Reading’s Russian backer reveals his plans to significantly grow club and how takeover was affected by Venky’s ownership at Ewood Park
Anton Zingarevich has major plans for Reading as the Championship winners look forward to their return to the Premier League.
Nothing odd in that — all new owners come with such ideas. What makes the Russian refreshingly different is that, compared to most other rich foreign backers in the Premier League such as Roman Abramovich, Sheikh Mansour or the Glazers, he has not taken the vow of a trappist monk.
In his first interview with the British media, Zingarevich, speaking fluent English, frankly spelled out the hard-nosed business ideas that prompted him to buy the Royals.
“I love the sport but not just the game, everything to do with the business as well,” he says. “There is tremendous opportunity in terms of the growth of the business side of it. We see it with a new TV deal.”
The contract, worth £3billion for three years from 2013, is for UK rights and, says, Zingarevich: “There are 25million homes watching the Premier League in England and there are 500million around the world. So definitely the international TV rights should bring much more than the domestic rights.”
The £1.4bn three-season foreign rights deal expires next year and the new one should raise more but the owner already knows where the riches are. “The Premier League is similar to what happened to the NFL. In America the clubs weren’t really worth anything. Suddenly with the TV rights, basically, the least valued club there is worth $1billion. It became a business overnight and, in the Premier League with the volume of money involved, it has became a business.”
Zingarevich, with a degree in finance, has a vision of the Royals as the new west of England giant. “We don’t want to consider ourselves as a Reading club. We want to consider ourselves as a Thames Valley club.”
That name was the one Robert Maxwell chose for his ill-fated plan in 1983 to merge Reading with Oxford. Zingarevich’s vision is very different. “Basically we want to be the premier club west of London. If you look west of London, there is not a single Premier League club. We have great potential there in terms of supporter base. The opportunity for me is through Oxfordshire down to Bristol. That is what attracted me to Reading.”
It helped that Zingarevich knew the area having studied for his A levels at Bearwood College in Berkshire. “There are a huge amount of companies based there. Definitely this should help with the sponsorship and hospitality and bring in a lot of revenue. I see a lot of potential there.”
Interestingly, Reading’s location close to Heathrow also played a part. “In player negotiations, it tends to provide a bonus once you go against other clubs. For players who are not from England, it’s easier for them to get to see all their relatives or friends. I’m not saying Heathrow was a decider in buying Reading but that was one of the factors.”
Not that players will be jetting into Heathrow from all over the world to join Reading in the way they have done at Chelsea or Manchester City. The Abu Dhabi-owned club have spent more than a billion in transfer fees and wages in four years but Zingarevich admits: “Because of UEFA’s financial fair play rules that are coming in [intended to limit clubs’ debts], you can’t just go and do another Manchester City any more. Plus that’s not what I want to do.”
But he knows investment is needed. “We need to make sure we’re able to compete. It’s really important to stay in the Premier League. So, for this year, we need to spend enough to stay in.”
The survival strategy is part of a five-year plan to become a top-10 club and Reading are also looking at forming partnerships with teams around the world and, eventually, increasing the 25,000 capacity of the Madejski ¬Stadium to 35,000 or even more.
“Look at where Man U started and where they ended up with their stadium. I’m not saying we’ll end up the same. But we’ll be doing it in a similar way, gradually. We need to increase the supporter base so we can enlarge the stadium and that will help our bottom line revenue.”
Six years ago, similar thoughts made the Zingarevichs look at Everton. Anton, then at university, was asked by his father, Boris, to examine the deal. But the sale did not take place with Keith Wyness, then Everton chief executive, believing the Zingarevichs were frightened by the media attention.
This is clearly not a subject Anton likes revisiting.“I can’t really talk about it openly but it did not happen basically because of our internal situation, nothing to do with the club.”
Christopher Samuelson, the investment manager who brought Everton to the Zingarevichs’ attention, also introduced them to Reading. Despite the approach being made in December, the sale was only concluded at the end of May six weeks after the club were ¬promoted. Then, with the club valued at £30m, Zingarevich bought 51per cent from Sir John Madejski with an option to buy the rest next year.
To conclude the deal, Zingarevich had to pass the fit and proper person test for owners. The Football League originally assessed the takeover but Reading’s promotion meant it was then down to the Premier League to approve it. That led to a meeting with Premier League chief executive Richard Scudamore and his team. Zingarevich, 30, recalls: “He was a little bit surprised seeing a young person come in. He didn’t know what to expect.”
At one stage during the meeting Scudamore looked across at Zingarevich and said: “Everything seems in order. We’ve written to the Home Office to make sure you’re able to come to this country and once we get that we can approve the takeover.”
This surprised Zingarevich given he has been visiting this country for more than a decade from his Moscow base.
Then Zingarevich revealed how Blackburn’s relegation after a troubled 18 months under the control of Indian company Venky’s may have held up his own takeover.
“The impression I got was that Scudamore and the Premier League were concerned about the Blackburn experience. They wanted to know whether an agent had any control over Reading. I was able to explain to Scudamore what I was trying to achieve. Then he felt more comfortable and we got along.”
But the intriguing question left unanswered is whether the money for Reading has come from Anton or his father. The Zingarevich family fortune is estimated at £460m with Boris, who was a trade union leader under communism before becoming a successful paper and pulp businessman after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
For the first time, Anton becomes a little hesitant. “I don’t really want to say whose money it is.” But he adds: “It’s money that I myself have put into the club. I have business of my own: infrastructure construction. But we always, of course, operate as a family, working on corporate strategy in terms of our family business.”
The answer suggests this is essentially a family investment— through the Gibraltar-based Thames Sports Investment — supervised by Anton, who has a more hands on role at the club.
“[My dad] is a kind of a football follower but doesn’t really get involved too much,” he says. “Football takes up too much of my time but it does make me relax.”