Silver Lake: Why a crew of tech geeks created a sports empire

Silicon Valley-based Silver Lake Partners, formed at the height of the dotcom tech boom in 1999, became one of the largest technology investments in the world over the next two decades – thanks to its stakes in the likes of Ancestry.com, chip maker Broadcom and Alibaba.

Its greatest hits included buying a controlling stake in Skype for US$1.9b in 2009, then selling it to Microsoft two years later for US$8.5b.

Today, its US$200 billion portfolio continues to feature substantial holdings in dozens of tech firms – the likes of Dell, Airbnb and Twitter.

But over the past five years, Silver Lake managing partner Egon Durban has been more likely to be snapped in a Manchester City scarf than studying a router at CES.

The transformation began in 2016, when Silver Lake joined a consortium that paid US$4 billion to buy the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) mixed martial arts franchise.

The following year saw Silver Lake take a stake in The Madison Square Garden Company – the operator of the famed New York arena of the same name, and owner of the NBA’s New York Knicks and the NHL’s New York Rangers.

In 2019, Silver Lake shelled out a reported US$500m for a minority stake in the City Football Group, which owns multiple football teams – easily the most famous of which is current English Premier League leaders Manchester City FC – in a deal that valued the team at around US$4.8b.

And now Silver Lake is angling for a 15 per cent stake in New Zealand Rugby in a deal that values the NZ body at more than US$3 billion.

Durban hasn’t forgotten tech by any means. His company has ploughed money into self-driving car and fintech startups over the past few months.

But what’s behind his drive to add an expanding roster of sports team to Silver Lake’s portfolio, too?

It’s part of a wider trend that’s seen private-equity firms buying sports teams as digital media outlets create new ways to connect with more fans globally and make money from them.

Offshore NBA or English Premier League fans used to have to make do with the odd highlight package. Now streaming services offer every minute of every game on-demand, and many sports teams have developed massive followings on social media.

The trend has also seen Liberty Media buy Formula One, and CVC invest in English and European Rugby, tempting the Springboks northward (CVC is said to be a rival bidder to Silver Lake for a stake in NZ Rugby).

As City Football Group chairman Khaldoon Al Mubarak put it as the US investment firm bought in. “We and Silver Lake share the strong belief in the opportunities being presented by the convergence of entertainment, sports and technology and the resulting ability for CFG to generate long-term growth and new revenue streams globally.”

Silver Lake boss Durban is not a passive investor. He joined City Football Group’s board as his company bought-in, and he has helped to drive mullti-billion global broadcast deals.

The FT calls him an emerging power-broker in the newly merging worlds of sports and entertainment, with a contact book that stretches from tech mogul Elon Musk to entertainment agency supremo Ari Emanuel.

Durban – now worth US$1.2b, according to Forbes – is said to be able to make global deals happen by bringing together unique combinations of people.

If Silver Lake does buy into NZ Rugby, it seems likely Durban would want to use digital channels to pep up the All Blacks global brand and turn around the recent decline in offshore broadcast rights.

It’s less clear what appeal grassroots rugby will have for a billionaire executive more used to a top-down than bottom-up approach.

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