How an F1 deal ‘unleashed the beast’: William Storey’s three failed bids to buy a football club – The Athletic

Dan Sheldon and Philip BuckinghamMar 27, 2024

Welcome to the third part of our five-day series about the men who want to buy English football clubs. This time, it’s William Storey and his unsuccessful bids to buy Sunderland, Coventry City and Reading.

  • Part 1: Chris Kirchner, the $25m fraudster cast as Derby County’s saviour
  • Part 2: Dozy Mmobuosi — ‘Under every rock, we found a lie’

Netflix’s hugely popular Drive to Survive series, which documents what goes on behind the scenes and on the track in Formula One, had an unlikely star in its second season.

It wasn’t Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton, Ferrari’s Sebastien Vettel or Red Bull’s Max Verstappen. It wasn’t even a driver. It was William Storey, the British man behind Rich Energy, an energy drinks company, which in 2019 signed a five-year, £35million ($44.2m at today’s rates) deal to become Haas F1’s title sponsor.

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In an episode aptly titled Boiling Point, the cameras focus on Haas F1. Two minutes in, they cut to Storey walking out of an aircraft hangar. “I put a personal guarantee down for Haas of £35million,” Storey says, as the helicopter he has boarded takes off to fly to the team’s car launch.

“They (Haas F1) are a new business, a little bit rock and roll, and they are the Davids taking on the Goliaths of motorsport and we feel we are the same in the drinks business,” Storey adds. “We are supporting Haas to become as successful as possible, while also having some fun along the way.”

Guenther Steiner, Haas’ popular team principal at the time, says having Rich Energy on board “is a good thing for us” as it will give the team “more money” and hopefully propel them to regular podium finishes.

Six months later, however, the contract was ripped up.

Rich Energy announced on Twitter before the Silverstone Grand Prix that it was terminating the deal with Haas, blaming poor performances, with the team ninth out of 10 in the constructors’ championship. The company then, however, blamed the tweet on the “rogue actions of one individual” who had caused “great embarrassment”, adding it was in the “process of legally removing the individual from all executive responsibilities”.

Storey (second from right) and Steiner (right) at the Royal Automobile Club in London in February 2019 (Bryn Lennon/Getty Images)

Haas said the parting was “amicable”, although noted how Rich Energy had been “enjoying substantial brand recognition and significant exposure through its title partnership of Haas F1 Team” in a statement on its website.

The split was not the end of Storey’s interest in sport, however — quite the opposite. As one person involved in discussions between Haas F1 and Rich Energy put it: “That deal unleashed the fucking beast.”

Storey has since made numerous attempts to buy cash-strapped English football clubs, most recently launching a £50million bid to buy Reading, a League One side who were playing in the Premier League as recently as 2013.

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This followed Storey’s failed attempts to buy Sunderland in 2020 and Coventry City in 2022. Sunderland, like Reading, were playing in League One at the time and were seeking a sale. Coventry were being sold by SISU Capital, their hugely unpopular owners.

All three bids failed to progress.

“He’s never been close to buying anything,” explains a source who worked for Sunderland when Storey was trying to buy the club. Like others who spoke to The Athletic for this article, they will remain anonymous to protect relationships. “There was nothing (at Sunderland). There was no deal. The guy was a fantasist, a Walter Mitty.

“This is his MO: he sends an email to a football club saying he wants to buy that club. Then he launches this social media blitz. ‘Yeah, I’m buying the club, I’ve got a deal, can’t say anything more than that’.”

The former Sunderland employee recalls seeing Storey taking a photo at the Stadium of Light with a club shirt on, which he later posted on social media to announce that he was submitting a bid for 100 per cent of Sunderland.

“People so desperately want to believe in these characters,” he continued. “It’s often the clubs in trouble so they go in there and create hype around themselves, pretend they’re plausible and that in itself will then bring investment.”

“Any bids I have made for football clubs have been fully funded and have included proof of funds as confirmed by notable law firms and a detailed plan for player acquisition and increases in commercial revenue,” Storey said in a statement.

“I have a huge lifelong passion for football and do intend to acquire a club. I look forward to letting the subsequent performance of that club speak for itself.”

Sitting at the top table with Steiner and having Rich Energy as the title sponsor of an F1 car seen by millions of people across the globe gave Storey instant credibility. It meant that when he approached a football club, they would listen.

It was a swift ascent. The maths graduate from the University of St Andrews in Scotland had previously worked at and invested in a tobacco farm in Zimbabwe, had a short stint in the Royal Air Force and has said he almost made it as a professional footballer.

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According to Companies House, the UK’s registry of businesses, Storey has been the sales director of Wolf Jerky Ltd, the chief executive of Rich Energy Racing Ltd, and a computer consultant at Tryfan Ltd, Danielistyle Ltd, Wise Guy Boxing Ltd, and Tryfan Technologies Ltd. He resigned from his role as a computer consultant at Lightning Volt Ltd in July 2019.

Rich Energy might be rarely seen in the shops but is “sold exclusively in the United Kingdom, United States, Austria and Croatia”, according to its website, and the Austria link appears deliberate — Salzburg is the headquarters of another energy drink with close ties to football and F1, Red Bull.

Storey has spent a lot of time talking about his Austrian rivals. In 2019, Storey said Rich Energy had “a real opportunity to beat them on and off the track”.

Later that year, Red Bull launched a joint intellectual property claim against Rich Energy and Storey, alleging Rich Energy had used Red Bull’s trademarks against them to market their products. Storey, for instance, has often annotated social media posts with the hashtag #nobull. The case has not been updated since October 2019.

This is not Storey’s only interaction with the High Court in London. Also in 2019, the Haas F1 team had to remove the Rich Energy stag logo from its livery and Rich Energy had to stop using the logo owing to a copyright dispute with a company called Whyte Bikes.

Judge Melissa Clarke described Storey as a “poor witness” and detailed how “he did not often answer questions directly, preferring to make speeches about his vision for the business”.

“He had a tendency to make impressive statements, which on further investigation or consideration were not quite what they seemed,” she added.

Storey at a Haas press conference in 2019 (Bryn Lennon/Getty Images)

Rich Energy Ltd’s most recent accounts, for the year ended September 2017, show the business had £581 in the bank and owed £993,520.

Rich Energy Ltd changed its name to Lightning Volt Ltd and went into compulsory liquidation in 2020, with the liquidators having received unsecured creditor claims of more than £62million, of which £48m related to just one creditor.

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On X in September 2024, Storey said he “is the largest individual creditor of that business”, adding he is “owed tens of millions of pounds from related parties”.

The accounts for Wolf Jerky are overdue and have not been filed since the end of January 2021, while the other companies he is attached to on Companies House have all received strike-off notices, which are issued when company directors have routinely failed to file tax returns and annual statements and it leads to the business being closed down.

Yet, despite all of this publicly available information, Storey is still entertained by football clubs.

“I am obviously not going to comment on confidential terms or details of any bids I have made for football clubs nor engage with journalists with a partisan agenda,” Storey said in a statement. “For the avoidance of ambiguity, however, there are many successful businesses I have been involved with that you strangely do not reference.

“I am also the CEO of Rich Energy globally. We have an incredible product that has certainly exercised the competition.

“In motorsport alone, Rich Energy-branded teams have won British Superbike, British Touring Car (independent teams) and Ducati championships in the last two years.”

As well as the motorsport connections, Storey has another trump card to play in football circles.

In October 2018, he posted on LinkedIn that David Sullivan had “acquired a significant stake in Rich Energy”, accompanied by a photo of the pair posing together.

Sullivan owns 38.8 per cent of Premier League side West Ham United. He previously co-owned Birmingham City and made his money in the pornographic industry.

David Sullivan, West Ham co-owner (Adam Davy – PA Images via Getty Images)

In June 2017, West Ham had announced that Rich Energy had become the official energy drink of West Ham Ladies. Jack Sullivan, David’s son and a club director, said in a statement that Rich Energy can help see the women’s team “power up the leagues and challenge at the very top”.

“He walks around with a letter from David Sullivan,” says a source who has sat around the negotiating table with Storey. “The letter from David and the Haas deal are William’s two tools of the trade.”

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While most potential club owners stay silent during negotiations, Storey tends to make a lot of noise. In December 2020, he appeared on local radio and TV shows and participated in a Q&A with a local paper to discuss his £45million bid for Sunderland.

When pressed on where the money would be coming from, Storey responded: “You’re asking me a question about my personal resources. I’ll phrase it elegantly, the total amount is fully costed and fully proved and fully backed.

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“Obviously, the exact source of all funds has been made available to the club, but clearly that is not for public information because that would be reflected in the accounts of the company if and when we are successful in the purchase.”

The other side of the story is markedly different.

Charlie Methven, Sunderland’s former co-owner, told the Shields Gazette last October that Storey’s direct approach “made life difficult” given the club were already in talks with the Louis-Dreyfus family while Storey was talking publicly about bringing Premier League players to the League One side.

“Eventually (we) ended up having a bit of a giggle with the whole Storey episode,” added Methven. “When you’re in the middle of it, it can be a very time-consuming exercise because you have journalists and fan groups calling you all the time asking about this very extrovert figure and why you’re not accepting his offer.”

Storey once mocked up a Sunderland kit with Rich Energy as its main sponsor. He also confirmed a new bid would be submitted, calling the position of the existing owners “untenable”.

Then he moved on to Coventry.

The BBC reported that Storey agreed heads of terms — an agreement in principle, subject to a formal contract being signed — over a £30million takeover of the Midlands club, one of the founding members of the Premier League. Bonus payments would be paid to then-owner SISU Capital if Coventry were promoted back to the English top flight.

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The report noted that Storey was being backed by Origin Sports Group, a sports investment business. Origin Sports, however, was only instructed by Storey to advise on the deal, according to a person who worked on it at the time, so carried out the financial due diligence for him and attempted to help structure a sale, but did not back Storey as an investor.

However, it was Doug King who entered into a period of exclusivity with Coventry in November 2022, prompting Storey to threaten legal action against the club as he believed SISU had breached his exclusivity window.

A SISU statement at the time said: “The allegation of a breach of exclusivity is untrue and unhelpful.”

No legal action has yet materialised.

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In January 2024, Storey announced he had withdrawn his attempt to buy Coventry after “talks with his investors”, noting how they wanted to be in place for that month to invest in new players in the transfer window.

“I wish Doug King all the best at Coventry,” Storey later posted on social media. “I hope he invests in the squad and becomes a great owner — the fans deserve it. A shame from my perspective as we had so much to bring to the table but the Sky Blues are a top club and will hopefully enjoy sustained success.”

Next came Reading towards the end of 2024, a League One side in dire financial straits, whose owner, the Chinese businessman Dai Yongge, was seeking a sale.

The club had been hit by multiple points deductions for their failure to pay their tax bill on time, and needed a loan from their main sponsor, Select Car Leasing, to keep them afloat.

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News of Storey’s interest emerged in October, but conversations had been taking place long before then. Reading’s former CEO, was asked to facilitate a sale and Dayong Pang, Reading’s chief executive, was also involved.

Storey’s proposal was an initial £42.5million, which would increase to £50million depending on the club’s success.

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Two people involved in the negotiations noted how Storey would often turn up late to meetings, something also noticed during his earlier negotiations with Haas F1.

“William is approximately 45 minutes to one hour late to every meeting,” one person said. “I don’t know whether that’s a clever tactic or whatever. He once tried to get a well-known former CEO to take a non-exec role at Rich Energy and he made him wait 90 minutes for a meeting!”

A person familiar with Storey’s negotiations for Reading also highlighted Storey’s ability to impress during meetings. “William walks into the room with his massive beard and he is a very good talker,” he said. “He comes across intelligently, and that is what does it for him.”

As part of his proposed deal, Storey said he was going to inject working capital into the club and take over their day-to-day finances to relieve them of their immediate financial difficulties. Reading set deadlines for the money to be sent across, but it never appeared. There was, however, always an excuse.

“Everyone inside the club — and you don’t even need to be too bright or intelligent — could see what was going on,“ says a Reading employee. “They should have sent him packing straight away. If it wasn’t so serious, it would be funny.”

Although heads of terms were agreed, proof of funds was never shown to Reading, according to multiple sources close to the deal. Storey, however, produced a document that said he had “access to £250million of finance facility”.

During one meeting, Storey also informed the club he had received pre-approval from the English Football League (EFL) and would sail through the owners’ and directors’ test.

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The EFL was contacted by the club and denied this being the case. Storey then said that he had already received approval following his previous attempts to buy a club.

Again, the EFL was asked. Again, it denied this was the case.

The EFL declined to comment when contacted by The Athletic.

During the negotiations, Storey appeared on radio station talkSPORT to discuss his bid. The club did not know and tuned in to hear him talking about naming their stadium after his Rich Energy soft drink — effectively killing Reading’s hopes of a quick, discreet sale.

One person working at the club believes Storey’s involvement cost Reading precious time, noting: “The owner had stars in his eyes because William Storey has said he’ll pay £50million for the club, which is more than anyone else was offering.

“People are coming in at far less than that and getting knocked back because the owner thought he should be getting what William offered.”

Reading is still a club living hand to mouth, month by month, with a takeover yet to be completed, although the owner announced on Tuesday he has entered a period of exclusivity with another potential purchaser.

Asked why Storey became involved, someone close to the talks believes it was to run a “self-promotion campaign”.

“Any successful businessman would not want to be linked to multiple failed transactions, so that bit was puzzling,” they added. “The other side is that he is fame-hungry and wants people to know who he is, and he succeeded in that.”

It might all have been so different for him, though. Had the infrastructure been in place when he sponsored the Haas F1 team, then perhaps Storey would now be a credible and key player in the sporting world — but after his flirtations with Sunderland, Coventry and Reading, it is unlikely he will be taken seriously again.

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So, what is his motivation now?

“I think he enjoyed the taste of it and wants to get back there,” speculates the person involved in the Haas F1 discussions. “And in the age we live in now, he is clickbait gold. The social media age has supported someone like William Storey.

“He goes on the radio and they know it will drive engagement, even if it’s just angry people shouting at him.”

(Design: Eamonn Dalton; photos: MI News/NurPhoto, Serena Taylor/Newcastle United via Getty Images, Plumb Images/Leicester City FC via Getty Images, Lars Baron/Getty Images)

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