Southampton have been taken over by a consortium backed by the Serbian media magnate Dragan Solak that plans to make the Premier League club a cornerstone of a Red Bull-style portfolio of teams across the world.
Solak, the founder of the United Group, a telecoms and media provider in south-east Europe, is the lead investor in a deal completed by a company co-founded by the former Brentford co-director of football Rasmus Ankersen.
Ankersen left Brentford and his post as the executive chairman of the Danish club FC Midtjylland in December to set up the sports investment firm Sport Republic, which has bought a controlling 80% stake in Southampton. Solak has partnered the Danish investors Ankersen and Henrik Kraft with the aim of purchasing more clubs in a model similar to the one employed by the owners of Manchester City, RB Leipzig – where the Southampton manager, Ralph Hasenhüttl, worked previously – and Barnsley.
Kraft said they planned to be active owners but “will not be starting any revolutions”. Solak described the acquisition of Southampton as the “first step towards execution of our investment strategy”.
He 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 will be a cornerstone of the organisation we plan to build.”
Ankersen and Kraft, who has spent the past 20 years in the technology industry, are expected to be on Southampton’s board. Sport Republic aims to apply “proprietary intelligence and data analytics to help sports businesses and sports technology companies reach their full potential”. Ankersen was an integral part of Brentford’s impressive rise to the Premier League, implementing a data-driven recruitment strategy.
The takeover marks the end of the reign of Gao Jisheng, after almost four and a half years as the majority shareholder. Gao bought an 80% stake for about £200m in August 2017. The Chinese businessman has been keen to sell for the past 18 months, only for interested parties to withdraw. His investment in the club has been extremely limited but Hasenhüttl has repeatedly steered the team away from relegation.
The former majority owner, Katharina Liebherr, retains her 20% stake and the chief executive, Martin Semmens, will remain in post and continue to oversee the day‑to‑day running of the club. Liebherr, her advisers, Semmens and the managing director, Toby Steele, oversaw the takeover process. Southampton, who visit Swansea in the FA Cup third round on Saturday, are 14th in the Premier League. The first league game of the new era will, neatly, be against Brentford next Tuesday.
Semmens said Southampton had found the “perfect solution” for the club. “Sport Republic is being built to provide a network of people, clubs and technology that allows the clubs within it to grow every day and gain the advantages you need to be successful,” he said. “As a club, we have never wanted to buy success but to earn it.”