Sunderland AFC said it has started a process to sell the U.K. soccer team, just days after a coordinated fan backlash against its current owner.
The board of Sunderland feels it has “no option but to sell the club” after a recent fan campaign asking for insurance entrepreneur Stewart Donald to depart, it said in a statement Tuesday. Donald said when he bought the team 18 months ago that he wouldn’t outstay his welcome, according to the statement.
No further updates will be given until a preferred bidder is identified, Sunderland said. The team is one of the few in English soccer to be debt-free and break-even on an operational basis, it said in the statement.
“We are placing sufficient funds in the club to support the manager as he seeks to improve the first team in the next few weeks,” Donald said in the statement. “I just ask that fans now unite to support the players and the coaching staff.”
The move formalizes plans for a change in ownership after fan groups took to Twitter last month to attack Donald’s stewardship of the club with the hashtag #DonaldOut. Sunderland, known as the “Black Cats,” has been languishing two divisions below England’s money-spinning Premier League.
Despite currently being well outside the Premier League, Sunderland is still likely to attract takeover interest. Historic teams with large fanbases do not often change hands in English soccer.
The last change in ownership of such a storied club came in July 2018, when Egyptian billionaire Nassef Sawiris and Fortress Investment Group cofounder Wes Edens acquired a majority stake in Birmingham-based Aston Villa. The team has since been promoted to the Premier League, where broadcast revenues start out at around 100 million pounds ($132 million) per club each season.
The potential for English soccer teams to fetch big-ticket valuations was highlighted in November, when U.S. private equity group Silver Lake bought just over 10% of Manchester City for $500 million.
Three MSD Partners executives who manage investments for computer billionaire Michael Dell were earlier in talks about a deal for Sunderland, people with knowledge of the matter said in August. The trio ended up extending a 9 million-pound ($11.8 million) loan to Sunderland’s holding company.
Donald’s 2018 takeover of Sunderland was greeted with enthusiasm by the team’s passionate supporters, who initially reveled in his desire to be open with fans about the club’s operations.
During his first summer in charge, Donald sought help from fans to freshen up the team’s 49,000-seat stadium. Along with the free labor came a renewed sense of togetherness, after two successive seasons that each ended with Sunderland being relegated to a lower tier of English soccer.
Sunderland, which was formed in 1879, boasts six league titles and two FA Cups in its history. It lies in the soccer hotbed of England’s industrial northeast, adjacent to Newcastle, its big rival as a city and in sports. The struggles of the team were captured in a Netflix Inc. documentary series in 2018.
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