The new year is here and it looks likely to be the year that brings an endgame to one of the most protracted takeover sagas in Premier League history, with the San Francisco 49ers seemingly poised to complete their buyout of Leeds United. If the takeover does happen, will that be a good thing for Leeds and the Premier League? Here, we look at if the deal will happen and what future it might bring in West Yorkshire:
The summer of 2018 saw chairman Andrea Radrizzani make two moves, which changed the destiny of Leeds United. Firstly, he signed the man who took the club back to the Premier League in Marcelo Bielsa. To far less fanfare, Radrizanni also sold a 10% stake in Leeds to 49ers Enterprises: The investment arm of NFL team the San Francisco 49ers.
That move saw 49ers’ executive Paragg Marathe brought onto the Leeds board and the 49ers have since steadily increased their holding to 44%. It was then reported in December 2021 that the 49ers held an option to complete a full buyout of the club running until January 2024. After Leeds narrowly avoided relegation last season, the club remained in Radrizzani’s control through the summer. However, the Italian spoke in a recent interview of the need for new investment at the club for Leeds to reach into the higher echelons of the Premier League. Add to that the recent revelation that the 49ers have put the funding in place for a takeover of Leeds and the takeover murmurs have grown ever louder.
On the question of the takeover, all journalists close to Leeds are united in the view that the 49ers assuming full control of the club is a question of when, not if. Assuming that’s true, the likeliest scenario is the club is taken over when the season ends or at least as soon as Leeds have secured their place in the Premier League for the 2023-24 season, relegation being the one potential spanner in the works of the deal. That is the easiest question to answer in this whole affair. What Leeds fans are desperate to know is what will the the new owners do and clues to that can be found in the history of the 49ers.
The San Francisco 49ers are owned by the York Family of whom Eddie DeBartolo acquired the 49ers back in 1977. DeBartolo turned around the fortunes of a failed team. DeBartolo got his biggest decision right early by appointing Bill Walsh as head coach, who in turn drafted quarterback Joe Montana and so began a dynasty that played on to five Super Bowl wins.
His contributions went far beyond appointing the legendary Walsh, as he took a no expense spared approach to the team. The NFL has no transfer market, but DeBartolo did everything in his power to improve his teams chances of winning, from building state of the art facilities to signing his stars to lucrative contracts, adding free agents and seeking out every marginal gain he could buy. DeBartolo was a fiery character and went close to firing Walsh on numerous occasions, the calming influence of his vice president Carmen Policy proving vital in avoiding short sighted decisions.
Leeds manager Jesse Marsch talked prior to facing Saudi backed Newcastle about the difference in Europe to US sports where salary caps help to maintain a level playing field, the main reason the NFL brought in a salary cap was to stop DeBartolo (and Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones) buying every star player in sight via free agency.
There was controversy in DeBartolo’s later years in charge, when he was caught up in a corruption case in 1998 and barred from running the team for a year, which lead to him surrendering control of the team to his sister Denise York. DeBartolo is long retired but the man known to 49er players as ‘Mr D’ remains one of a select few team owners to receive the NFL’s ultimate accolade of being enshrined in the NFL Hall of Fame.
Learning Through Mistakes
The current 49ers owner is DeBartolo’s nephew Jed York. York became 49ers President in 2008 and has overseen a 15 year rollercoaster in the Bay Area. The team had struggled for years when York took charge and the then 27-year-old quickly rubbed the press up the wrong way with his attitude and Ritchie Rich persona. In 2011 York found a winning formula by appointing fiery Head Coach Jim Harbaugh who took the 49ers to their most successful spell since DeBartolo’s golden era. The 49ers played in three successive NFC Championship games (Super Bowl semi-finals) winning through to the big game once which they narrowly lost.
However when the 2014 season season brought mixed results, York seemed to publicly blame Harbaugh and in an infamous bust up between Harbaugh and General Manager (Sporting Director) Trent Baalke, York fired Harbaugh sending the team into a tailspin. What followed was a three season cycle of hiring and firing coaches as the 49ers sank to the bottom of the NFL with even DeBartolo’s daughter calling for York to stand aside. Eventually after a disastrous 2016 season York finally dispensed with Baalke and started over with a new Head Coach/ General Manager pairing in Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch.
The move has worked exceptionally well and although the 49ers are yet to win that elusive sixth Super Bowl they have returned to the NFL top table, and will be in the NFL Playoffs for the third time in four years later this month. First impressions last and York’s early clashes with the press and treatment of Harbaugh make him divisive in San Francisco. However with experience he has learned to deal better with the press, adopting a more humble tone, admitting past mistakes and letting Lynch and Shanahan do the talking.
The upturn in fortunes is mainly down to Shanahan and Lynch who’ve built a winning team. However encouraging signs for Leeds from San Francisco lie in the team’s consistent ability to maintain and re-sign their key players despite operating under a salary cap. The 49ers made market setting deals to keep key players in San Francisco, whilst appointing Shanahan and Lynch as a pair to work in unison has provided a steadier template than the combustable relationship of Harbaugh and Baalke.
Another encouraging sign came in October 2022 when the 49ers after a middling start to the season acquired superstar Christian McCaffrey via a trade, whilst the 2021 NFL draft saw the 49ers again trade aggressively to acquire quarterback Trey Lance, on both occasions Lynch confirmed the ambitious moves were signed off by the ownership. The 49ers have rebuilt a reputation for being one of the best run teams in the NFL and although York’s earlier disaster’s haven’t been forgotten he has at least corrected his errors and provided the funds to get the team moving.
When the 49ers assume control as Marathe has already indicated a priority will be redeveloping Elland Road. The stadium generates incredible atmosphere and noise but the current capacity of 36,000 and outdated facilities inevitably make it harder for Leeds to gross the revenue needed to challenge the big guns at the top of the Premier League. The 49ers faced a similar problem 17 years ago when they decided to move from the ageing Candlestick Park to a new stadium located alongside the team’s training facility and in 2014 the newly constructed Levi’s Stadium was opened.
Moving to a new ground 40 miles south to Santa Clara proved controversial but the team remain resident in San Francisco Bay. The ‘Field of Jeans’ has combined state of the art technology with environmental sustainability. It has hosted major events including Super Bowl 50 and more recently saw Leeds’ Luis Sinisterra hit a brace as Colombia played a pre-World Cup friendly.
The plan for Elland Road is already well known, the 49ers seem likely to proceed with a piecemeal redevelopment of the ground. It will mean one stand at a time being redeveloped in a similar way to Liverpool who’ve redeveloped Anfield over several years, meaning they didn’t need to move away temporarily as Tottenham did to Wembley during the construction of their new home.
The more immediate concern for Leeds fans will be can the 49ers provide the funds to upgrade Leeds’ squad in the way Radrizzani now admits he can’t. The 49ers clearly don’t have the funds to match the likes of Manchester City and PSG, however their moves at home suggest they will invest in players and have the ability to move Leeds up the transfer pecking order.
Another way the 49ers will look to push Leeds off the pitch will be with shared sponsorship with the NFL team. They’ll also look to exploit football’s growing popularity in the US ahead of the 2026 World Cup, having the US Men’s Team captain at Leeds will be seen as a huge asset. The Bay Area doesn’t have an MLS team, the nearest teams being over 300 miles South in LA and twice as far North in Portland. Any dreams of a new MLS team in The Bay are for the longer term, it does however mean Leeds can hope to grow a fanbase by playing pre-season tournaments at Levi’s.
Of less concern to fans will be the make-up of the boardroom. Of the senior trio on the Elland Road board, it’s unlikely Leeds would move on from current Director of Football Victor Orta in the short-term. Radrizzani will move once he sells his shares in the club and is already talking about future ventures. That would likely mean Marathe takes over as Chairman in a structure similar to the one FSG have employed at Liverpool. Less clear would be the future of CEO Angus Kinnear, Marathe will likely split his time between Leeds and San Francisco meaning a fulltime CEO to run the day to day operation will still be needed.
This takeover rumbling in the background was fine when Leeds had the feel good factor provided by promotion and the team playing thrilling football under Bielsa. The frustrations of the last 18 months have seen optimism drain from Elland Road and the holding pattern the takeover has caused is only adding to the problems. The 49ers were probably wise to wait and learn the ropes in England before fully committing to the takeover but now the club needs to move forward and quickly.
The 49ers do have deeper pockets than Radrizzani, the ownership’s longstanding connection to the 49ers and the Bay Area suggests they won’t be rocking up in Leeds to make a fast buck. They will likely invest in making Leeds more competitive in the Premier League in the short term but the big change will be the development of Elland Road, expect spades in the ground on redeveloping the ground by May 2024.
Probably the closest model to the 49ers takeover at Leeds was FSG’s purchase of Liverpool. FSG have presided over an exceptional period of success on the pitch and redeveloped Anfield. In the negative column were ‘Project Big Picture’ and signing up for the unspeakable Super League. If the 49ers can develop the team and Elland Road whilst avoiding the hair-brained politics Leeds should do well. Liverpool were in trouble when FSG arrived but were still further up the ladder than Leeds currently find themselves. Aston Villa who were promoted back to the Premier League a year before Leeds have been bigger spenders than Leeds, shopping at the £25- £40m bracket and in transfer terms that’s probably where the 49ers will initially pitch at Leeds.
With the details of the deal apparently being ironed out it’s unsurprising the 49ers aren’t talking to the media, Marathe when he has given interviews has talked eloquently about the club, avoiding the elephant traps of describing the team as a brand or franchise. When the deal is done the 49ers need to share their vision for the club with Leeds fans as their first priority. The 49ers are not an oil rich state and will be looking for a long term return on their investment, but they know that requires funding in the short term. Takeovers are always nervy experiences for fans and Leeds fans have seen too many false dawns to roll out the welcome mat, they will however listen and judge the 49ers on their actions.