LONDON — It took the San Francisco 49ers seven years to turn their interest in owning a piece of an English soccer team into reality. Now, two years after buying a 10 percent stake in Leeds United, the 49ers’ owners are looking to increase their investment, and their involvement, in the storied club that two weeks ago won promotion to the Premier League.
Executives representing the 49ers and Leeds United’s majority owner, Andrea Radrizzani, are in talks about increasing the N.F.L. team’s share, according to Paraag Marathe, the 49ers executive who has sat on the soccer team’s board since San Francisco’s initial investment in 2018.
“It’s something that we are absolutely hoping to do,” Marathe said in a telephone interview.
Any new investment, though, would only further entrench American football team owners in the board rooms of England’s Premier League, the world’s most popular and lucrative domestic soccer competition. The Glazer family, which owns the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, has controlled Manchester United since 2005; Arsenal is backed by the Los Angeles Rams owner E. Stanley Kroenke; and Fulham, which is one win away from clinching a return to the Premier League, is owned by Shahid Khan, who also owns the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Under Radrizzani, an Italian sports media tycoon, Leeds United has long searched for new investment. Radrizzani has been in talks with Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund, which already owns the French superclub Paris St.-Germain, but those discussions — despite reaching an advanced stage last year — have so far failed to produce a sale.
While the 49ers only hold a minority share, they have hardly been passive investors in Leeds. Top executives, including Marathe and Jed York, the 49ers’ chief executive, had been regular visitors to Leeds’ Elland Road stadium until the coronavirus pandemic shut down global travel. Marathe said he and York had traveled to Leeds, a city in northern England, once every five to six weeks.
“It obviously had fallen on hard times under multiple ownership groups,” Marathe said of Leeds, a storied club that has been troubled by financial problems and on-field struggles since tumbling out of the Premier League in 2004. “But the brand equity is still there, the fans, and the amount of people that care about that club,” he said. “We just knew that not only do they belong in the Premier League, but if they got to the Premier League, that the sky’s the limit.”
“The journey isn’t concluded,” he said of the team’s return to England’s top tier. “It’s just beginning.”
The 49ers first took an interest in Leeds United in 2011 when Marathe, the president of 49ers Enterprises, the team’s venture capital division, was scouring the world for sports brands in which the team could invest. In Leeds, he found a team with a long history — a three-time English champion with a passionate fan base in a large city that had no other professional club — and started talks…