A 1989 Liverpool kit and Beckham’s underpants: Why U.S. investors have bet £30m on retro football shirts


Doug Bierton and Matt Dale are thinking back to their days as 21-year-old students at the University of Manchester, England, in 2006. They were studying for a degree in business management but, in their own words, they were spending much of their time playing the video games Championship Manager (the 2001-02 edition) and Pro Evolution Soccer. And then, one evening, Bierton decided he wanted to buy a replica of the Germany kit from the 1990 World Cup for a fancy dress party.

As a child, he says he “burned out” watching highlights of Italia ’90, recreating goals in his back garden. He eventually found a Germany strip on eBay, as well as a Paul Gascoigne England kit from the same tournament at a charity shop in Manchester. Yet the scarcity of those items was underlined when he put the England jersey up for sale and made a £45 profit.

This became the starting pistol for the pair’s business, Classic Football Shirts, which sells authentic football jerseys, ranging from rare vintage to the latest season’s designs. Its prized possessions include the final shirt Diego Maradona wore in his last match at the Camp Nou for Barcelona in 1984, Thierry Henry’s jersey from the 2006 World Cup final (below), which France lost to Italy on penalties, and Francesco Totti’s Euro 2000 final shirt in which he won the man of the match award. It also possesses one of Cristiano Ronaldo’s most famous jerseys — from the friendly match in 2003 where he played for Sporting Lisbon against Manchester United and dazzled so much that United secured his signing before leaving the Portuguese capital.

Henry


(Stewart Kendall/Sportsphoto/Allstar via Getty Images)

The first jersey the company sold was a 1989 Liverpool kit to a customer in Norway but it now has 160 employees, more than one million Instagram followers and says it has sold over six million jerseys to fans across 100 territories in the past 18 years. It has stores in Manchester and London, and this week is opening a pop-up shop in Manhattan with a view to opening permanent locations in New York City and Los Angeles later this year.

It also now has an outside investor for the first time: Classic Football Shirts has received £30.4million ($38.5million) of growth equity investment from the United States investment firm The Chernin Group (TCG), which values the company at approaching £50million. TCG is headed up by Peter Chernin, the former president of News Corporation, who led Twentieth Century Fox during the period in which the corporation produced Titanic (1997) and Avatar (2009).

We have seen major U.S. investments in European football teams, media rights and streaming productions for years, but here is a major fund investing in the culture of the game. Fifteen per cent of Classic Football Shirts’ sales already come from the U.S. and this investment represents a bet that TCG can turbocharge the growth of the company even further, as the U.S. prepares to host Copa America this summer, a men’s Club World Cup in 2025, the men’s World Cup in 2026 (along with Canada and Mexico) and the Los Angeles Olympic Games in 2028. A joint bid with Mexico is also in to host the women’s World Cup in 2031.

Greg Bettinelli, a partner at TCG, tells The Athletic he was first attracted to Classic Football Shirts after visiting London to watch an Arsenal match.

“I really noticed the shirts,” he says. “Most fans were wearing them and they were all slightly different — home, away, first, second, third kits — different years, different players. Whereas often you go to an NFL game or a hockey game here and everyone has the same jersey.

“The next day, I went to Classic Football Shirts in London. And I got there right when the store opened and there was a line outside of the store. And immediately, as a consumer investor, I’m like, ‘They’re selling football shirts, and here on a Saturday morning, there’s a line outside the door.’ So as a consumer investor, I gravitated.

“We spent a good 18 months doing work in and around investing in football clubs, starting in Europe and more narrowly into the UK, from Premier League clubs all the way down to National League (the fifth tier of English football). We went to a lot of games, saw a lot of things but we found it very difficult for a structured fund like ours to invest in football clubs. But within that, we fell in love with football culture.”

For Bierton, whose brother Gary later joined as a co-founder and will remain central to the business, this is “pinch yourself” stuff.

CFS Founders Doug Bierton Gary Bierton Matthew Dale


Founders (left to right) Doug Bierton, Gary Bierton and Matthew Dale (Classic Football Shirts)

Dale remembers running two or three miles to cash in cheques rather than paying to take the bus in the early days and says: “Our first business plan was when we realised we could live a sustainable life if we sold 10 shirts a day. That was the target. And now we’re on 2,000-2,500 shirts a day.”

“Initially, we were a bit surprised to see that there wasn’t a place where you could buy all the old shirts,” adds Doug Bierton. “Me and Matt came together: ‘What’s the worst that can happen?’ We maxed out the student loans, maxed out the overdrafts, the credit cards. we got a student house together and filled it with football shirts. It was pretty bleak to begin. We went weeks without having a proper meal at the beginning. And it was only really when we scraped together enough money to put an advert in the back of FourFourTwo magazine that it slowly started to kick in. By early 2007, we committed to finding a bigger student house.”

A key moment of growth came in 2010 when they started to deal directly with clubs and brands. Dale recalls the “mindblowing” moment he walked into AC Milan’s warehouse and saw 20 years of products.

“They literally kept everything, even down to the underpants,” he adds. “They all had the numbers in. So you could tell there was, like, R9 (the Brazilian Ronaldo) who was wearing 99 when he played for Milan. And David Beckham’s underpants! It was just crazy what they had.”

For a fee in the low six-figures, Classic Football Shirts acquired a huge amount of stock from Milan, so much so that the company got its own warehouse for the first time. Since then, they say, they have worked with “literally every major club within Europe”.

Bierton is speaking to The Athletic on Zoom from the company’s “vault” in Manchester, where 6,700 unique or match-worn shirts are housed in a climate-controlled storage area.

“This is like our wine cellar of all the best, very rarest shirts that we’ve ever got,” he says. “They are mainly match-worn ones that we’ve sourced. It’d be so painful to sell them, but we also use some of them for media opportunities. Last year we interviewed David Beckham about the shirts from his career — including a match-worn one we have from 1999, when he won the Champions League with Manchester United.”

In the first 10 years, the company bought only to sell in order to keep growing. Dale says: “We had to sacrifice ones we wanted to keep. And there are some regrets that we did sell certain shirts, but they helped fund us. We didn’t get any external investment, so it needed to be done.

“We had a Johan Cruyff match shirt from when he played for the Washington Diplomats (in the now-defunct North American Soccer League). An Adidas one. Very rare. But we didn’t really appreciate how rare certain things were back then because we were only just starting.

“There was one that we did sell that we managed to get back: a Bobby Moore West Ham shirt that was given as a gift to one of the scouts at West Ham and then sold to us. We sold it, and then that person that bought it from us had kept it in the same packaging because he’d planned to frame it. And then about three years ago, he contacted us to see if we wanted it back so we could use it for the exhibitions. We wouldn’t resell that shirt, but just to have something like that in our collection is amazing.”

How do you value classic, match-worn shirts, though? Bierton says: “It does come down to a bit of feeling. You’ve got auction sites to benchmark. But even then, a Diego Maradona shirt a couple of years ago sold for £7million — nobody saw that coming. The collectibles market is really taking off as well. So the way that values are developing now for top-end stuff, it’s pretty crazy.”

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And how about the shirts that were previously sold in retail stores? Bierton says: “The shirt that you could have bought in a shop that’s gone up the most in value over the years is the Holland 1988 jersey. An adult size, nice condition, would go for around £1,000 now.

“But we also see steep rises with some modern designs; the Nigeria shirt from the 2018 World Cup (pictured below), or the AS Roma 2019 third shirt, or the Ajax 2020 away shirt. There are certain shirts with creative and unique designs which became worth more. If they are under-produced and not from a top, top tier team, it can be sold out within a few weeks. And then the market can’t get enough of them when they come back around.”

Nigeria


(Michael Regan – FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

From an investor perspective, the value in nostalgia is not to be underestimated. Bettinelli says: “Sports collectibles has been a thing for a long time, from baseball cards to baseball jerseys.

“Sport connects you with the past, the present and the future. And it’s multi-generational in nature; it tells you a little bit of a story about yourself, in the same way as a concert T-shirt might — it’s a moment in time. So from an investor perspective, we gravitate to anything where consumers act with pride or passion and with their wallets.”

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(Top photo: Classic Football Shirts)



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