Geoff Thompson knows there are a lot of people who want to buy what he has to sell. The phone calls and emails over the past few weeks have left no room for doubt. And really, that’s no surprise. Few industries are as attractive or as prestigious as English football, and Thompson has a part of that.

He is, admittedly, a comparatively small piece: South Shields FC, the team he has owned for almost a decade, operates in the sixth tier of English football, several levels below, and several worlds away, from the dazzling light and the international appeal of the First Division. But while his team may be small, Thompson believes it is at least as perfectly formed as any lower-league English football club could hope to be.

South Shields have won four promotions to the higher leagues in his nine years as chairman. The team owns its stadium. Mr Thompson has spent considerable sums of money modernizing the toilets, club shop and private boxes. There is a thriving youth academy and an active charitable foundation. “We’ve done most of the hard work,” Thompson said.

After a cancer scare last year led him to reevaluate his priorities, Thompson reluctantly decided he has to “pass the baton” to someone else.

That’s where things get complicated. There are many very rich people who want to buy their way into English football. It is, as Mr. Thompson said, “fun.” Owning a team offers the opportunity to “be a hero” for a place. It is a speech convincing enough that, in a matter of weeks, at least four suitors (two British and two Americans) have inquired about the possibility of taking South Shields off his hands.

That’s the advantage. The downside is that, as the Premier League has become a playground for private equity firms and sovereign wealth funds, and the success of “Welcome to Wrexham” has focused Hollywood’s attention on backwater romance of the game, England’s lower leagues have become a place where even the very rich can feel poor.

The league to which South Shields have been promoted, the National League North, is largely filled with part-time teams and semi-professional players, but the team’s wage bill is still around $1.2 million a year. (Even that’s not the highest in the division.) Thompson estimates that he has invested about $10 million of his own money into the club. He knows he won’t get most of it back.

And that, he says, is fine. He is happy to have created something to treasure in his modest hometown of South Shields, a place, she said, that is “always in the wrong quartile for obesity, poverty and unemployment.”

“I feel good about it,” he said. “Even if they sound like the words of a madman.”

The challenge is to find a person to succeed you who feels the same way. He doesn’t want all of his work to disappear when his successor realizes the money won’t go as far as he might expect. “I don’t want it to wither on the vine,” he said.

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Simon Leslie doesn’t know how or when his ambition to have a football team arose. It was just something he knew and he had known for some time. “I always wanted to have a club,” he said. “I thought it looked like the coolest, sexiest job in the world.”

Before the arrival of the Premier League three decades ago, Leslie’s background – he founded Ink, a company that produces a portfolio of in-flight magazines, and sold his stake in 2022 – would have made him a likely candidate to own a team . in the upper echelons of English football.

Now, however, the cost of entering the top flight is essentially out of reach of the simply extraordinarily rich: Jim Ratcliffe, one of the richest men in the world, recently spent more than $1 billion to buy just a share of the 25 percent at Manchester United. Rising prices have led to an inflationary rise further down the line, meaning that even buying into a second-tier league, known as the Championship, is prohibitively expensive.

“It takes money from a nation-state to buy a Premier League team,” as Thompson said. “A team in the championship needs hundreds of millions.”

Last year, Leslie realized his dream in the sixth tier, taking a majority stake in National League South mainstay Eastbourne Borough, the geographical counterweight to the division that South Shields call home. In the town of Eastbourne – chic, coastal and artsy – Leslie saw an opportunity.

He had a bold vision for what his football team could become: a haven for players released from elite academies and anchored by a state-of-the-art rehabilitation center – “cryotherapy, cold plasma, everything,” he said – sandwiched between the sea ​​and hills of the South Downs.

It would be wrong to say that money was not a problem, but Mr. Leslie was willing to invest. He has spent about $600,000 in his first season, hiring not only players but also sports scientists, talent scouts and chefs. He hopes to invest the same amount in his second year. The goal is to break even by 2026, as there is, Leslie said, a “limit to how much I am willing to lose.”

But the inflationary effect that has kept even the super-rich out of top-level football is now being felt in the various strata of English football: across the country, there are dozens of investors investing large sums of money in teams in the three divisions of the semi-professional National League. League and even in the expanding hyperlocal amateur levels below that.

“It’s not just about teams from higher divisions coming to sign our players,” Mr. Leslie said. “We’ve had clubs in the Isthmian League, the lower tier, offer players more money than we pay them.”

They can do this because, unlike the Premier League or the three professional tiers of the Football League just below it, England’s lower leagues have no cost controls. Owners can spend what they want and are incentivized to do so because of the potential reward: promotion to the Football League can mean around $1.2 million a year in broadcast revenue alone.

“It’s in the National League where people think they can make money,” Leslie said.

Over the course of his first few months in Eastbourne, he realized that this is much easier said than done.

English football has the unfortunate habit of seeing its beloved pyramid only from the top down. As you descend from the cash-soaked Premier League, through the ambitious Championship, to the dozens of semi-professional and amateur leagues below that, the depth and breadth of the league system appear to illustrate not only the popularity of the sport but also its health. .

However, if you look at the pyramid from the bottom up, the impression is different. It’s steep, daunting and narrows quickly.

Only two National League clubs can be promoted to the Football League each season, unlocking their coveted television income.

“Clubs spend an excessive amount of money to get out” of the lower leagues, said Christina Philippou, a professor of sports finance at the University of Portsmouth. “That means if others want to compete, they have to spend the same.” And that, she said, “creates a spiral.”

It’s drastic enough to surprise even those who might have gotten used to it. “I see some of the teams spending money and I’m shocked,” said Gary Douglas, president of Guiseley, a National League North team in a Leeds suburb. “There are teams with fairly small crowds that suddenly have huge budgets.”

The change, he said, has been gradual. He first invested in football in 2006 and joined two friends to take control of Guiseley. Their combined wealth made the club the “richest non-league”, as Steve Parkin, one of Mr Douglas’s triumvirate, said at the time of the purchase.

Surely this is no longer the case. Money has flowed into the lower leagues in recent years, even before Wrexham – both the team and the documentary – brought unexpected appeal to the lower reaches of English football. Now there are dozens of wealthy owners willing to bet that they will be the ones to succeed.

“The National League is the goose that lays the golden egg,” Douglas said.

However, how risky this investment is can be seen in the clubs’ finances. In 2022, the last year for which complete figures are available, clubs in the National League’s three divisions reported a combined loss of $25 million. Two-thirds of the league’s teams were effectively insolvent, their liabilities dwarfing their assets. That pattern will most likely repeat itself further down the pyramid, where incomes are even lower.

“It has disaster written all over it,” Dr. Philippou said.

For some, liberation will come with escape and promotion. But many more teams (and their owners) are destined to be disappointed. Like Douglas, the president of Guiseley, they could find themselves financially and emotionally compromised, unable to leave.

“Once you’re in, you’re in,” he said.

Or they could, like Thompson, the South Shields chairman, have to begin the long and demanding search for a suitable replacement: someone who will build on their work, rather than dismantle it. After all, that’s how the system works.

“The model is that, for reasons of ego or emotion, there are always new people waiting when a particular individual’s journey at a club ends,” Dr. Philippou said.

However, he added, it only works because of the belief that “there will always be someone else to come.”

By Sam