Amit Bhatia, vice-chairman of soccer’s Queens Park Rangers (QPR), says the team’s new billionaire owners plan to lift the second-tier club to the level of west London rival Chelsea with sound business practices, not buckets of cash.
“Throwing money is not the right way to do it,” said Bhatia, 28. “Will we spend enough money to make sure we are competitive because it’s a sport where money needs to be spent? Of course and that’s what we are committed to doing.”
Bhatia, the son-in-law of billionaire Lakshmi Mittal, oversees his family’s investment in QPR from his office in London’s Mayfair, where he runs his private equity and hedge fund businesses, Swordfish Investments and Swordfish Capital Management LLP.
QPR starts its first full season tomorrow under new owners Mittal, chairman of ArcelorMittal, the world’s biggest steelmaker; Bernie Ecclestone, chief executive officer of the commercial arm of Formula One; and Flavio Briatore, managing director of the Renault F-1 team. The club finished 14th in the 24-team Championship league last season, yet it was 9-1 second- favorite with UK bookmaker Ladbrokes to finish first and win promotion to the Premier League. QPR hosts Barnsley tomorrow.
The new owners have focused in the offseason on adding players with potential rather than proven stars. Their acquisitions included 19-year-old Spanish youth international Dani Parejo on a season-long loan from Real Madrid and Argentine-born Emmanuel Jorge Ledesma, 20, on loan from Genoa.
They hired a coach with experience getting a team promoted to the Premier League: Iain Dowie, who led London’s Crystal Palace to the top division in 2004.
No Chelsea: It’s a different strategy than the one followed by Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich, who made the Blues a European powerhouse 3.5 miles away by spending more than $1 billion on players since buying the club in July 2003.
Ecclestone and Briatore bought QPR in September for £14 million, including 13 million pounds of debt. Mittal, their friend, bought a 20 per cent stake three months later.
Mittal is Britain’s richest man, according to the Sunday Times; he and his family have a fortune of £27.7 billion, the paper said in April. The paper has reported that the three owners together are worth about £30 billion.
Reaching the Premier League would provide an immediate return. It’s soccer’s richest circuit, with revenue topping £1.5 billion. Teams are guaranteed £30 million a year each in television money, according to accountant Deloitte & Touche LLP.
Record Sponsorship: The new owners already have revenue gushing in at an unprecedented rate for the second echelon. Bahrain-based Gulf Air agreed to a three-year jersey sponsorship deal, which the Sunday Times says is worth £7 million — more than four times the previous record for a second-tier club of £500,000 a year. Lotto Sport Italia SpA signed a £20 million, five-year contract to provide the team’s uniform.
The profile and wealth of Mittal, Briatore and Ecclestone have driven the new sponsorship agreements, says Gareth Moore, international sales director for Cologne, Germany-based sports marketing consultant Sport+Markt AG.
“The aura that comes with them is going to have significant interest for investors,” he said.
Images of Bhatia’s 2004 wedding to Mittal’s daughter Vanisha — the ceremony cost $55 million, according to the BBC — were beamed around the world. Briatore, 58, is married to 28- year-old model Elisabetta Gregoraci and has dated models Naomi Campbell and Heidi Klum, with whom he has a child. Briatore says his friendship with Real Madrid President Ramon Calderon helped the club land Parejo.
In Administration: The changes may mean the end of a 13-year absence from the top league. In 1993, QPR was the highest ranked of six London clubs then in the Premier League, and was relegated in 1996. By 2001, it skidded to the third tier and was under administration, a form of protection from creditors.
“Rangers looked like going out of business before the money men came in,” says Michael Lynagh, a 56-year-old fan who’s lived his whole life in the White City housing project next to the club’s Loftus Road stadium. “I think every QPR supporter is overjoyed with it.”
As painters apply the club’s royal blue and white colours to the 104-year-old stadium, fans’ expectations are high. Season- ticket sales are up 40 per cent even after a 30 per cent rise in prices. The most expensive cost £699; the cheapest £450.
Lynagh, an unemployed electrician, still found the money to pay for his seat.
“I’d like to see them put us in the Premier League,’’ he says, smoking a cigarette in the doorway of the Springbok, a pub festooned in Rangers memorabilia about 50 yards from the stadium. “I’m born and bred here, and I’ve been coming since I was a kid when I used to sneak in.”
Bhatia said his family sees QPR as a value investment.
“If we thought it was a second-tier club we would never have been involved in it,” Bhatia says, rolling up the sleeves of his starched white Oxford shirt. “One day QPR is going to be a romantic story. That romantic story just happens to begin with the club where it is today.”