The mystery company with one foot in the Premier League
By Tariq Panja
The acquisitions came so quickly that it was hard to keep up. An agreement to buy the oldest soccer team in Italy. An investment in one of the most popular teams in Brazil. Stakes in well-known clubs in Belgium and France, Germany and Australia.
Each new deal was trumpeted by the Miami-based investment company, 777 Partners, that was hurriedly snapping them up.
Then, in September, the investment group revealed its biggest deal yet: an agreement to acquire a controlling stake in Everton FC, a founding member of the Premier League and one of the oldest soccer clubs in England.
Suddenly, everyone in soccer had heard of 777 Partners. Beyond its name, though, little was known about the company. It said it had $10 billion in assets, but was so closely held that verifying that claim was difficult. Lawsuits against the firm raised concerns for potential partners. A string of unpaid bills, some as recent as this month, raised more.
Now, in bidding for a place in the Premier League, 777 Partners faces something it had previously avoided: a forensic review of its holdings, its finances and its brash American co-owner, Josh Wander, who in one recent interview said he was “more serious about investing” in soccer than anyone in history.
His company’s bid for control of Everton, an acquisition that would eventually require hundreds of millions of dollars in assumed debt and other obligations, is by no means a sure thing. The Premier League, England’s Football Association and an independent British government regulator, the Financial Control Authority, all must approve the proposed deal, a process that is likely to take months.
What they discover could have implications not only for the future of Everton, a fallen, money-losing giant, but also for rest of the financially troubled teams in the 777 network.
The stakes are just as high for the Premier League, which is trying to prove it can oversee its clubs’ finances amid talk of government regulation, and for an interconnected global soccer economy reliant on the simple premise that teams can and will pay their bills.
None of the soccer or public agencies currently assessing 777 Partners would discuss their review or a timetable for its conclusion.
Wander, the co-founder and public face of the company, declined multiple requests to be interviewed for this article, though he published a long letter to fans on Everton’s website Saturday in which he acknowledged fans had been discomfited by media reports about the company’s businesses. But those reports, he said, were “misleading.”
“The truth is far more boring than the fiction,” he wrote.
“We are not asset strippers nor speculative investors. We build and hold businesses, and intend to hold the football clubs in our portfolio for a long term,” a spokesperson for 777 wrote in an emailed statement. In the letter to fans, Wander wrote that he would share “player recruitment, data analytics and commercial development resources” with the other teams in the group.
More than a dozen current or former employees, club officials and others who have done business with 777, however, revealed new details and questions about the sources of its financing. The people asked not to be named because of relationships with the company.
In interviews, they also shared details about unmet obligations and unpaid bills, and wondered if the company has the resources to manage a global network of clubs carrying hundreds of millions of dollars in debts and obligations.
A successful takeover of Everton would bring the number of clubs in 777’s portfolio to eight. The teams in its existing stable are well known: Genoa in Italy, Hertha Berlin in Germany, Vasco da Gama in Brazil. All are different in size and ambition but shared a common theme before attracting the interest of 777: They were all in financial crisis.
Wander, 42, and his co-founder Steve Pasko, a Wall Street veteran two decades his senior, would not have been seen as a typical sports team investors when they started 777 Partners in 2015. At the time, the company’s core investments were related to the world of structured settlements, an opaque industry in which recipients of long-term annuities, typically the result of compensation claims, cash them out for lump sums of immediate cash.
The firm quickly branched out into other sectors, including low-cost airlines and litigation financing, according to Gary Chodes, who served as a board member of a 777 subsidiary until 2017. He said that he parted on good terms, but that the firm he left had few profitable businesses. So he noticed when 777 started collecting soccer teams and committing to assume their sizable debts through loans and other upfront payments.
“If I was to ask, ‘Is there a little bit of mystery as to how Josh would generate three quarters of a billion dollars to buy a sports team from the businesses he owns in 777?’ — I would say that’s somewhat of a mystery,” he said.
Yet as 777 executives have spoken of their ambition and the scale of their operations, some of the businesses they run, including their sports teams, have reported missed payments related to agreed-upon funding schedules and even routine operating expenses.
In England, for example, the chair of the British Basketball League, in which 777 owns a 45% share, wrote to its founders on Sept. 6 warning that the league was at risk of bankruptcy unless the firm delivered a late payment of about $1 million. Those funds eventually arrived.
In Belgium, according to reporting by the soccer magazine Josimar, the lack of clarity around 777’s finances spooked Belgian soccer’s licensing officials enough that they considered refusing to allow the company to continue operating the 125-year-old club it owns, Standard Liège. Eventually a compromise was found, and the team was granted a license.
In Brazil, Vasco da Gama had been anxiously awaiting a scheduled payment of about $23 million due the same week as the basketball league was expecting its funds. Without the money, Vasco has been unable to make outstanding payments to its suppliers and to rival teams owed in past deals for players. When it missed some of the payments, soccer’s governing body prohibited the club from signing new players until its debts were paid.
Through its spokesperson, 777 said it had already delivered much of the money required in its payment schedule with Vasco. It also said it was “ahead of schedule” and “beyond our original commitment” to the British Basketball League. But to some outsiders, the repeated issues involving money suggested an exercise in financial plate-spinning rather than the kind of healthy, well-capitalized owner a Premier League team requires.
Court records reveal other details about Wander, his company and money. In 2012, the Bellagio casino sued Wander for failing to pay back a $54,500 cash advance. In March, American Express went to court seeking $324,000.89 that had been charged to a 777 Partners credit card. The spokesperson for 777 said both matters were resolved. Court documents show the Bellagio repayment remained outstanding for at least six years.
Just last week, a former business partner in 777’s airline business made an allegation of fraud against the company in the Court of Chancery in Delaware. The filing said the firm and a subsidiary, Phoenicia LLC, “are part of a web of companies 777 uses to move around money and assets to operate and conceal a sprawling fraudulent enterprise.” A 777 spokesperson declined to respond to the accusation, citing a company policy not to comment on litigation.
The pattern of late and delayed payments, rather than any lawsuits, raises the biggest doubts about 777’s suitability to run Everton, said Keiron Maguire, a lecturer in the management school at the University of Liverpool and a specialist in soccer finance. “It’s a red flag to a potentially more significant cash-flow issue, or incompetent management,” he said.