buyer Shad Khan controls the Jacksonville Jaguars. Stan Kroenke, Arsenal’s majority shareholder, finances the Los Angeles Rams. The popularity of American football has grown in the UK in the past decade, helped by the NFL’s decision to send regular league games to Wembley. England’s national stadium will pass into Khan’s hands if the Football Association accepts an offer from him to buy the ground.
The 49ers’ investment in Leeds is a more tentative step than the moves made by Kroenke and Khan and it remains to be seen if their decision to dip a toe in the water of English football creates an appetite for more serious influence. In the immediate term their cash will aid Leeds’ attempt to make a better fist of next season and should enhance the club’s chances of landing targets but it is inconceivable that the 49ers were driven by a simple desire to improve an ailing squad, much as the value of their shares will soar if Leeds are promoted to the Premier League. The franchise’s boardroom appearance is fascinating. More interesting again is the question of what it could achieve and where it might lead.