Brighton, Falmer & A Gambler
Brighton & Hove Albion’s move to Falmer has been beset by every problem imaginable over the last few years, but when BBC South showed construction work starting at the site of the proposed new stadium last year one might have been forgiven for thinking that things were finally starting to move in the right direction. In the background, however, circumstances were conspiring against the Albion yet again. The global financial meltdown was having a disastrous effect on the club’s ability to find the tens of millions of pounds required, and the team’s form on the pitch seemed likely to end in their relegation.
Over the last month, however, the sun has finally shone on the Sussex club. Under the astute management of Russell Slade (a man who could only look more like his name suggests if he wore a top hat with mirrors on it and had a broad Black Country accent), they scrambled clear of the drop on the last day of the season, and now they’ve secured the sort of funding that most supporters of lower division teams only dream of. Rumours of the takeover had been circling in the city for several months, but on Monday the truth finally came out. After twelve years in charge, Dick Knight has stepped aside as the chairman of the club, and thirty-nine year old Tony Bloom has taken over in charge.
The involvement of Bloom at Brighton shouldn’t come as a surprise to too many people. He is a lifelong supporter, as his uncle and grandfather (a current director and former vice-chairman of the club respectively) were before him. What is somewhat surprising is the depth of his proposed investment. Bloom has promised to fund the vast majority of the cost of the construction of the new stadium – a staggering £93m – through interest-free loans that will not be repayable until 2023. This, in itself, is an incredible coup for the club. The interest payments on a loan of a similar size at commercial rates would have been prohibitively expensive, and this funding means that Slade should have reasonable funds available to ensure the team’s stability on the pitch.
This isn’t, however, to say that Brighton supporters don’t have the right to voice concerns over this particular take-over. Considering that he is putting £93m into a League One football club, comparatively little is known about how Bloom actually makes the amount of money sufficient to bankroll such an investment. Although it makes for good headlines and there is no question that he has won a reasonable amount of money by the standards of the man in the street, it seems unlikely that Bloom has made most of his money through poker professionally. He founded the company Premierbet just before the 2002 World Cup and sold his stake in that company in 2005, and has also been said to be involved in hedge funds and property development. For someone that is guaranteeing almost £100m to his local football club, though, precious little is known about his exact wealth or where it has come from.
The other major question that Albion supporters should probably be asking themselves at present is the level of debt that they are taking on. Since it will be in the form of loans from a majority shareholder, this is a different type of debt to that taken on by, say, Manchester United or Liverpool. Having said that, though, this amount if money is an astronomical amount of money for a club of this size to take on. It is also worth pointing out that £93m (which includes all of the attendant costs of building the stadium as well as the actual construction costs) still seems an enormous amount of money for a 22,500 seater stadium. With this level of debt, questions remain over whether Falmer will end up being the “community stadium” that planning permission was eventually – and tortuously – granted for. Brighton need to ensure that the need to repay the debt – if they ever have to – doesn’t completely supercede the aim of Falmer being an affordable place to visit.
To an extent, Brighton were stuck between a rock and a hard place. Unable to borrow the money commercially and staring down the barrel of having to postpone the construction of the stadium, Tony Bloom’s offer was obviously the best one on the table and, whilst there is an element of risk to it, it’s a small risk that they simply have to take. However, there is no harm in Albion supporters questioning Bloom’s credentials. If he is the supporter that much in his past seems to indicate that he is, he should have no problem in publicly allaying anybody’s fears as well as understanding that, considering what happened to their club at the hands of Bellotti and Archer in the mid-1990s, they have a right to be jumpy about investors promising them a shiny new stadium.