In early 2020, there was plenty of optimism for investment opportunities and growth in the sports sector prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has since caused disruption in nearly every sector around the world. Financial uncertainty has been a large factor in addition to issues surrounding player contracts and broadcasting rights. Mergers and acquisitions activity in the global sports world has experienced a downward trend but there is hope on the horizon.
Amidst COVID-19 delays, Italian football (calico) has had its share of off-the-field matters this year. In August, the Italian club A.S. Roma announced the completion of a takeover by Texas-based Friedkin Group: an 86.6% stake in for €591 million, a large decrease from the previously agreed upon figure of €750 million prior to the pandemic. This lower price demonstrates how lost matches, sponsorship, and broadcasting income all impact the valuation of sports clubs. In light of these decreasing valuations, PE firms could be motivated to seek out bargain M&A and financing opportunities.
Italy’s Serie A has also embraced private investment. In September, its 20 clubs agreed to create its own media company financed partially by PE funds in order to better organize the sale and promotion of the league's TV rights. The move is designed to improve governance and increase revenue, especially abroad.
The private equity firm CVC Capital Partners, which owned Formula 1 until 2016, is showing more interest in sports. In July, CVC halved its UK £300 million (US $376 million) offer to acquire a 14.5% stake in rugby union Guinness Six Nations. The deal has been delayed several times throughout 2020 due to the pandemic and appears to remain on hold as CVC is seeking a COVID-19 protection clause. In related news, the rugby sportswear market is expected to see robust growth by 2025.
In September, CVC also expressed interest in a stake in the Women's Super League (WSL), the top flight of women’s club soccer in England. Bridgepoint is another PE firm pursuing a stake in the 12-team WSL. In 2016, CVC sold the commercial rights to MotoGP to Bridgepoint for €500 million. The men’s Premier League has also expressed interest in taking over the WSL. By selling an equity stake in the WSL, the Football Association (FA) would be able to alleviate some of its financial commitment the league, which costs them around UK£7 million (US $8.7 million) to run each year.
In March, the tennis season was suspended due to the pandemic until mid-July. In May, speculation began circulating about a merger between the governing bodies of men and women’s tennis (the ATP and WTA, respectively). Many big names in tennis publicly support the notion, even though there are logistical and political obstacles. Public support of a possible merger amid players was still making headlines in September, even though much skepticism surrounds the idea because of legal considerations such as how profits would be distributed between the ATP and WTA, and how decision-making power will be allocated between the two governing bodies. The benefit of a merger would be synergy and cost-savings through aligning rules, calendars, and logos, as well as a more level playing field between men and women.
E-sports was already a booming industry, but COVID-19 boosted its audience numbers to record levels, drawing serious but cautioned interest from investors. In April, leading e-sports apparel company Raven secured a US $1.4 million seed investment from a U.S. PE fund. However, the caution in this sector stems from how e-sports broadcasting and sponsorship strategies cannot mirror that of traditional sports, and that the current e-sports boom is temporary due to the pandemic. Another concern surrounds privacy and personal information due to the online nature of e-sports, as investors will need to have serious data protection in place.
Even amid these concerns, 2021 is still expected to be a big year for M&A deals in the world of digital sports. The pandemic brought them into the mainstream and the sports tech industry is likely to grow as strategies pursue more participation, revenue, TV viewers, and fan support while focusing on privacy, data ownership, protection of intellectual property, outsourcing, share services, and digital ethics. M&A after an economic crisis already makes sense, and e-sports industry consolidation is going to be needed for several reasons.
There is only so much room in mature market segments worldwide and there are about two-dozen different sports tech categories. Right now, the industry is very fragmented, with scores of companies are all trying to solve the same problems. There are also several tech components involved such as graphics, video editing, virtual reality, fan engagement, management tools, social media tools, artificial intelligence, just to name a few. Fragmentation creates opportunity for the absorption of smaller companies that lack cash, talent, and/or leadership. There is an expected acceleration of M&A deals in this sector with many small-to-mid-size companies to be rolled up by bigger players across the landscape well into 2021. Exits should be frequent with buy-and-build strategies both vertically and horizontally integrated.
American sports tech companies tend to command higher valuations than that of those in Asia-Pacific and Europe. According to the KPMG Global Venture Capital report, the average seed-stage startup will have a pre-money valuation of US $6.7 million and $20 million for the first round of investment. In Asia, sports startups draw a significant discount and smaller rounds of funding, with European sport tech companies landing in the middle. This current economic climate may present ideal opportunity for American companies to pursue global market dominance through M&A, as long as they act quickly as European companies will be ready to make moves as well.
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