US investors want Leeds fans’ trust

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May 20, 2021
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    Fans protest against ESL at Elland RoadFans protested against the proposed European Super League when Liverpool, who were among the clubs to initially sign up to the breakaway league, travelled to Elland Road to face Leeds United earlier this season

    Leeds United vice chairman Paraag Marathe has urged fans to "trust the intentions" of the club's American investors, after the involvement of US-owned rivals in the recent European Super League (ESL) crisis.

    Marathe is president of 49ers Enterprises, the investment arm of NFL side the San Francisco 49ers, which increased its stake in Leeds United to 37% earlier this year.

    Three of the so-called 'Big Six' Premier League clubs that tried and failed to launch the ESL are US-owned.

    But Marathe moved to reassure Leeds Utd fans, saying that he was "disappointed" by the attempted breakaway, and that the 49ers' plans were "pure".

    "I agree that every sport needs to evolve. It is adapt or die" he said.

    "The super league is one group's path, but there are other ways that you can evolve and you can improve the asset value of the league or individual clubs."

    • Listen: Full interview with Marathe

    In a wide-ranging interview, Marathe:

    • Said he was "hopeful" that talismanic manager Marcelo Bielsa would sign a new contract
    • Hailed an "exhilarating" season in which newly-promoted club have secured a top-half finish
    • Vowed that Leeds "will be one of the biggest clubs in the world"
    • Believes investment in the club is "transforming us from being a 'train-stop' to being a destination" for top players

    'Leeds is my little brother now'

    The failed attempt to launch the ESL has increased fans' concerns over the intentions of overseas-based investors in top clubs, especially those from the US where franchise-based, closed-off leagues are commonplace.

    But Marathe is adamant that the 49ers' investment is based on "passion".

    "I don't want to be known as 'the American investors' of the club", he said. "I want to be known as a Leeds supporter first.

    "Do we have a financial interest in the club's success? Sure we do. But this is about achieving a level of success, because Leeds is my 'little brother' now.

    "Leeds is part of my blood now… I hope supporters will start to see that and I can earn their trust."

    'You have to earn it'

    Leeds United fansLeeds United fans know what it means to "earn" success, with the club returning to the Premier League in July 2020 after a 16-year absence

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    Critics argued that the ESL would have undermined the footballing pyramid and eroded the principle of sporting merit with clubs unable to qualify for the top competition.

    "That's what makes European football and particularly English football special" said Marathe. "The fact that you have to earn it. You know nothing is given."

    When asked how he felt about the rebel clubs, Marathe said, "20 years ago, two or three of those 'big six' were in the bottom six. It was almost like they had anointed themselves.

    "They are facing a significant penalty because they lost trust, and trust takes a long time to build. You don't rebuild that with a Twitter statement or a short-form video saying 'sorry, let us make it up to you'.

    "It's not as simple as that. When you cheat on your spouse, you don't just get it back the next day by saying 'sorry'."

    Describing the Premier League's new 'owners' charter' as "a great first step" as football seeks to ensure there is no repeat of any attempted breakaway, Marathe said, "You cannot forget what got you to where you are and these 'big six' clubs … they achieved their success and fame through everything that the Premier League gave them.

    "So, you can't just leave your old girlfriend, by herself and move on to somebody else just because now you think you're ready for someone else.

    "I observed over the last decade of American investment [in European football] there was just a certain level of emotional detachment from or engagement from within the sport. Almost like it was a place to be parking money, like you're buying an apartment building and hoping for the appreciation of the asset, as opposed to being passionate about it and caring about it."

    'Hopeful' Bielsa stays

    Marcelo BielsaFormer Argentina manager Marcelo Bielsa was appointed Leeds United boss in July 2018

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    Highly-respected manager Marcelo Bielsa helped Leeds end their 16-year spell out of the Premier League last season and has them 10th this campaign with a guaranteed top-half finish, but he is yet to sign a new contract.

    Praising Bielsa for an "incredible turnaround in mindset and level of confidence", Marathe said he was confident club owner Andrea Radrizzani would persuade the Argentine coach to stay at Elland Road.

    "Andrea has been working hard at making sure and trying to keep Marcelo with us … And so I'm confident in that. And I'm hopeful, just like any supporter would be."

    Last year, Leeds Utd signed a new partnership with Roc Nation, the leading entertainment agency owned by rapper Jay Z, with plans to grow the club's popularity in Asia and the US.

    "The sky's the limit" said Marathe when asked about Leeds Utd's potential.

    "I think that Leeds can be, should be, will be one of the biggest clubs in the world. Three or four years from now, we're going to look back and say this was the beginning of something very special.

    "We're exploring different ways on how to maximise the potential of this club again, and we're just getting going.

    "We transformed the 49ers organisation within a decade and a half, into one of the biggest brands in all sports.

    "I see Leeds in the nascent stages, very similar to what the 49ers were 20 years ago.

    "I am confident that what we are building is transforming us from being a train stop to being a destination. For two decades, we were a train stop … I think what we're building is a place that people want to be.

    Keeping 'menacing' Elland Road

    Leeds United crowdLeeds United have largely played behind closed doors and without fans at Elland Road since returning to the Premier League because of the coronavirus pandemic

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    Marathe oversaw the 49ers' move to Levi's Stadium in 2014, and said he wants to modernise and increase the capacity of Elland Road.

    "There's definitely things that we want to do to modernise the stadium. However, there is also something magical about Elland Road … and there's something menacing about it, and we do need to make sure we preserve that.

    "You don't want to just go start to play in a sterile environment where you don't have that competitive advantage. And so I think there's a delicate balance there where, yes, there's things we can do to make the experience better for our supporters.

    "But at the same time we want to bottle up that magic that we do have."

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