Sadio Mane, the former Bayern Munich and Liverpool football star, has earned adulation for more than his exploits on the pitch over the course of his storied career. In his home village of Bambali, in southern Senegal, he has helped fund the building of a hospital and a secondary school among other charitable acts. Now, he’s investing in the game that gave him so much.
Two months after reportedly signing a $650,000-a-week contract with Saudi Arabian side Al Nassr, Mane, 31, acquired a majority stake in French fourth-tier side Bourges Foot 18, a return to the country where he began his professional career at 19.
Côte d’Ivoire and Galatasaray star Wilfried Zaha in June co-invested in Croydon Athletic, a ninth-tier club based in the London neighborhood where he grew up. The club, in the talent catchment area of bigger clubs such as the English Premier League’s Crystal Palace where Zaha, 31, made his name, is expected to help uncover and develop young players.
In 2022, Zaha, alongside his brother, also bought Espoir Club D’Abengourou, a fourth-tier side in Côte d’Ivoire. They hope to get it promoted to the country’s top-flight.
Other African football players including former Cote d’Ivoire and Chelsea legend Didier Drogba, ex-Senegalese international Demba Ba, and Egypt/Arsenal midfielder Mohamed Elneny have made moves to invest in football teams.
The African football stars and their business advisors are tapping into a broader investment trend in the sport they know and love. Football clubs have become an increasingly attractive asset for major investors from American buyout groups to Gulf states. The clubs have surged in value over the last two decades particularly at the top of the game in Europe’s big leagues, driven up by the rising value of media rights.
A spike in the acquisitions of elite football clubs in Europe since 2020 has helped double the aggregate enterprise value of the 32 most prominent clubs in the seven-year period from 2016 to 2023, according to a report by Football Benchmark. Forbes estimated that the top 20 clubs in the world had an average value of $2.89 billion in 2023, an increase of 14% year on year.
Top African players buying football clubs is part of a larger international trend. Rising earnings among players in the world’s top leagues have enabled more stars to test their business chops as owners. As football clubs become a more attractive asset class, star players are increasingly keen on sharing in the rising value their efforts on the field helped create.
For players set on securing their post-retirement financial futures, in particular, diversifying their earnings beyond salaries and sponsorship deals is crucial. An estimated 40% of Premier League players go bankrupt within five years of retirement according to research by football welfare charity Xpro.
Over the past decade, ex-football pros including Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Ronaldo Nazario and Paolo Maldini have acquired stakes in football clubs. Lionel Messi’s Inter Miami contract in U.S’s Major League Soccer reportedly includes a provision for him to acquire an MLS franchise upon retirement. David Beckham owns a stake in Inter Miami thanks to a similar landmark deal signed when he joined LA Galaxy from Real Madrid in 2007.
Ndeye Diarra Diobaye, a director at pan-African investment firm Silverback Holdings, told Semafor Africa that successful athletes are creating a new class of high net worth individuals in Africa that invests in fast-growing sectors including tech and sports. She expects the investments to help athletes reverse a long-term trend.“When we look at natural resources from Africa and talk about the world extracting value, it’s the same in football,” she noted.
Cynthia Mumbo, who runs Nairobi-based sports business consultancy Sports Connect Africa, told Semafor Africa that lack of data and underdeveloped sports ecosystems in Africa were among factors that made Europe a more attractive sports investment destination for the continent’s stars. She predicts that the emerging ownership trends would open up new pathways for African talent to play for European clubs.
“Rather than just send money back home, [they’re thinking] I can pull two, five, 100 more kids and add value to my community beyond just being able to send money to my family,” she said.
Room for Disagreement
Kingsley Pungong is the founder and CEO of Rainbow Global, which owns two professional football clubs, Mfk Vyskov in the Czech Republic’s second-tier and Rainbow Bamenda in Cameroon’s third-tier, as well as a U.S.-based sports marketing company. He told Semafor Africa that as lower league clubs generally have fewer resources than top flight sides, African athletes turned owners would have to bear the financial burden as the clubs grew.
“The reality is that European teams at the lower levels have small fanbases, limited infrastructures and often no TV rights and a short supply of sponsorships,” he observed. “As an investor in this space, you need to be ready to shoulder all of the expenses until you’re able to get to higher platforms.”
The View From THE ENGLISH PREMIER LEAGUE
An August 2023 report by global law firm Norton Rose Fulbright on ownership trends in the English Premier League predicts that there will be more retired players venturing into club ownership. It expects them to do so mostly through consortium models, as they will be priced out of acquiring the biggest clubs on their own.
“Given the level of wages now within professional football, a growing number of ex-players are looking beyond running a pub, punditry or management as their next career and increasingly we expect to see more and more ex-players investing in or acquiring football clubs,” the report noted.
- Wealthy Nigerians are venturing into ownership of football clubs, both on the continent and in Europe. Experts expect this to open up new opportunities for African talent.
- South Africa’s Mamelodi Sundowns were crowned the inaugural African Football League champions last Sunday. The win entitled them to $4 million in prize money.