Last night when AC Milan hosted and where eventually defeated by Atletico de Madrid in the Champions League it was a display at least from a sporting perspective of a clash between Italy’s most successful team in Europe’s elite competition and last year’s Spanish title winner.

For the financial world, it’s also a matchup between a hedge fund based in New York and a credit fund headquartered in Los Angeles. Elliott Management Corp. took control of AC Milan in 2018 after Chinese owner Li Yonghong defaulted on debt obligations. Funds managed by Ares Management Corporation acquired a 34% stake in LaLiga champion Atletico in June.

They are two of the alternative investment firms awash with cash that have been gradually gaining a foothold in the world’s most popular sport. After billionaire soccer fans, petrodollars from the Middle East and a spate of Chinese purchases over the past two decades, private equity, credit vehicles and hedge funds now represent the latest wave of investors. The most recent example is Miami-based 777 Partners, which announced on Sept. 23 it would purchase Italian club Genoa.

Some have loaned money to keep Europe’s most-storied clubs afloat. Others have purchased media rights, bought a stable of smaller teams or snapped up stakes in clubs as assets in peril. There’s even the Holy Grail of investing in an entire league, like CVC Capital Partners’s venture with Spain’s LaLiga announced last month.

European soccer has always been desperate for cash, but that’s grown more acute after the pandemic kept crowds away from stadiums and left some of the continent’s biggest and most successful clubs with eye-watering debt. It was a catalyst behind the failed breakaway Super League in April that JP Morgan Chase & Co. had planned to back.

The serial risk is that soccer has a rather ugly business model, and many investors have failed in an industry riddled with debt, inflated player salaries and at the mercy of politics and febrile fans.

Returns also aren’t guaranteed because of the threat of demotion from a league if the team doesn’t perform well enough. That raises a large question mark for U.S. investors over whether European soccer will ever be able to reach the valuations of American sports franchises.

“Investments in single clubs are only opportunistic,” said Nicolas Blanc, founder of Sport Value, a consultancy and financial services firm in the sport industry. “It is very volatile, you can be relegated, don’t know how well a specific player you’ve bought will perform and the value of the assets is very difficult to assess.”

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