Dragan Solak, the businessman behind cable-TV operator United Group, has bought Southampton from Gao Jisheng; Sport Republic acquire 80 per cent controlling stake as Katharina Liebherr retains her 20 per cent minority shareholding
Wednesday 5 January 2022 08:14, UK
Southampton have confirmed a Serbian-born cable television tycoon has completed a £100m takeover of the club.
Sky News had reported on Tuesday afternoon Dragan Solak, founder of United Group, has invested a chunk of his fortune in a controlling stake in the Saints, who sit 14th in the table, 10 points clear of the relegation zone.
Southampton have now confirmed the deal which sees Sport Republic, a London-based investment firm in the sports and entertainment industry, acquire a controlling stake in the club.
The takeover brings an end to the majority ownership of Gao Jisheng, a Chinese businessman who bought an 80 per cent stake in the club in 2017.
Katharina Liebherr retains her 20 per cent minority shareholding.
A club statement read: "Southampton Football Club can today confirm that Sport Republic has completed the acquisition of a controlling stake in Southampton Football Club.
"Sport Republic is an investment firm in the sports and entertainment industry. They have purchased the shareholding of the club held by Mr Gao and will work in partnership with Katharina Liebherr who retains her minority shareholding.
"Everyone within the Southampton community would like to wish Mr Gao and his family well for their future."
Mr Solak is understood to be behind a new holding company which will examine offers for clubs in other international leagues, replicating a strategy employed by the owners of Manchester City.
Rasmus Ankersen, the former Brentford co-director of football, and Henrik Kraft, a London-based investor and chairman of Sport Republic, are also involved in the Southampton takeover.
Solak said: "My partners and I have experience in long-term investments in the sports and entertainment industry and Sport Republic has been founded to combine this expertise and deliver something unique to the market.
"Southampton has so many of the qualities we have been looking for in a major sports organisation. It has a great management team, excellent talent development, talented teams playing attractive football and a dedicated fan base.
"We are delighted to be able to complete this acquisition as a first step towards execution of our investment strategy. Southampton will be a cornerstone of the organisation we plan to build.
Southampton is Sport Republic's first acquisition and they are aiming to "build a portfolio of high-influence stakes in
football clubs and other sporting assets across the world".
Kraft said: "We will be an active and engaged owner, but we will not be starting any revolutions.
"We were attracted to Southampton because it is already a well-run club that follows a clearly defined strategy.
"Southampton's CEO Martin Semmens will continue to run the day-to-day operations of the club, and Sport Republic will be working closely with him and his team to help the club grow.
"The acquisition of Southampton is a great first step and we are very excited about the journey ahead."
Southampton have been seeking a new owner for months.
Semmens said: "Over the last two years, together with the shareholders of our club, we have searched for the right partner to take the club forward. Today we have found the perfect solution for our club.
"Sport Republic are experienced investors, but also experienced within the world of elite professional sports. That combination is very hard to find, and we are thrilled to have reached an agreement that secures our short and long-term future.
"We are grateful for the support of Mr Gao and Katharina that allowed us to take our time, turn away the wrong options and ultimately find the right partner for the future of this great club, its fans, staff and the people of Southampton.
"Today we welcome a new beginning with a new ownership group. We have found partners with ambition for the future, but with a clear understanding of what Southampton stands for and the direction we must go in now."
It is the first deal to have been approved by the Premier League since a government-commissioned report by the former sports minister, Tracey Crouch, called for more rigorous scrutiny of club takeovers.
Her inquiry was initiated after the furious reaction to six English clubs' decision to join a European Super League early last year.
It acquired additional impetus after the Premier League approved the takeover of Newcastle by a consortium led by Saudi Arabia's sovereign wealth fund.
The Magpies' acquisition by one of the world's wealthiest investors infuriated a number of Premier League clubs, triggering the resignation of the league's chairman, Gary Hoffman.
Sky Sports News' Kaveh Solhekol on The Transfer Show:
"I don't think there will be lots of incomings, but this is fantastic news for Southampton supporters - it's a late Christmas present.
"Usually when someone buys a Premier League club, you think 'this is just a billionaire who wants to buy a club for vanity sake, or he wants to show off to his friends'.
"But this investment company is very interesting when you look into it. The main investor in the company is a Serbian billionaire called Dragan Solak, who has made a lot of money in south eastern Europe. He's got a telecommunications and media companies, so that's where a bulk of the money is coming from.
"But the really interesting person involved in all of this is someone called Rasmus Ankersen, who was on this show in the summer.
"He was the co-director of football for six years at Brentford and was instrumental in their promotion to the Premier League, their business model and how much they rely on data and finding the kind of players who are value for money in the transfer market that some other clubs haven't seen.
"What they're saying is they're not just going to buy Southampton to try and make them successful, they're setting up a new kind of company and there are going to be lots of other clubs - Southampton are just one of the clubs they're going to own - and also they're going to be buying and investing in technology companies who specialise in sports and data.
"It's quite exciting, it's something we've seen before in the Premier League."
Solak is the founder and chairman of Serbian media group United Group, which began with an investment in a cable company but has grown into a major broadcaster, broadband and mobile company in southeast Europe.
United Media operates five national broadcasters and more than 50 pay-TV channels as well as a stable of newspapers, magazines and radio stations.
Solak has a number of other business interests, including motion picture production company VANS. A keen golfer, he is also chairman of Eligo, a Surrey-based company specialising in golf tourism.
Ankersen serves as the chief executive of Sport Republic. The Dane has seven years of experience in football, having worked at both Brentford and Danish Super League side FC Midtjylland in recent years.
Ankersen joined Brentford in 2015 as co-director of football and was part of their success in earning promotion to the English top flight for the first time in 74 years. At the same time, he was executive chairman of Midtjylland during a period in which they won three Danish league titles and qualified for the group stages of the Champions League in 2020.
Brentford announced in mid-December that Ankersen would be leaving to set up Sport Republic.
Sport Republic chairman Kraft has a background as an investor in a number of sports technology companies, and has previously been an investor in Solak's United Group.
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