Until recently, Wael al Qadi’s family was best known for founding the Arab Jordan Investment Bank (AJIB). But now they’ve joined the elite ranks of business figures from our region to own a team in the multi-billion dollar English Football League.
By Laith Abou-Ragheb
It’s early June, and I’ve arranged to meet Wael al-Qadi in his office near the top of AJIB’s gleaming new headquarters in Amman. But I’m not here to talk to the assistant general manager about credit cards and ATMs. No, I’ve come to hear him explain why, earlier this year, his family decided to buy Bristol Rovers, one of the oldest teams in the English Football League.
The remarkable tale begins back in the early 1980s, when a teenage al-Qadi was sent to boarding school in London and started attending Chelsea matches. Cheering from the stands at Stamford Bridge, his lifelong love of the sport was sealed. “Once you get the football bug, it becomes part of you. Especially in England, where football is part of the culture,” said al-Qadi, who’s now 46.
Even after returning to Jordan and taking up his executive position at AJIB, the banking giant founded by his family, al-Qadi was intent on taking his passion for the game to the next level. He became a senior member of the Jordan Football Association and worked on HRH Prince Ali’s successful FIFA vice presidency bid in 2011. Shortly after this he became the vice chairman of Prince Ali’s Asian Football Development Project, which gave him firsthand insight into just how big an industry the sport was becoming globally.
He soon came to the realization that owning and running a football club would be a natural progression for him and a potentially fruitful business move for his family, which also has major investments outside the banking sector. “I knew where I wanted to be. It was my calling. I established lots of good connections and they encouraged me to come into the football industry,” al-Qadi said. “After exploring several avenues, it became clear that owning a club would be the most ideal thing.”
After convincing his two brothers to come on board, he set about scouting for teams that were up for sale around Europe. Al-Qadi was on the lookout for an established club with a sizeable fan base, but that had also seen better days financially. Al-Qadi decided it made more business sense to go after lower league teams that can be developed over time. “It was a question of value,” he explained. “Why would you want to go and buy something that’s full of value which you can’t actually increase? Whereas if you get something that has potential you can increase its value big time.”
He began talking to lower league clubs in Belgium and Spain, but negotiations petered out and came to nothing. His attention then shifted to the UK, whose investor-friendly football industry had welcomed several foreign owners over recent years (not least from the Middle East).
He said he definitely didn’t want to pay “crazy money” for a club in either the Premiership or Championship. How crazy, exactly? In February, roughly 50 percent of Everton was reportedly sold to the Monaco-based British-Iranian billionaire Farhad Moshiri for almost $300 million. And who could forget Manchester City’s sale to Emirati billionaire Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan in 2008 for a similar figure?
Al-Qadi looked at a League Two club first, followed by another in League One. Even though their owners seemed willing to sell, he couldn’t ultimately come to an agreement with either.
But then in September of last year he got word that Bristol Rovers was looking for investors. The club, which was in League Two at the time, easily met all of al-Qadi’s criteria. It was founded all the way back in 1883 in southern England’s second largest city after London. So it already had a large and loyal fan base. Also, it was struggling financially after a multimillion-dollar deal to build a new stadium turned sour and the ensuing court battle had dragged on for months with no end in sight.
After months of intensive negotiations, al-Qadi eventually beat around 10 other bidders to secure ownership of the club by absorbing its considerable debts. Due to a non-disclosure agreement, he can’t reveal the figures involved, but he insisted his family got a good deal. “You would be amazed at how much value we got,” he said.
Evolution, not Revolution
As a European football match played silently on a large widescreen TV next to us in his office, al-Qadi used words like “ecstatic” and “overwhelmed” to describe the past few rollercoaster months that saw him become president of a demoralized club that he very likely saved from financial ruin, and which then managed to clinch a nail biting promotion to League One on the final day of the season.
He appears to have big ambitions for the club. But right from the get-go, he made it clear that success will be achieved through “evolution not revolution.” So he won’t be throwing millions of dollars around as some might (somewhat stereotypically) expect a wealthy Middle Eastern owner to do. “It’s not about spending cash to buy Ronaldo or Messi. It doesn’t work. It’s about getting the infrastructure right, it’s about getting the environment correct, making sure all the necessities and ingredients are there for the players to perform better.” Thankfully, he said everyone connected to the club, including its fans, understand this. “They don’t want anyone splashing the cash for short-term success. They know it doesn’t work. It’s about building something sustainable,” he said.
As soon as he took over, he set about making simple but important improvements to the way the club was run. He was surprised, for instance, to find no food was being laid on for players after training. So he began organizing catering for them. “If you provide food for the players to eat on the same table, that creates camaraderie and bond for the whole club and gives it meaning,” he said.
As well as this, spending on players is being significantly increased and improvements are planned for the club’s academy to nurture a new generation of Bristol Rovers players. “If you create a very good academy, parents will want to send their kids there,” he said. As for the legal case surrounding the sale of the stadium, al-Qadi said the club has decided not to pursue the matter further. Instead, they’re focusing on trying to build a new state-of-the-art stadium in conjunction with the University of West England. Negotiations are still ongoing with the aim to secure a deal that best serves the interests of the club, al-Qadi said.
What’s the Goal?
By taking over Bristol Rovers, it would be easy to think that al-Qadi, a self confessed football fanatic, was thinking more with his heart than his head. Surely there are less risky business ventures he could have pursued that don’t rest on how many goals a team of 11 players can score on match day? Couldn’t he just have parked the money in some real estate a little down the road in London? Al-Qadi insists it was a sound business move, and points to the explosive growth that has occurred in English football over recent years. “If you compare the football industry curve from the early 90s until now with other industries, football is the only one that’s going upwards,” he said.
The numbers involved are hard to dismiss. Just take a look at the huge value of live TV rights that top-flight teams have negotiated with broadcasters in the UK and around the world, which are likely to hit $12.5 billion over three years beginning from the upcoming 2016-2017 season.
In return for receiving these hugely lucrative TV deals, the Premiership passes down ‘solidarity payments’ to teams in lower leagues. “Just being part of that structure, you get a trickledown effect down the league,” al-Qadi said. For example, the pay out for each team in League Two is around $1.3 million. Now that Bristol Rovers have reached League One, this figure jumps to $2.5 million.
Even though al-Qadi seems to have done his due diligence before taking on Bristol Rovers, this still hasn’t stopped him being sniped at for not buying a team closer to home. But in his defense, and leaving aside all the work that he’s done to promote the domestic game through his role at the JFA, al-Qadi said Jordanian football—while having professional teams—simply lacks a comparably mature corporate structure that allows investors to buy and sell teams.
But his critics are also likely missing the important wider benefit of having a Jordanian with a significant foothold in what’s probably the richest and most watched football league in the world. Al-Qadi said he’s even started to spot Jordan’s flag being waved amongst Bristol Rovers supporters at games. Surely there’s a huge opportunity here to build bridges between cultures and promote a more positive image of Jordan and the Middle East to the millions of fans of English football around the world. Furthermore, al-Qadi said there’s a great deal of young sporting talent in Jordan that could thrive at Bristol Rovers. “If I don’t have Jordanian players in the future playing in Bristol, it means I’m a failure,” he said.
Bristol Rovers are due to play their first match of the new season against Scunthorpe United on August 6. Of course, al-Qadi realizes his efforts so far will amount to little if his team doesn’t rack up wins over the coming months and years. But even so, he won’t be pressured into setting targets. “Once you say that you create pressure on everyone in the club, and working under pressure is not a good idea,” he said. “It’s about taking it game by game. Look at your next game and try to win.” An attitude many agree could apply to the business world as much as the football pitch.