U.S. billionaire invests in English amateur club

Nov 5 2010 - 5:14pm

LONDON -- It's hardly on the same level as the takeovers of Liverpool or Manchester United.

But American tycoon Robert Rich Jr.'s investment in an amateur soccer team in northeast England has fans of Bedlington Terriers dreaming of the big time.

"Mr. Rich said he wants to help the underdogs and he wants to help Bedlington achieve what they are capable of," Terriers club secretary David Collop told The Associated Press on Thursday. "This is like a fairytale come true with him getting involved."

Bedlington is nowhere near the stature of Liverpool, which was bought by the owners of the Boston Red Sox last month for $476 million. And it's hardly on a par with Manchester United, which was bought in 2005 by the Glazer family, the owners of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, in a leveraged buyout worth $1.4 billion.

Instead, the tiny club way up north is in the ninth tier of English soccer and only five years ago nearly went out of business. Now the club has a wealthy benefactor in Rich, a 69-year-old businessman from Buffalo, N.Y., who owns three minor league baseball teams.

"Could the Bedlington Terriers become an international brand -- even an international icon?" Rich said in The Journal in Newcastle, without answering his own question. "We're having fun.

"I've been in baseball for a long time, so I know the fun you can have with a business. But we're not in that -- we're helping people who need help."

Rich is No. 488 on the Forbes rich list after making his $2 billion fortune in the food manufacturing and catering empire. He hasn't bought Bedlington, but he has become the shirt sponsor and lavished the club with a new electronic scoreboard valued at $47,000.

Rich's association with Bedlington, a town devastated by the collapse of the coal industry in the 1980s, charts back to last year. He discovered he had ancestral links to the town, which is located 10 miles north of Newcastle and bears similarities to his native Buffalo.

For a Christmas present last year, his wife bought him the title "Lord of Bedlington" and he soon became interested in the local team, into which he is putting a tiny part of his vast fortune.

The chairman of Rich Products Corporation saw one Terriers match -- a league game against northern rival Dunston UTS -- and has been in touch with club chairman Dave Holmes.

Rich is planning to sell Bedlington shirts around the stadiums of his baseball teams -- the Buffalo Bisons, the Northwest Arkansas Naturals and the Jamestown Jammers -- with the aim of making them a cult item for American sports fans.

"He is merchandising all our replica shirts and scarfs in America, through his teams and through his corporation," Collop said. "His PR team are giving us advice on merchandising and marketing and I'll sure he'll be investing more in the future."

But will the Terriers, in seventh place in the STL Northern League Division One, soon be marching up the league ladder? Not according to Collop.

"We're not going to be splashing the cash," the club secretary said. "Everybody is asking us what our ultimate ambition would be. Mine would be to see the Terriers run out for a (fourth-tier) Football League game. But that's a while off yet.

"We're aren't looking for a quick-fix promotion. Remember, five years ago, the Terriers were within five minutes of going out of business, from folding. That would have been the end of Bedlington Terriers."

Bedlington is hardly a household name in English soccer. The club's most famous player may be Trevor Benjamin, a journeyman striker who played for former Premier League side Leicester from 2000-05. The team has an average attendance at Welfare Park that barely reaches 100.

"I haven't made any promises," Rich said The Journal. "Having said that, I would love to see them do well and let them challenge me to increase our participation, whether to increase sponsorship or whatever.

"I'm still learning about British football, and I understand that if they do well on the field it can move up in divisions. If this is the dream the community has, I want to help. I don't want to become an owner, I just want to help."

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