By Jack Pitt-Brook and Charlie Eccleshare, The Athletic
When the Football Association opened St George’s Park in October 2012, the £100 million training facility was meant to be the pride of the English game. The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge presided over the ceremony, Roy Hodgson’s England team trained there, and plenty of football dignitaries attended. One of them was Daniel Levy, the Tottenham chairman, who a few weeks earlier had opened Spurs’ new training ground in Enfield.
An attendee sidled up to Levy and asked him why he had made the journey from London for the day. “I just wanted to come and make sure that my training ground was better than this one,” he joked. “And it is!”
It was classic Levy: ambitious that Tottenham should have the best facilities in the world, fiercely proud of what he has achieved at the club and with a dry sense of humour that does not always come across in public.
Levy is one of the most powerful men in English football, as well as one of the most private. He has run Tottenham with forensic control for almost 20 years now, transforming them from one of the mid-table pack into an example of how a modern self-sufficient football club should work. When Levy joined the board, the club was worth £80 million. Now, with their world-class training ground and stadium, they are valued at £2 billion. Damien Comolli, Spurs director of the football from 2005 to 2008, recently told The Athletic that Levy deserves a statue outside the stadium.
But among Tottenham fans, Levy is not universally popular. The team has only won one League Cup during his tenure, although they did come close to greatness under Mauricio Pochettino, finishing as Premier League runners up in 2017 and reaching the Champions League final in 2019. But their greatest manager since Bill Nicholson was sacked last year and stickers saying “ENIC OUT: PROFIT OVER GLORY” are not an uncommon sight around the club’s newly-built stadium. Some fans argue that the recent improvements were in spite of Levy, not because of him. Clearly, he has more work to do.
The Athletic spoke to dozens of people who have worked with or for Levy, or sat across from him in negotiations, to assess how he runs the ship at Spurs, what he has achieved, and where he has failed…
It should be no surprise that Daniel Levy has become one of English football’s greatest businessmen and deal-makers. Retail is in his veins. Levy was born into a business family with roots in east London. The family business, which started in 1912 as “A Levy & Sons”, a Stratford hat shop, became one of the country’s most popular discount clothing chains — Mr Byrite.
Levy grew up a Tottenham fan after his great uncle took him to White Hart Lane and he excelled at school before winning a place at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, to read Economics and Land Economy. As a student in the early 1980s, he worked exceptionally hard and kept himself to himself. When The Athletic reached out to a number of his peers at Sidney Sussex, not one of them could remember anything about him.
But the qualities that have marked out Levy’s 20-year tenure at Tottenham — hard work, ambition, attention to detail, eventual success — were all there as a young man. Levy worked ferociously hard for his final exams and was rewarded, much to his surprise, with a first-class degree.
“My focus at Cambridge was to get a decent degree because I saw it as a means to getting a good job. That was where I concentrated all my energy,” he said in a recent interview with Varsity magazine. “I remember working every hour in the last few months leading up to them and thinking that I just wasn’t good enough.” When Levy went to find his name on the boards listing students by their degree classification and found himself among those with a first, he recalls being so “stunned” he was “on the floor”.
After Cambridge, Levy moved back to London to start his career. He worked for the family business — Mr Byrite — and started to work in property, under the wing of property investor Keith Moss. But the most important relationship in Levy’s career was with Joe Lewis, the billionaire investor and currency trader who took on a young Levy as a protege.
It was the mid-1990s and Levy, in his early 30s, was smart enough to anticipate the financial boom that was coming in European football. So ENIC (English National Investment Company), with Levy as its managing director, started buying up clubs around Europe. Long before City Football Group purchased clubs across the globe, ENIC were building their own international football franchise. As well as their interests in software and entertainment (they owned the Warner Brothers Studios stores), ENIC bought Slavia Prague and Vicenza, and stakes in FC Basel, AEK Athens and Rangers. But the crown jewels were always to invest in a club in England. In 1998, ENIC had an interest in investing in Manchester United and after that, they even tried to buy Wembley Stadium.
But it was Tottenham, the club Levy grew up supporting, that gave them their route into the English game. Alan Sugar had grown tired of being chairman of Spurs and first approached Levy about buying his stake in 1998 but it was not until December 2000 that a deal was done. ENIC bought 29.9 per cent of the club for £22 million. Levy, at the age of 38, was on the Tottenham board.
Even back then, Levy was known as being reserved and publicity-shy. Then, as now, he had a small circle of close friends but was not especially sociable beyond that, so it was a big leap for this quiet young man to find himself running one of the biggest football clubs in the country. And it left plenty of Spurs fans asking a question they still ask now: what is Daniel Levy actually like?
David Buchler was there at the start of the Levy era at Tottenham, sitting as vice-chairman from 2001 to 2006, and he remembers Levy growing into the role that demanded of him a new set of skills. “Daniel, on a one-to-one level, is fantastic,” Buchler tells The Athletic. “He wasn’t as comfortable then as perhaps he is now in speaking to crowds. And self-promoting. He doesn’t promote himself. He’s quiet, he’s unassuming, but he is in charge. Underestimate him at your peril.”
Analysing character from a distance is difficult but the words that almost everyone comes back with on Levy are “intelligent” and “reserved”. He has his small circle of close friends and trusted advisers, who he has business with and who help him run Tottenham, but for those outside that network, he is difficult to get close to.
That reservation can manifest itself in different ways. Some say he is uncharismatic and does not exude the natural magnetism of someone in his position. Others say that he simply engages better in small groups rather than in front of 1,000 people. And when you enter his circle of trust, he can be funny, with his own dry sense of humour. Despite his position of power, he does not court publicity and rarely grants interviews. “Not exactly a Trump character,” one source says.
Levy enjoys skiing and has a house in the French Alps — near Mont Blanc — where he invited Mauricio Pochettino on holiday. He hates smoking and when he took over at Tottenham, they became the first ground in the country to ban it, even going as far as stopping the club shop from selling club-branded ashtrays. He is in good physical shape, and he needs to be for this job. One associate says that Levy must have “the stamina of an ox” after 20 years running the club in the way that he does, with such control over everything that happens.
Detail is hugely important to Levy. He always needs to be fully across everything happening at the club. He is a self-confessed “perfectionist” and will read documents and send emails late into the night if he finds something he is not happy with. “He’s absolutely forensic,” says a source. “If you’re having a conversation with him and you don’t have all the facts at your fingertips, he will find you out.”
When it comes to personal interactions, everyone has their own interpretation. One fan — with close personal connections to the club — told The Athletic he was surprised that Levy was not especially warm with him compared to how recent managers have been with him on learning who he was. He described Levy as “socially awkward”.
But other fans have a very good relationship with him. Levy meets the Tottenham Hotspur Supporters Trust board three times a year and THST board members have found him to be warmer and more open than his reputation would suggest.
Pete Haine, the THST board secretary, remembers his first meeting with Levy. “He looked at my face and obviously didn’t recognise me,” Haine says. “But he came straight across, gave me his hand and introduced himself. I thought right from the start: that was a nice personal touch. It wasn’t what I expected, which was for him to be a little bit cold. It surprised me in how open he is, how friendly he is, how much he really genuinely subscribes to the ethos of the Tottenham family.”
Whatever people may make of Levy the man — awkward and cold or unassuming and reserved — there is no question about how much he wants Tottenham to win. He lives and breathes the success of the team on the pitch. When Spurs beat Chelsea 2-0 in January 2017, one of the peaks of recent years, he messaged Pochettino late at night to say that he could not sleep, such was his excitement.
The same was true for the opposite reason in 2008-09, the last time Spurs started a season so badly it looked as if they might go down. Spurs had only taken two points from their first eight Premier League games when Harry Redknapp replaced Juande Ramos as manager. Levy told friends that he could not sleep for weeks from the fear of relegation because of how responsible he felt for the fortunes of the team and how deeply he cares for the club.
“The thing is, I like Daniel,” says one source who frequently has to deal with the Tottenham chairman. “Daniel, between February and June, and September to December, is a great guy. But Daniel in the transfer window… is a different guy.”
When it comes to transfer negotiations, there is no one else in football quite like Daniel Levy. Not just for his longevity — running Tottenham for 20 years, in control of all the comings and goings at the club — but also for his infamous hard negotiation, which has landed Tottenham some brilliant deals over the years, as well as arguably costing them some others.
Almost everyone in football has their own story of dealing with Levy. From the early low-ball offers, the brinkmanship, the endless renegotiations. Some people in the industry have been frustrated so many times that they are now reluctant to deal with him.
One agent is known to complain that Levy will not even leave him “the breadcrumbs” from deals because the Tottenham chairman is determined to “sweep them up” himself. A frequent complaint, heard from many industry sources, is that Levy “doesn’t know when enough is enough”. “He’s really nice, until it comes to business,” a former player says. “You want £50k, he says £40k — it goes on and on. After a while, you just get fed up.”
A classic example was the attempt to sign Fernando Morientes from Real Madrid in 2002. Levy and Jorge Valdano, then Real Madrid sporting director, agreed a fee of €10 million for the player. But when Levy went back and asked that Spurs pay in installments over 10 years, Valdano was furious, put the phone down, and the deal was dead.
But the picture is not entirely negative. Jonathan Barnett, Gareth Bale’s agent, went on record recently saying he did not mind dealing with Levy as he always found him “very honest and very straight”.
Peter Varney was the Charlton Athletic chief executive in 2007 and he remembers getting a call early one morning. Levy said that he wanted Darren Bent but listed all his doubts about the player and whether he could make the step up to a top club. His opening offer was only £4 million. But with West Ham owner Eggert Magnusson keen on Bent too, and offering as much as £18 million, Levy was negotiated up to £16.3 million over the course of the day. And Varney has nothing but respect for how Levy operates.
“I know what people say about Daniel,” he tells The Athletic. “He’s a hard negotiator. He gets this reputation because he can be a bit abrupt but I find it hard to criticise somebody for being a tough negotiator. It’s his job to make sure he pays the least.”
But there is a sense of trepidation among many when it comes to sitting down with Levy to negotiate something. There is even a theory that Levy might not mind the endless back-and-forth. “He enjoys the argument in negotiating,” one agent says. “I swear, if I went back with a request for lower wages than what he was offering, he still would have argued.” One associate jokes that Levy “does not have blood in his veins” because of how matter-of-fact he is through fraught negotiations.
So where does this all come from? Why do Tottenham have to fight harder for every deal than their rival clubs? The simple fact — and this is the most important single detail of the Levy tenure — is that Tottenham have to operate differently from their Premier League rivals. No one has ever written them a blank cheque. Unlike Chelsea and Manchester City, they receive no cash injections from their billionaire owner. Unlike Manchester United and Liverpool, Spurs do not yet have a huge global brand to monetise. The club can only spend what it brings in and there is little margin for error.
At times, Levy’s brinkmanship has worked wonders for Tottenham, especially in situations where he knows that he holds all the cards. Some of Levy’s best work has come right at the end of the window, when other executives in his position would have already compromised in order to give themselves the comfort of time.
Take Dimitar Berbatov. In the summer of 2008, Levy knew that Manchester United wanted his best player. But he also had a price in mind and did not want to accept anything less. When Manchester City were taken over at the end of the window and tried to sign Berbatov, he had another card in negotiations, too. “He was holding on and holding on,” says one source close to the deal. “Fuck knows how I didn’t have a heart attack.” The deal was done at five minutes to midnight. Tottenham got £30.75 million.
There is now a theory in the game that Manchester United’s leadership team are “not strong enough” to deal with Levy. United bought Michael Carrick and Berbatov from Tottenham but have bought no one from them for 12 years, even while Spurs have had plenty of young British talents of precisely the type United would normally want to sign. “Daniel would have United for mincemeat,” a well-placed source said.Gareth Bale left Tottenham to join to Real Madrid for €100 million in 2013 (Photo: Paul Gilham/Getty Images)
Five years later, Spurs had the most exciting player in the world in Bale, and Real Madrid wanted him to be their latest galactico. Negotiations rumbled on all summer but again Levy held his nerve, knowing that he was in a position of power. Bale was only one year into a four-year contract. Again, the brinkmanship worked and at the very end of the window, Real Madrid agreed a world-record €100 million (£85 million) fee.
And in 2017, when Manchester City wanted Kyle Walker, Levy had a set fee in his mind — £50 million — for a player with four years left on his contract. City did not want to go that high but as the clock ticked down on the two clubs each departing on their pre-season tour to the USA, City compromised. Walker went to City as the most expensive defender in the world.
In reverse, Levy landed one of best deadline-day deals on the last day of the summer 2010 window when he signed Rafael van der Vaart from Real Madrid for just £8 million. This was a deal driven by Levy (Harry Redknapp was not convinced it would be worthwhile) and it worked brilliantly.
But there is a theory that Levy’s negotiating tactics are not quite as successful when the power balance is different. These last-ditch deals, when he holds all the cards, have become part of his “playbook” or modus operandi. “There is genuinely no one better at negotiations if he has leverage,” says one friend. But what happens when other clubs know what he is going to try? And when he does not hold all the cards?
“Daniel has been very successful with brinkmanship negotiations,” says one source. “But the landscape has changed now. You can play brinkmanship when you hold the stronger cards but you have to realise how strong your hand really is.”
It led to the criticism, towards the end of the Pochettino years, that necessary deals fell apart because of intransigence. When Pochettino wanted Wilfried Zaha in 2016, the opening bid was just £12 million, leading to a feeling Levy was just being provocative. And when it came to selling players, it proved far harder to do deals than in the cases where Spurs had a Berbatov or Bale or Walker, and could just name their price.
The failure to refresh the squad in 2018-19 was complex (Spurs had a deal for Jack Grealish lined up before the Aston Villa takeover scotched it) but the failure to bring in money for their own players was part of it. The rejuvenation the squad desperately needed never happened.
During the early years of the Pochettino era, Levy ran a remarkably tight ship with players’ contracts. They were offered frequent renegotiations for fairly marginal pay rises to keep them within the Tottenham wage structure, and keep Levy in control (one player from the Pochettino era once received an initial offer for a new contract that was so low that he felt personally insulted).
One of the stories of the last few years was Levy losing his grip on that process. When Toby Alderweireld dragged his feet over an extension, Eric Dier, Danny Rose, Christian Eriksen and Jan Vertonghen realised the power to be gained from saying no and letting their contract tick down. Alderweireld could not be sold and won himself a big new contract when he only had six months left on his old one. Dier was in his final year when he signed a new contract earlier this month. Rose nearly joined Chelsea for £55 million in 2017 but will likely now leave for Newcastle United for a fraction of that. Vertonghen is set to leave for nothing this summer.
Eriksen should have gone for top money, too, but the buyer was never there and by allowing the Dane to enter the last year of his contract — something Levy never wanted to do — Spurs effectively lost control of the situation. They only received €20.5 millon (£17.3 million) from Inter Milan for him.
In terms of incomings, Spurs had started to spend again by 2019, with big deals for Tanguy Ndombele and Giovani Lo Celso bringing freshness to a squad that had gone stale. But there was still frustration that they could not complete a deal for Bruno Fernandes who, at that point, wanted to leave Sporting Lisbon for Spurs. Sporting’s price was €70 million and Tottenham went close, offering €45 million with another €20 million in add-ons, but not quite close enough.
It has led to a criticism that Levy is unwilling to compromise to reach agreements. “The problem with Daniel,” one friend says, “is that he always needs to do a deal where he feels he can’t lose”.
In the city, they say that you have to “lift the offer” to buy a security. Something might be on sale at a high price but if you “lift the offer”, you have certainty over getting it. That is what Liverpool did in 2018 when they signed Virgil van Dijk for £75 million and Alisson for £66 million — the two signings that firmly propelled Liverpool from behind Tottenham onto a level well ahead of them. “Liverpool knew they needed these two positions, so they lifted the offer,” one source says. “Daniel will never lift an offer. He will only work a bid. And when you’ve agreed a bid, he’ll chip you.”
But then, Levy’s Spurs simply do not have the resources to challenge their wealthy rivals. Levy has been criticised for leading Spurs to the brink of glory, but not all the way there, not risking another £100 million in the transfer market to push the Pochettino team over the finish line. But at the same time, Tottenham had a stadium to pay for and it would have gone against all of Levy’s principles to spend money they didn’t have in a gamble on short-term success.
“That’s the boring reality that fans won’t want to hear,” says one source familiar with Spurs’ recruitment process. “If you’re a shareholder, then you’ll love working with Daniel because of the way he runs the club. But if you’re a fan who wants to dream of beating United, City, Liverpool and Chelsea in the transfer market, then you’re going to be disappointed because the reality is that’s not there. But who’s ever going to tell the fans that?”
“Daniel always had a vision,” Buchler, the club’s former vice-chairman, explains, “about having to redevelop and piecing together the land around the stadium in order to try and make a development work. I don’t think probably, at the time, that any of us thought that we would end up with the most magnificent stadium in the country.”
Whatever else Levy achieves at Spurs, whether one of his teams ever wins the Premier League or the Champions League or not, he will always be associated with the new Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, the House that Levy built. The very fact that the stadium exists, more or less on the site of the old ground, is a triumph of his ambition and drive. It can reasonably claim to be the best stadium in the country and without the coronavirus pandemic, it would already be generating money for the club.(Photo: Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images)
But it was a long journey to get there. And there was a time, 10 years ago, when Levy was even prepared to leave Tottenham and move the club to Stratford, onto the site of the Olympic Stadium. It was one of the most difficult periods of the Levy tenure, with thousands of fans protesting against the idea of a move.
“I fell out with the club very publicly when Daniel Levy told me he was considering moving,” remembers David Lammy, MP for Tottenham. “I understood that Spurs leaving Tottenham would be a disaster for the community but actually, as a supporter, I thought it would be a disaster for the club. And I wasn’t keen for the club to take their name of Tottenham with them to east London.”
While West Ham United were always favourites, the mayor’s office wanted Tottenham to make their own application to take over the Olympic Stadium, with the aim of keeping West Ham honest. And with Spurs getting nowhere with Haringey Council, they applied for Stratford to hedge their bets.
The crunch came in February 2011 when the Olympic Park Legacy Company had to decide between the competing bids of Tottenham, who would tear down the stadium and replace it with a new football ground, and West Ham United, who would maintain the existing structure. It was a fraught time as Levy was trying to convince people that Tottenham’s plan would be superior to West Ham’s.
The way that Levy operated to try to get his way still rankles with some of those involved in the tussle at the time. One source remembers a “very terse” conversation after Levy rang “out of the blue” one day trying to argue for the merits of Tottenham’s bid. “There was no small talk,” the source says. “Other people would have said, ‘Shall we meet for lunch or coffee?’ and you’d get the diary out but he tried to catch me cold.”
It did not work. The OPLC went with West Ham’s bid instead.
“My experience tells me that the most successful people are able to be chameleons and it doesn’t appear to me like he has that chameleon characteristic,” continues the source. “He’s a bit one-dimensional in his approach and he can’t flex his style to be an urbane sort of person that’s good over a cup of coffee, able to persuade. It’s very direct and my own experience shows that the smart way to play this would have been a bit of schmoozing to open up the debate but it was all very transactional. Everything with Daniel is seen as a contest.”
But having lost this contest, Levy made sure that he won the next one. The club was now committed to stay in Tottenham and determined to redevelop the area after the 2011 riots. Within seven months, they had won an agreement from the mayor’s office to support them staying in N17.
One source involved in the events of 2011 points to Levy’s political skill in winning that after the setback over the Olympic Stadium. “Hats off to Daniel Levy,” the source says. “They moved very swiftly onto Plan B and they got Plan B done. He was good with people like Neale Coleman, who was Boris (Johnson’s) fixer. Daniel got over him to good effect. He knew how to get a decision out of the mayor, which was to go through Neale. Levy is a very good operator.”
Going about rebuilding White Hart Lane was difficult. For a start, the club had to acquire land surrounding the ground to redevelop, which was a difficult process in itself. New plans were drawn up by Populous, which were not finally approved by Boris Johnson until February 2016.
Populous found Levy to be “one of the most demanding clients” they have ever had because of his perfectionism. When Populous managing director Christopher Lee and Levy would travel together in the early stages of the project, they would often arrive somewhere at 2am, talk for a few more hours, and then Levy would say to Lee, “We have a meeting in three hours”. Lee soon stopped travelling with Levy because he needed to get some sleep.
But there was never any limit to Levy’s ambition. “Our vision was to create the best stadium in the world to watch sport in,” Lee says. “It was as simple as that. The entire design, right down to the smallest details, was shaped in pursuit of that goal. From the very start of the project, both Daniel and I were obsessed with the idea of creating an incredible atmosphere. The stadium had to be noisier, more intense, more electric than any other in the world.”
Tottenham played their last game at the old White Hart Lane on 14 May 2017, beating Manchester United 2-1, and demolition work began hours later. It took almost two years for the new stadium to officially open, when Spurs beat Crystal Palace 2-0 in front of 59,215 fans on April 3, 2019, with the team spending that time in exile at Wembley, and even playing one game at Milton Keynes.
Through this whole process Levy was in total control. With his thirst for detail and insatiable work ethic, he would not have it any other way, checking up the cameras monitoring the construction, zooming in to inspect why things were not ready yet. But one criticism that has been made is that Levy was so keen to stay in control and save money that he effectively slowed down the build.
Normally, in construction projects of this size — the whole project is expected to cost £1.2 billion — the owner would give up some of their profit by employing someone to manage the various contracts. But Tottenham could not reach an agreement with a fixed-price contractor to manage the build. This meant that Levy and his team were effectively the project managers themselves, cutting costs but assuming more risk.
Ultimately, the build could not meet Tottenham’s initial schedule. Problems with two companies in charge of installing fire safety systems delayed the granting of the safety certificate, pushing the opening back into April 2019. But there was often a sense, during the build, that the deadlines were just too ambitious.
One source who looked around the stadium in August 2018, weeks before it was scheduled to open against Liverpool, felt that the timeline was so unrealistic that it suggested Levy had too much power over the project. “Clearly, it wasn’t going to be ready but everyone you spoke to was telling you the probability was that it was going to open,” the source says. “I would describe it as ‘the cult of Daniel’. Everyone knew this wasn’t going to be completed in time but it was basically like King Canute or the ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’. Nobody would turn around to him and say, ‘This isn’t going to be ready’.”
But it was Dier who put it best. Back in October 2018, the Tottenham man told fans not to get frustrated over delays of a few months. “The fact is, when we move in, it is going to be fantastic for the next 100 years.”
The more Tottenham settle into their new home, the less will be remembered about that one season. Yes, the opening was delayed but the turnaround was still remarkably quick. The club’s original timeline was always optimistic. Other major infrastructure projects drag on for far longer. “It is clear, that with the current owners of Tottenham, it is probably the best-run club in the Premier League,” says Lammy, who is delighted the club have invested so much in his constituency. “They have delivered a stadium. It was a little delayed but nothing compared to a lot of projects. Compare that to Crossrail!”
And, of course, the stadium is more than just that. It was always meant to be a community hub but no one could have predicted when it opened last year quite how important it would be. Through the coronavirus pandemic, the stadium has served as a food hub for local people. It has operated as a coronavirus testing centre, with people able to drive into the basement for tests, and it has provided maternity services for North Middlesex Hospital, hosting more than 40,000 appointments. The stadium was not shut for a single day during the 15-week break between Spurs’ games against Norwich City in March and Manchester United in June.
None of this was ever given to Tottenham and unlike other rivals, who could move into a publicly-funded stadium, Spurs had to pay for it all themselves. Previous rebuilds have almost bankrupted Tottenham. This one will transform the club.
“What amazes me is that all of Daniel’s predecessors as chairmen, that had built stands, and rebuilt stands at the club, have always ended up in terrible financial problems,” Buchler says. “And Daniel has rebuilt the whole stadium — not a stand but the whole stadium. It is something of huge significance. And has totally transformed the club from being an also-ran, to having a position at the top table. I think it has settled the club for its future for the next two or three decades.”
Tottenham had their new stadium and two months later, they played a Champions League final, the biggest match in the club’s history. It felt, in the middle of 2019, as if Tottenham Hotspur were the most exciting football club in the world. Levy and Pochettino had built a team that could compete with almost anyone — and with facilities to match. They did not have a billionaire benefactor but the new stadium would generate plenty of money, at least in theory.
But as the Pochettino era started to unravel — from the final whistle in Madrid if not before — it started to raise some serious questions. Did this golden period through the second half of the 2010s come about because of Levy and his meticulous running of the club? Or because of the charismatic management of Pochettino? And once the golden period was over, and the stadium built, where would Tottenham go next?
There is no question that Levy’s financial management of Tottenham has been exceptional. He has grown the club and built a world-class training ground and stadium, without needing Lewis to inject money, something Lewis has little interest in doing.
“Daniel has done a fabulous job, no question,” says John Purcell of financial analysts Vysyble. “When you use our measure of ‘economic profit’, from 2015 to 2019, using the initial accounts with our calculations on top, the most profitable club in the Premier League is Tottenham. With a cumulative economic profit of £150 million. The big six clubs here don’t make an economic profit as a group. The only clubs that do are Tottenham and Liverpool. The others do not make economic profits as a rule. That’s how good Levy is at running a club.”
The final piece of the financial jigsaw came in September 2019 when Levy secured the refinancing of more than £500 million of stadium debt. Working with Bank of America, Tottenham converted that debt into bonds with staggered maturities from 15 to 30 years. The long-term future of the club was secured, with another brilliant piece of financial engineering.
“Daniel’s vision was always to enable the club to be self-sufficient financially and not to sell the family silver in order to make it happen,” says Buchler. “And I think he’s achieved that. He has worked with HSBC; it’s been an incredible relationship. They have a number of funding partners and everybody will have benefited from it. That is a big achievement.“
All of this was being built with a long-term goal in mind: Tottenham Hotspur, one day, would be up for sale.
There had been interest in the past but Tottenham were now on another level. They had a world-leading stadium which would not only bring in more money on match days but huge amounts through other sporting and entertainment events. This summer, they had boxing, both codes of rugby, Lady Gaga, Guns N’ Roses and a music festival all due to be held there.
Even more important was the presence of NFL in the new stadium. There were due to be two games there this autumn. But even more alluring was the prospect of an NFL franchise playing regularly in Tottenham, with all the money that would generate.
Investors would always be attracted to two things about Tottenham. The first is the club’s annuity revenue. Any club that regularly competes at the top end of the Premier League and in the Champions League is guaranteed to generate hundreds of millions of pounds per year. And with the new stadium opened, filling it with football matches and other events would mean even more money. This would be reliable money that owners could bank on.
Just as important is the global profile of the club, and the unswerving brand loyalty that Tottenham can call upon from millions of fans around the world. Tottenham are far more globally popular now than they were 10 or even five years ago. And the club is still managing to build up the global brand. Their Amazon documentary will air later this summer and when the time came to replace Pochettino, Levy went for Jose Mourinho, the highest-profile football manager in history.
There has been plenty of interest in Tottenham, with the club, even at £2 billion, representing an attractive potential addition to the portfolios of American sports team owners or investment management firms. In the event of an approach from someone looking to take an equity stake, Levy would be obliged to speak with them.
Levy does not just want to sell up and go skiing, either. According to multiple sources, in the event of a sale or investment, Levy wants to stay on and continue to run the club in a CEO role. As a way to make sure that the change in ownership did not affect the way that the club was run and a way to secure his legacy. And Levy knows that many private equity investors would want him on board to continue running the operation.
But no deal has been reached yet, on an outright sale or an equity stake.
And the coronavirus pandemic has been hugely damaging to Tottenham, who have seen all the revenue they expected from the new ground this year dry up in an instant. The club have anticipated that it will cost them £200 million. In June, they took out a low-interest loan of £175 million from the Bank of England as part of their Covid Corporate Financing Facility, to help provide flexibility at this difficult time.
The recession also means that there are few buyers for £2 billion assets any more. There is little prospect of an outright sale for the next few years. Levy has no option but to keep doing what he has been doing since 2000, running the business tightly, keeping the team competitive, spending only within their means, growing the global brand, trying to keep pace with rival clubs who have far more money and far less compunction about spending it.
It is the hardest balancing act in football and there is no one better at it.
(Main image: Clive Rose/Getty