Liverpool board agrees to sell to Red Sox group; legal fight looms with American owners

By Rob Harris, AP
Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Liverpool board agrees on sale to Red Sox owners

LONDON — Liverpool’s board agreed to sell the debt-riddled Premier League club to the owners of the Boston Red Sox on Wednesday, but may have to take legal action to force out the existing American owners.

Current co-owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett Jr. have already said they will resist the bid from New England Sports Ventures, which owns the Red Sox, and a separate bid from Asia.

Hicks and Gillett said the Boston bid — and one from an unidentified Asian investor — “dramatically undervalue” the 18-time English champions.

Liverpool chairman Martin Broughton said the Red Sox owners have offered to pay $477 million, which is only likely to cover the debts and bank charges stemming from the leveraged 2007 takeover by Hicks and Gillett.

Despite the opposition of Hicks and Gillett, who own all the shares in Liverpool, Boston’s offer was accepted by the three non-owner board members: Broughton — who was hired by Hicks and Gillett in April to sell the club — plus managing director Christian Purslow and commercial director Ian Ayre.

The Premier League said in a statement it should be ready to approve the takeover by Friday.

Broughton is set to go to court next week to reinforce his authority over the sale and challenge the owners’ attempts to remove Purslow and Ayre from the board. Broughton said he expects the sale to be completed in about a week.

Broughton said Hicks and Gillett have “flagrantly abused” written undertakings made to Royal Bank of Scotland, which holds the bulk of Liverpool’s debt.

“We need to go to the court to … declare that we did act validly in completing the sale agreement, and then the buyers can complete the sale,” Broughton said.

Liverpool is one of four Premier League clubs under American ownership, along with Manchester United, Aston Villa and Sunderland. Most prominent are Malcolm Glazer and his sons, owners of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who took over Manchester United in 2005 in a leveraged buyout worth $1.4 billion.

The Red Sox ownership signaled its soccer interest last summer by hosting an exhibition match between Celtic and Sporting Lisbon at Boston’s Fenway Park.

The ownership group is headed by financial trader John Henry, with two other principals: Tom Werner, who made his money producing hit shows on U.S. television, and Larry Lucchino, a longtime baseball executive.

Reached late Tuesday night, Lucchino declined comment. Henry has not responded to e-mail messages left by The Associated Press.

Hicks wants to sell for about $951 million, a figure that has forced several investors to end their interest. The owners bought the club for $275 million, taking on $71 million of liabilities.

“The owners have invested more than $270 million in cash into the club. And during their tenure, revenues have nearly doubled, investment in players has increased and the club is one of the most profitable in the (Premier League),” Hicks and Gillett said in a statement. “As such, the board has been presented with offers that we believe dramatically undervalue the club.

“To be clear, there is no change in our commitment to finding a buyer for Liverpool Football Club at a fair price that reflects the very significant investment we’ve made. We will, however, resist any attempt to sell the club without due process or agreement by the owners.”

The turmoil comes after Liverpool lost to Blackpool on Sunday, continuing the club’s worst start to a league season since 1953. Liverpool hasn’t won in five matches in all competitions and is currently in the Premier League’s relegation zone. The team was also recently knocked out of the League Cup by Northampton, a club struggling in the fourth tier of English soccer.

Broughton is encouraged by how the Red Sox ownership group revived the baseball club’s fortunes after buying it in 2002 for $660 million.

The Red Sox won the World Series in 2004 and 2007 — their first since 1918. Liverpool won its 18th English championship crown in 1990 and its fifth European Cup in 2005.

“If you look at the Boston Red Sox as a massive example of taking a major, historic team which had seen better days and restored them to glory, it is a parallel which demonstrates action,” Broughton said.

One of the priorities at Liverpool will be to replace the 45,000-capacity Anfield with a newer and bigger stadium, but Broughton says the Merseyside club could emulate the Red Sox by refurbishing an existing ground.

“At Fenway they chose not to build a new stadium — they will want to make sure that they do the right thing, (but) we will have a stadium which holds 60-odd thousand,” Broughton said. “Whether that is the new stadium as designed or not, that is not a commitment, but will we have stadium development? Yes.”

Broughton acknowledged the ownership turmoil has affected the squad.

“You can see one or two of the players playing with the world on their shoulder — there will be money for investment in the squad,” Broughton said. “There has been this huge amount of negativity around Liverpool — the fans demonstrating against the owners.”

Those protests have been led by the Spirit of Shankly, a fan group named after legendary Liverpool manager Bill Shankly, who won three league titles, two FA Cups and the UEFA Cup from 1959-1974.

“It’s just another part of the ongoing soap opera at Liverpool,” Shankly spokesman James McKenna said. “We just want a resolution to it sooner rather than later. It leaves fans wondering what’s going to happen next.”

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