Page last updated at 09:00 GMT, Friday, 5 June 2009 10:00 UK

Final whistle for Liverpool's loans?

By Bill Wilson
Business reporter, BBC News

LFC players celebrate scoring a goal

Liverpool Football Club ran Manchester United close in this season's Premier League title race, and while there has been disappointment at losing out on the championship prize, coming second has played a crucial off-field role.

Clinching runners-up spot means Liverpool is guaranteed passage to the lucrative Champions League group stages next season, with its gate monies, TV revenues, and other commercial spin-offs.

And that financial boost could not be more timely - for the Anfield club's two American owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett are fast approaching the 24 July deadline to repay the £350m they owe to banks RBS and Wachovia.

Latest accounts show the parent company of Liverpool FC, owned by the duo, lost £42.6m in the year to August 2008.

Annual accounts for Kop Football Holdings show how much money is being drained to service the costs of the parent company's loans - with interest payments accounting for £36.5m of Kop's losses.

But auditor KPMG has noted that the club's owners are confident they can secure the funding, and the US pair are said to be relaxed about obtaining a refinancing package.

The pair bought Liverpool in February 2007 and since then have squabbled with each other, alienated some fans, failed to progress with a promised new stadium, and seen potential sales of the club fall away.

Any potential purchasers of Liverpool would... know the banks were distressed sellers and would look to purchase the club at a discount
Harry Philp, Hermes Sports Partners

There are many questions surrounding the future of the £350m loans, after the repayment deadline was extended for six months this January.

So the fact the club has guaranteed a place in Europe's major club competition during 2009/10 means much-welcome extra guaranteed income for the year ahead.

With just weeks before the loan repayments are due there are a number of potential scenarios which could come into play.

Extra time?

Banks RBS and Wachovia may decide to once again extend the current debt facilities. However, they may demand a steeper interest rate than at present.

Hicks/Gillett borrowings
Bought club in Feb 2007
Borrowed £298m to do so
Refinanced with £350m loan in 2008
Repayment deadline extended in Jan 2009
Of £350m, £105m forwarded to LFC, £245m to holding company

The main reason the banks might agree to a repayment extension would be to give the US duo more time to raise money from selling other assets that they own in the US.

The banks may also hope that there will soon be new investment in the club - either in the form of an outright takeover, or by someone coming in to purchase a minority share.


However Keith Harris, the executive chairman of investment bank Seymour Pierce, has recently said that there needs to be a major revaluation of football clubs, suggesting values have fallen by about 20% in the downturn.

Liverpool owners George Gillett (left) and Tom Hicks
The US owners may have to sell assets to pay their football loans

Liverpool was put on the market last year with a reported asking price of about £500m, but no sale was finalised.

And Harry Philp, managing director at sports financers and advisors Hermes Sports Partners, believes it would be difficult to find a minority investor, given the problems with the current shareholder structure of 50/50 ownership, which has to date resulted in gridlock in making many key decisions.

Another option would be for RBS and Wachovia to call in the loans and take control of Liverpool FC.

They could could then look to sell the club as a going concern and get their money back that way.

Overshadowing all this is the requirement to fund a new stadium and to develop commercial revenue streams around the stadium in a difficult market

Harry Philp, Hermes Sports Partners

"But any potential purchasers of Liverpool would know the banks were distressed sellers and would look to purchase the club at a discount," says Mr Philp.

Alternatively, the banks could take control and decide to sell the individual assets of the club - including players such as Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres - to obtain the monies they are owed.

"The banks would be reluctant to do this as they would get extremely bad publicity," says Mr Philp.

"Plus, once again, buying clubs would know the banks were distressed sellers and would not pay full transfer market prices."

Stadium issues

Whatever the banks decide, any possible bidders waiting in the wings - and there have been none in the frame since a Kuwaiti business group denied takeover reports earlier this year - may want to bide their time.

The club also has to fund a new stadium to make it financially competitive - which will now cost more to finance than had been envisaged prior to the credit crunch.

Graphic of Stanley Park exterior
Liverpool's stadium plans are on hold after being hit by the credit crunch

There is always the chance that a wealthy bidder, individual, or state fund makes a pre-emptive bid to buy the club - such as happened at Manchester City last autumn - before the loans deadline in July.

But that seems unlikely given the current financial climate - and the fact that by waiting there could well be an opportunity to purchase the club at a discount.

"Overshadowing all this is the requirement to fund a new stadium and to develop commercial revenue streams around that stadium in a difficult market," says Mr Philp.

"There are a number of imponderables, such as how many corporate boxes could be sold, how many premium seats should be put in, and whether there will be income from naming rights sponsorship revenues."

There is also uncertainty in terms of TV revenues from the ongoing situation with broadcaster Setanta, which has been reportedly attempting to renegotiate its major deals.

Strong feelings

But even if there is a fortunate financial outcome in nine weeks time, the US owners face a struggle to win over Anfield die-hards.

"Feeling is still quite strongly against them, fans still say that they want rid of Hicks and Gillett," says Steve Kelly, who teaches sports journalism at the University of Huddersfield and has also written a number of books about Liverpool Football Club.

Everyone who follows Liverpool is on tenterhooks, waiting anxiously to see if the club can be refinanced
Steve Kelly, University of Huddersfield

"If they were able to put their hands in their pockets and pull out money to give to (manager) Rafa Benitez to buy more players, or to progress with a new stadium, people would probably not mind them as much.

"They do seem to have patched up the worst of their differences and seem to be speaking to each other. Whether that is to encourage potential buyers that they are a serious outfit, no-one knows."

Newspaper reports from North America indicate that the duo had considered selling stakes in their respective sports assets there.

Mr Gillett owns 80% of NHL team Montreal Canadiens, while Mr Hicks holds a 95% stake in Major League Baseball team, Texas Rangers.

'Many promises'

"Of course nobody anticipated the credit crunch, but they came in and have not put in any of their own money into club, everything has been leveraged," adds Mr Kelly.

"They made many, many promises. There was going to be this great new stadium, and nothing has happened. Liverpool really does need a capacity of 60,000 to be able to compete with the likes of Manchester United and Arsenal, with those extra revenues coming in.

"As it is, everyone who follows Liverpool is on tenterhooks, waiting anxiously to see if the club can be refinanced."

It may well be that some signs of an end to the credit crisis may give the club's owners a breathing space by successfully renegotiating their debts with their current lenders.

However, a couple of other factors that could play an unknown role are the current financial health of both banks, and whether the fact that RBS is now 70% state-owned will in any way affect its decision.

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