One of London’s leading private equity firms has approached the cash-strapped Football Association (FA) about buying a big stake in the Women’s Super League (WSL).
Sky News has learnt that Bridgepoint, the long-standing owner of the rights to stage the global MotoGP series, has tabled a proposal that would see the WSL become the latest elite sporting competition to sell a stake to financial investors.
Sources said this weekend that Bridgepoint had approached the FA with an offer to buy a large minority stake in a new company that would own the WSL’s commercial rights.
The 12 member clubs, which include recently crowned champions Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester City, are understood to have been briefed on the Bridgepoint proposal.
The clubs would also own stakes in the company alongside the FA under the plan, according to a person briefed on it.
Insiders described the discussions as being at “a very preliminary stage” but added that Bridgepoint was serious in its interest.
The private equity firm’s interest effectively sets up a tussle with the Premier League for control of the women’s top flight.
Last month, Richard Masters, the Premier League’s chief executive, told MPs that it continued to hold talks about taking control of the WSL.
“We decided collectively – that is the Premier League and the FA together and the WSL and Women’s Championship Board – that now was not the right time, but we will return to that topic at some point in the near future,” he said.
This week, The Guardian reported that a majority of WSL clubs opposed the idea of a takeover by the Premier League amid concerns that the women’s game would play second-fiddle to its wealthier counterpart.
A deal to commercialise and promote the WSL more effectively would provide the FA with a boost to its coffers at an opportune time.
Sports governing bodies and rights-holders have been hurt badly by the COVID-19 crisis, with broadcasters seeking substantial rebates and many leagues having to curtail their seasons and recut deals with commercial partners.
Top-flight women’s football in England has seen a sharp uptick in interest since the national team reached the World Cup semi-final last year, losing 2-1 to the USA.
Barclays took over the title sponsorship of the WSL at the beginning of last season – although the deal was announced before the World Cup campaign – and has promised to inject substantial sums into helping grow the sport at grassroots levels.
The FA has also brought in Dawn Airey, a heavyweight media executive, as chair of the WSL and the second tier, the Women’s Championship League.
A decision on the future of the WSL would be taken by a board comprising three independent directors, club representatives and FA executives.
In the US, women’s football has seen record television audiences since the resumption after the lockdown.
It was unclear this weekend how much the sale of a minority stake might value the WSL at, but the proposal from Bridgepoint is expected to be considered by the FA given the state of its finances.
The governing body has been forced to axe more than 100 jobs in recent weeks because of a £300m funding deficit caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
Reports have suggested that the FA is now considering exploring the idea of selling control of Wembley Stadium – a deal rejected by council members two years ago.
The emergence of Bridgepoint’s interest may spark interest from other financial investors.
Bridgepoint has owned Dorna, MotoGP’s rights-holder, since 2006, a period in which it has overseen growth in global audiences to 3bn viewers annually.
It was also an investor in InFront, the sports marketing group, which it sold in 2015 to China’s Dalian Wanda, generating two-and-a-half times its original investment.
Bridgepoint’s approach for a large minority stake in the WSL underlines the growing interest in elite sports series from private equity investors.
A number of buyout firms have held talks about buying a stake in Italy’s Serie A, while CVC Capital Partners, the former owner of Formula One motor racing, is in the process of consolidating the ownership of rugby union’s global commercial rights.
Silver Lake, another private equity group, has invested hundreds of millions of pounds in Manchester City’s parent company, City Football Group.
Although the coronavirus pandemic has paused some prospective deals, the burgeoning interest in top-flight sport is expected to continue.
An FA spokeswoman said: “As the WSL continues to grow and thrive there is considerable commercial interest from a variety of sectors.”
Bridgepoint declined to comment.