Aston Villa billionaire owner calls for Premier League spending rules reform

Aston Villa billionaire owner calls for Premier League spending rules reform

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The billionaire owner of Aston Villa has called for an overhaul of the Premier League’s rule book on spending, complaining that the current system had turned English football into a “financial game”.

Nassef Sawiris, Egypt’s richest man, said existing regulations governing what clubs can spend were preventing ambitious owners from challenging the established elite, and the system of penalties for breaking the rules lacked transparency.

Sawiris, who owns Birmingham team Aston Villa alongside US private equity billionaire Wes Edens, also described the Premier League’s so-called profit and sustainability rules as “anti-competitive”, and said he was seeking legal advice on whether to lodge a formal complaint against them.

“Some of the rules have actually resulted in cementing the status quo more than creating upward mobility and fluidity in the sport,” he told the Financial Times in an interview. “The rules do not make sense and are not good for football.”

The Premier League is the most-watched domestic competition in world club football, generating billions of pounds in TV revenue and making it a magnet for private equity firms, sovereign wealth funds and billionaires such as Sawiris.

Nassef Sawiris
Nassef Sawiris: ‘Managing a sports team has become more like being a treasurer or a bean counter rather than looking at what your team needs’ © Charlie Bibby/FT

But the increasing dominance on the pitch of Manchester City has undermined the league’s reputation for competitiveness and led to increased debate over how it is run. The northern English club, owned by Abu Dhabi royal Sheikh Mansour, has won four titles in a row, a Premier League record, while also being the subject of 115 allegations of financial rule breaches over a period of several years.

Separately, rival clubs Everton and Nottingham Forest — both slapped with points deductions for exceeding allowed financial losses — have also criticised the rules.

Sawiris said regulations limiting how much a club can lose over a three-year period — brought in to prevent reckless overspending — had instead created some perverse incentives for owners, such as encouraging investment in music venues to boost non-sporting revenue, or prioritising sales of homegrown players to maximise accounting profits.

“Managing a sports team has become more like being a treasurer or a bean counter rather than looking at what your team needs,” he said. “It’s more about creating paper profits, not real profits. It becomes a financial game, not a sporting game.”

Aston Villa finished fourth in the Premier League in the season just finished, qualifying for the lucrative Uefa Champions League. But the club has been losing money in pursuit of on-field success even as it has rapidly increased revenues. In the 2022-23 season, Villa swung to a net loss of roughly £120mn.

Sawiris and Edens first purchased a 55 per cent stake in Villa for £30mn in 2018 rescuing the club from a financial crisis and quickly gaining promotion to the Premier League. They held full control of the club until late last year, when US investor Atairos funded a capital increase that valued Villa at more than £500mn, the FT has reported.

While the Premier League has acknowledged the need to reform its spending regulations, team owners are deeply divided on what should replace the system. Some want rules tightened to prevent the richest clubs from driving up costs; others want to be given more leeway to spend in order to stay competitive on the pitch.

At the league’s annual meeting in Harrogate last week, clubs agreed to try out two new approaches to financial regulation. One limits spending on players to 85 per cent of revenue, while the other links the amount any club can spend to the income of the bottom-ranked team.

Both changes will be tested next season in tandem with existing regulations on profit and sustainability.

Sawiris complained financial regulations that incentivise sales of homegrown talent in effect penalise a club’s loyalty and commitment to their own young players. Selling an academy player — valued at zero in the books because of accounting rules — allows a club to book an immediate profit. However, management can then spend the proceeds on new players but spread the cost over several years of accounts. “This obvious flaw is to the detriment of the fans,” he said.

The league’s spending rules were designed to prevent clubs from going bust by limiting losses to £105mn over three seasons.

Sawiris complained the system had failed to keep up with inflation since being introduced in 2013. And the decision-making process for dictating penalties for breaches was “opaque and . . . seemingly arbitrary”, he said.

The Premier League is facing a legal challenge from City, which claims rules on related-party sponsorships and other transactions are unfair and anti-competitive.

English football is also preparing for the introduction of an independent football regulator, which will be given powers to oversee certain financial aspects of the game.