Rebuilding Aston Villa: The four people NSWE have tasked with taking club to next level

Aston Villa co-owners Wes Edens and Nassef Sawiris appointed four new additions to the V Sports board last month
Aston Villa co-owners Wes Edens and Nassef Sawiris appointed four new additions to the V Sports board last month -Credit:PA Wire


Aston Villa have made staggering progress inside six years under the ownership of Nassef Sawiris and Wes Edens, whose ambitious plans for the football club are coming together.

The appointment of Unai Emery 18 months ago was transformative for the direction in which Villa are now heading on the pitch. The club are targeting their first piece of silverware for 28 years after reaching the Europa Conference League semi-finals and are also knocking on the door of Champions League football, holding fourth position in the Premier League with only three games left to play this term.

Emery is the figurehead and he was empowered to recruit key personnel in the footballing department to give himself the best chance of succeeding in his second stint in the Premier League. Monchi and Damian Vidagany were just two of several appointments Emery made to bolster the structure around him.

Villa have become one of the most feared sides in the Premier League after making significant strides under Emery and his staff. The Spaniard has performed a minor miracle in keeping Villa competitive in the top four this season while juggling a European campaign too, given the injuries his key players have suffered.

So whether Villa manage to secure qualification for the Champions League this season or not, Emery has a big task ahead of him to continue finishing above at least a couple of the 'big six' every season. Considering the added strain of adhering to top-flight profit and sustainability rules - which prevents Villa offering wages which other clubs can and splashing hundreds of millions of pounds every year - the club must get a lot right off the pitch to ensure Emery has the tools he requires to compete at the highest level.

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Villa were nearly £120m in the red in 2023, but the figures contributing to what UEFA claim to be the highest losses in Europe are in line with the strategic business plan of V Sports. The club's revenue increased during the year to £217.7m, up from £178.4m.

A significant part of this increase was driven by finishing 7th in the Premier League versus a 14th place finish the year before, but there were also improvements in gate receipts, sponsorship and commercial revenue. It's pivotal that Villa take advantage of their dramatic improvement on the pitch under Emery by securing lucrative sponsorship deals which will help them remain competitive in the top six every season.

Villa's short-term plan is to disrupt the top six regularly. Their long-term plan is to form part of a 'great eight', essentially expanding the 'big six', who have had the opportunity to build their commercial strength over more than a decade since the Premier League football has boomed.

Villa's kits will be manufactured by Adidas from next season after Sawiris - who owns around seven per cent of the German company - and Heck struck an agreement. Kit manufacturer sponsorship revenues have been combined with total merchandising revenues to provide as good a measure of club popularity as any, and Adidas will hopefully help take Villa into a global market in the years to come.

Meanwhile, Betano will be the club's front-of-shirt sponsor, and is set to run for two years until 2026 when the ban on gambling companies on shirt fronts comes into effect. The deal with the online betting platform will be worth £40m over the next two years.

"What we’ve done in 11 months, we’ve cleared up a lot of, let’s say, not great contracts," Heck said at SportsPro Live 2024. "We have reinvented ourselves. We will be launching the next generation of our brand, coming up in a few weeks.

"We have doubled our front-of-shirt deal, plus we have doubled our sleeve deal, plus we have doubled our kit deal. I haven’t been talking much because honestly we have been working to get this accomplished and now it’s time to share that the big six, who we are chasing, quite frankly we are ready to kick the door down."

Aston Villa owners Nassef Sawiris and Wes Edens
Aston Villa owners Nassef Sawiris and Wes Edens -Credit:Richard Lee/REX/Shutterstock

But arguably the most significant deal which Villa's chiefs have struck in recent years is with Atairos. The strategic investment company will become a minority partner in Villa's holding company V Sports, who will continue to own 100 per cent of the club and will continue to have full control of all decisions.

Atairos’ capital investment will primarily be used to fund growth and infrastructure investments, with the aim of creating material and sustainable value for Villa and the broader V Sports network. Atairos is said to be worth $6.5bn, and Villa claim the link-up positions them "firmly for an exciting next phase of growth."

The addition of four new directors to the Villa board was confirmed days after the key agreement was cemented. Strong leaders always surround themselves with good people - take Emery as an example - and Sawiris and Edens have done just that with the appointments of Atairos chairman and chief executive, Michael Angelakis; managing director of Atairos, Chester Hall; plus Canadian Bashir Lebada and American Sarah Watterson.

In a statement provided to accompany the confirmation of the Atairos deal, Sawiris and Edens commented: “We are excited to enter this partnership with Atairos, which will provide capital to fund infrastructure investments and drive growth and sustainable value for AVFC and the broader V Sports network over time.

“Atairos is an established investor and has successfully partnered with numerous leading companies in the leisure, sports, live entertainment, and media industries, including in the UK and Europe. We are confident Atairos is the right long-term strategic partner to support our next phase of growth, and we are pleased to welcome the Atairos team to the V Sports family.”

Prior to founding Atairos, Michael Angelakis served as Comcast Corporation's vice chairman and chief financial officer. In those roles, he was responsible for many strategic, financial, administrative and other areas within the Corporation. During that time, he was recognised by Institutional Investor magazine as one of “America’s Best Chief Financial Officers” six out of eight years.

“We have deep respect for Aston Villa, its rich history and loyal fan base, world-class management team and employees, and the V Sports ownership group," Angelakis said in a statement. “We are confident this partnership will provide further long-term support for the growth of the Premier League and Aston Villa’s men’s and women’s teams. We look forward to working with Nassef, Wes and the Aston Villa team to strengthen the Club’s ability to compete and achieve even greater success.”

The Atairos CEO also currently serves as a senior advisor to the executive management committee of Comcast. He has held roles as managing director of the management and investment committees of Providence Equity Partners - one of the leading private equity firms investing in technology, media and communications companies around the world - and the CEO of State Cable TV Corporation and Aurora Telecommunications.

Having joined the V Sports board of directors, he is also a member of the following public companies: Bowlero Corporation, Clarivate PLC., Exxon Mobil Corporation and TriNet Group, as well as the following private companies: Arcis Golf Corporation and The Orogen Group.

Angelakis' relationship with Sawiris goes back many years and he represented Comcast at the Sun Valley mogul retreat in July 2012, with Sawiris and Edens also in attendance.

Angelakis signed off his statement by saying: "We are excited to bring our expertise in supporting businesses in the leisure, sports, and live entertainment industries to elevate the club to even greater heights." Of course, he and Atairos bring a wealth of expertise, but what exactly could that look like for Villa?

Villa Park
Villa Park -Credit:Andrew Kearns - CameraSport via Getty Images

After Comcast merged with Spectrum to form Comcast-Spectacor in 1996, it created new business opportunities through its unique ability to integrate the resources of its various entities and they are the industry leader in the sports and entertainment field.

The company owns and manages the Wells Fargo Center, home of the Philadelphia 76ers, where Villa's president of business operations Heck worked from 2013 to 2022. Back in 2017, Comcast began a $400 million renovation project at Wells Fargo Center, with upgrades to the venue including the world's first Kinetic 4K centre-hung scoreboard, the largest of its kind among arenas that host both NBA and NHL teams, and an additional 8,000 new seats in its lower bowl, bringing its seating capacity to roughly 28,000.

Comcast-Spectacor also funded a new HVAC system, allowing for air supply of the entire seating bowl to circulate every 30 minutes. Its final stages included renovating the arena’s team locker rooms and creating new spaces for training, medical, recovery, and video rooms.

Comcast also recently built a private wireless network for the Wells Fargo Center in partnership with Nokia to enhance both operational efficiencies and the fan experience. The private wireless network with real-time video analytics can also identify traffic tendencies and congestion problems outside the arena. Information is then transmitted to drivers via networked parking lot signage.

Two months ago, Comcast-Spectator unveiled an ambitious plan for a $2.5bn overhaul of the South Philadelphia Sports Complex, which would make room for a separate concert venue, a new hotel, plus more restaurants and retail. The Sixers have their sights set on leaving for their own arena in Centre City despite the recent renovations.

During the nine years Heck worked at the Sixers, he helped raise a significant amount from matchdays. His achievements in Philadelphia include the Sixers selling out every game at Wells Fargo Center over the five seasons Heck was president. Commercially, their sponsorships also grew 30 per cent from year to year.

The Sixers have grown considerably in value over the last decade, which Heck has as his proudest achievement. “The business side of me is going to say we took a $300 million franchise and made it $2.7 billion in worth over a nine-year period, which has never been done in history.”

Also joining the Villa board from Atairos is their managing director Chester Hall. He joined the company in 2016 and works across all major investment functions, including origination, transaction execution and partner company engagement.

Prior to Atairos, Chester worked at M/C Partners, where he managed growth equity investments across the communications, media and technology services industries. Before M/C, Chester worked in the Corporate Advisory group at Greenhill & Co. and as a long-only fund research analyst at Global Thematic Partners and Deutsche Bank.

He received his Master of Business Administration degree in Finance and Management from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and his Bachelor of Arts degree from Brown University.

It's interesting that the three main people on Villa's board, Sawiris, Edens and now Angelakis all have a subordinate as it were. Bashir Lebada manages Orascom Construction Industries’ (OCI) investments and project development after joining Sawiris' company in 2007.

The Canadian is responsible for identifying and analysing potential investments and projects with OCI, a leading global engineering and construction contractor primarily focused on infrastructure, industrial and high-end commercial projects in the Middle East, Africa, and the United States.

Back in January, OCI completed the build of 90,000 seater stadium in Egypt after construction of the venue began at the end of 2019. The Egypt Stadium is the largest in the Middle East and the second largest in Africa.

OCI said: "It is built to world-class standards and is equipped to host global events such as the Olympics and the World Cup. Its distinctive architectural design sets it apart as it covers an extensive built-up area of 128,000 square metres, symbolising a significant advancement in sports infrastructure within the region."

The Egyptian construction tycoon also helped build Egypt's monorail in August 2019, designing and building all infrastructure and civil works, including stations, guideway structures and new depot buildings. This project is the longest monorail system in the world, and will enable fast, sustainable, comfortable and safe transportation for 45,000 passengers per hour in each direction. OCI also played an integral role in the development of Greater Cairo Metro Lines II and III since the late 1980s.

Last month, Brightline West - a venture backed by Villa co-owner Edens - officially broke ground on the USA's first high-speed rail system which will connect Las Vegas to Southern California. It will run zero emission, fully electric trains capable of speeds of 200 miles per hour and the watershed project was recently awarded $3 billion in funding from President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill.

Sarah Watterson is responsible for all aspects of business development and delivery for Brightline West, including the transit oriented development and rail infrastructure strategy, design and execution. She previously worked with Edens as a managing director for Edens’ Fortress Investment Group and alongside him at the Milwaukee Bucks basketball team.

Watterson helped lead the acquisition, ownership syndication and restructuring of the Milwaukee Bucks for Edens, and co-owner, Marc Lasry. Following the acquisition of the team, Sarah moved to Milwaukee to work on the development of a 725,000 square foot arena and 20 acres of surrounding mixed use development.

While Villa's intentions are yet to be communicated following the appointments of Angelakis, Hall, Lebada and Watterson to the board, V Sports have business leaders with expertise and proven track records of helping deliver major projects.

As per Atairos' statement, the group will provide capital to fund infrastructure investments and drive growth and sustainable value for the club. What exactly that is, we will soon find out.

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