Stock Exchange to play Footsie with clubs

The soccer stampede into the City shows no signs of abating and an index is being considered for investors, writes Patrick Tooher
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The Stock Exchange is poised to launch a new index made up of football club shares following confirmation yesterday that Newcastle United is seeking a flotation in the new year.

The move to create a separate ``Footsie football'' sector underlines the game's growing popularity with investors and could provide a further boost to the already soaring share prices of many quoted football teams by attracting index-tracking funds.

It comes as Sheffield United of the Nationwide First Division became the latest club to join the stampede towards the City by announcing details of a reverse takeover of Conrad, a quoted Manchester-based sport and leisure group, that values the Bramhall Lane team at just under pounds 10m.

Last week Southampton of the Premier League unveiled a similar deal by merging with Secure Retirement, a property development and healthcare firm. Shares in Sunderland, another top-flight club, will begin trading on Christmas Eve. West Ham, West Bromwich Albion, Aston Villa and Birmingham City are also keen to float.

Of the eight football clubs on the Exchange, only four - Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspur, Leeds (Caspian) and Millwall - have a quote on the main market. But the addition of Premier League runners-up Newcastle to their ranks will give football the necessary critical mass for its own sector.

"If Newcastle were to float we would consider creating a separate football sector subject to demand," said Stephen Vale, of FTSE International, the steering committee that decides how the Exchange indices are constituted. "We are keeping it under review."

Sir John Hall, owner of Newcastle, will map out the club's financial future today by detailing plans for a new stadium and a stock market flotation. An estimated price tag of pounds 140m-pounds 200m would make Newcastle the second- most valuable football club in Britain after Manchester United, which is worth pounds 400m at last night's record closing price of 615p.

Sir John has spent heavily on players, breaking the world record transfer fee in the summer by paying pounds 15m for striker Alan Shearer, in a bid to achieve success at home and in Europe.

A bigger stadium and a stock market listing would help offset that outlay and pave the way for further big spending.

Newcastle's current home, St James's Park, only has a capacity of 36,610 at a time when the club could attract the 50,000-plus crowds which watch champions Manchester United at Old Trafford.

What investors are banking on is the potential cash bonanza awaiting top clubs from the introduction of pay-per-view football, which is scheduled to take place in 1999. Top clubs like Manchester United, Newcastle and Leeds are pushing for its launch to be brought forward to next season to coincide with plans by satellite broadcaster BSkyB to set up 200 digital channels, 60 of which could show pay-per-view sport and films.

Some estimates suggest clubs could net up to pounds 2.5bn in annual pay-per- view television income compared with the pounds 670m they get under the terms of a four-year deal signed between BSkyB and the Premier League.

But there remains uncertainty over who owns the rights to televise live games to armchair fans at up to pounds 10 a time

"Nobody knows, not even Sky," said Michael Edelson, a director of Manchester United who is standing down from the board of Conrad. "But one thing is for sure. Pay-per-view will fundamentally transform the financing of not just football, but all of sport."