Soccer owner

Kelowna businessman Jason Neale, middle, in mask, celebrates last Saturday as Peterborough United, a professional English soccer team of which he is a part owner, wins promotion to the Championship, that country's second-best football league.

 

Have you heard the one about the Kelowna businessman who went to Vegas and wound up buying a professional soccer team in England?

It's the true story behind Jason Neale's investment in Peterborough United Football Club, an up-and-coming team north of London that won promotion last Saturday to England's second-best soccer league.

Neale, who was on hand to watch the promotion-clinching game, says it was a uniquely emotional and satisfying experience to see his team elevated to the Championship from League One.

"I don't think I've ever had an experience like that," Neale said Tuesday in an interview from Peterborough. "Just the exhilaration of that game and the climax of, really, three years of hard work.

"It was an incredible day. My only regret is that, because of Covid, our fans weren't able to be in the stadium to enjoy it with us," he said. "But we could hear them outside the grounds, celebrating."

Peterborough was down 3-0 to Lincoln City, their rival for promotion, but mounted a furious and successful comeback in the game's second half. They tied the match on the last play, a penalty kick in added time, and the draw ensured Peterborough will play in the Championship next year.

"It's almost impossible to come back from three nil," Neale said. "If you wrote a movie script and this was your story, a producer would say, 'Don't be ridiculous. No one's going to believe this story'."

Neale, who was born in England, has lived in Kelowna since 2011. He's part-owner of Old Kent Road Financial, an investment firm that specializes in turning tech companies around, and he also owns BlueStar Coachlines, a luxury chartered bus company.

A lifelong soccer fan, he'd been interested in buying an English professional team for some time when he was in Las Vegas in 2018. He'd arranged a meeting seeking advice on the venture from Darragh MacAnthony, an Irishmen who was then the sole owner of Peterborough United.

The two hit it off so well, Neale says, that he and his business colleague R. Stewart Thompson decided to join MacAnthony as part-owners of Peterborough United rather than another club they'd been eyeing.

"So, basically, I went to Vegas and bought a football club. Sounds like a pretty bad story," he said, adding with a laugh: "Don't tell my wife."

Prior to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Neale says he'd broken about even on his initial investment in Peterborough United. But last year, to cope with financial losses caused by the spectator ban, Peterborough United sold its best player for $10 million.

The move helped keep the team afloat but was unpopular with the fan base.

The gamble paid off, however, with Saturday's promotion to the Championship. The move up means club revenues will increase about four-fold, Neale said, and he expects the 14,000-seat stadium to be full during most games next year.

"We're going to be playing against the likes of Fulham and other teams that not too long ago were in the Premier League," he said. "It's going to be a challenge, for sure.

"But we're in a pretty good financial position compared to some other clubs," Neale said. "And, obviously, the value of the club has increased substantially since last Saturday at five o'clock."

Peterborough, a city of about 200,000, does not have the most glamorous reputation. In fact, it's been named the Worst Place to Live in England for three years in a row in a controversial online poll.

"Peterborough as a city has suffered a lot of job losses in recent years as major companies have pulled out," Neale said. "Not to make perhaps too much of being promoted to the Championship, but I think that will bring a bit of hope to people because football in the U.K. is like a religion."

In the coming years, Neale hopes to establish direct links between Peterborough United and Kelowna's soccer community, possibly bringing over players and coaches to work with the local kids.

"I think that could be a fantastic relationship," he said. "That could really help the kids in Kelowna develop their skills."