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Ex-footballer Zlatan Ibrahimović to join AC Milan owner RedBird

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Zlatan Ibrahimović is making his third comeback at the Italian football club AC Milan, this time off the pitch as an adviser to the team’s owners and an operating partner for RedBird, the US private equity firm that controls the Serie A team.

According to an announcement to be made later on Monday, the renowned player, who retired in June, will act as an adviser to AC Milan’s management and ownership. The club’s owners include the New York Yankees and Main Street Advisors, a fund that counts basketball star LeBron James and rapper Drake among its investors. 

Ibrahimović will work closely with Gerry Cardinale, the founder of RedBird, to further grow the investment firm’s existing portfolio of assets across sports, media and entertainment as well as spotting new opportunities in addition to working with AC Milan.   

The former Swedish international, whose existing investments already qualified him for his own page on data provider PitchBook, said he had picked RedBird because of its record of partnering with athletes and celebrities wishing to leave a mark in business. 

“RedBird has partnered with some of the greatest athletes, teams and business figures in the world to create businesses with meaning and impact. I look forward to contributing to their investing activities across their sports, media and entertainment properties,” said Ibrahimović.

RedBird, which manages about $10bn, including stakes in Liverpool FC owner Fenway Sports Group, the Alpine Formula One car racing team and Top Gun producer Skydance, has backed LeBron James’s SpringHill Company and Ben Affleck and Matt Damon’s movie studio Artists Equity.

“What makes a winner of Zlatan’s calibre is not just physical talent, but also high intellect and an entrepreneurial spirit,” said Cardinale. “At RedBird, we have developed partnerships with a very select group of high-performing world class athletes and artists who are able to thrive in the RedBird ecosystem.” 

Cardinale, who acquired AC Milan for €1.2bn about 18 months ago, views AC Milan as a “sleeping giant” that the former Goldman Sachs banker thinks can become a more diversified sports, media, entertainment and cultural juggernaut capable of competing with Premier League teams. The club recently returned to profitability for the first time in 17 years, partly thanks to the brand’s growth in the Middle East and Asia.

AC Milan, which in the 1990s and 2000s dominated European football winning several championship under leadership of star players such as Ruud Gullit, Paolo Maldini and Andrea Pirlo, counts about 500mn fans globally.

The former centre-forward will advise the club’s manager Stefano Pioli, while also assisting chief executive Giorgio Furlani, particularly to expand the AC Milan brand globally, leveraging Ibrahimović’s 123mn social media followers. “Bringing a leader like Ibra as an adviser to AC Milan’s leadership team underscores our commitment to the future success of our Club,” said Furlani.

The move shows the rising power and wealth of athlete investors, who are maximising their fame to strike business deals during their playing careers and following retirement. As salaries for the very top athletes have soared, so has their interest in investment.

Serena Williams, the former tennis star, is managing partner at Serena Ventures, the venture capital fund she founded in 2017; Sir Lewis Hamilton, the seven-time F1 champion, joined the Walton-Penner ownership group that bought the NFL’s Denver Broncos for $4.6bn in June 2022; and Earvin “Magic” Johnson, another basketball legend, was part of the consortium that bought the Washington Commanders this year, in a $6bn deal. 

In some sports competitions, particularly those trying to get off the ground, team equity is offered up as an incentive to win backing. 

David Beckham, the former England footballer, negotiated an option to become a franchise owner in Major League Soccer as part of his deal to join LA Galaxy as a player in 2007. He was allowed to buy the team that became Inter Miami at the discounted price of $25mn; MLS teams now trade for hundreds of millions of dollars.

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