Last December, three Americans touched down in Kristiansand, Norway. Accompanied by a former assistant coach, they met with officials from the city’s long-suffering, black-and-yellow clad soccer team, IK Start. They offered to invest $4 million, from undisclosed sources, in the 119-year-old squad; in exchange they wanted to control its finances and reap its profits. 

All three — Roger Loughney, David Grim and Jean Bley — are current or former residents of the tony Pittsburgh suburb of Sewickley. None have experience in professional soccer or ties to Norway. Unlike Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney, the Hollywood A-listers whose surprise purchase of the hard-luck soccer club of Wrexham, Wales, made them the object of media fascination, these three are all relatively anonymous white-collar professionals.

Fans in Kristiansand, a coastal city of about 115,000 supported by shipbuilding and summer tourism, of course wondered: Who are these guys and what is their angle?  

“In the Start community, we didn't really get what was the connection,” Kai Rune Karlsen, head of IK Start’s fan club, told the Pittsburgh Independent. “Why did three Americans from Pittsburgh want to invest in our club?”

Loughney told the Independent that they are soccer fans and IK Start offered the opportunity for something kind of like club ownership for a relatively small sum that they were able to raise from investors. But the investors’ offer is disquieting in a country where finances are so transparent that every citizen’s income and assets are searchable in a public database.

“We don't want to end up in a situation where the club is associated with money coming from things that we don't want to be aligned with,” said Karlsen, “whether it be weapons or any other things like that.”

Bley, 44, who lives in West Chester, Penn., is a vice president at WSFS Bank, the latest entry on a long résumé of finance jobs, according to his LinkedIn profile. Grim, 33, is the treasurer of PPG’s political action committee and, before that, worked in fundraising for Pennsylvania Republicans, including former U.S Sen. Pat Toomey. Loughney, 44, works in sales for Smith & Nephew, a multinational medical equipment manufacturer and has had some side hustles, including real estate investment and a few startups, like a wedding planning app and a specialty manufacturer of waterproof arm coverings.

Loughney said a childhood friend approached him about investing in IK Start. In the 1990s, his family hosted foreign-born participants in Pittsburgh Dynamo-sponsored soccer camps. One was Mick Priest, a British citizen. For several years, he stayed with the family intermittently and went on to work for soccer teams around the world, including a stint as an assistant head coach of IK Start.

“Mick and I started talking on the side about how cool that would be to do something like that, to team up together,” said Loughney. “While I personally don’t have the resources to float a team, I do have some resources to get started on that venture.”

IK Start has had a rough few years. In 2017, an investor group from Norway’s online gambling industry took charge of its financial side, in an arrangement similar to the one Loughney is seeking. They sunk the equivalent of about $9 million into the team and then — amid accusations they were dictating athletic decisions — cut ties. 

At the end of last season, IK Start was humiliated when, as temperatures dipped below freezing in Kristiansand, the team forfeited not just a match, but championship playoff game due to frozen ground at its stadium, according to NKR, Norway’s public broadcasting corporation. For unclear reasons, its heating cables were not activated. 

The team’s governing board, elected by its members — which is any fan who buys into a membership — had been clashing with its sporting director and head coach. The board fired them both. Players were disgruntled, key staffers quit and, in January, club members voted to oust that board. 

The team plays in the Norwegian First Division, the second tier of the Norwegian football league system, having been relegated from the first tier Eliteserien in 2020. Last season, they went 12-10-8, making it to the third round of the Norwegian Football Cup–when their field froze.

Loughney admits that the team is a bargain because of its relative misfortune. “This opportunity exists only because the club is in such dire straits,” he said. “When I talk to our group of investors, I’m like, ‘These opportunities don't come around because clubs are kicking ass and printing money.’”

As for who those investors are, Loughney is not naming names, as of now.

“We’re not that far down the line where we  start listing off everybody who is in the group,” he said, “but it's all either Pittsburgh-based folks or people in mine, Dave and Jean’s immediate orbit.”

Members can vote on accepting the Pittsburgh investors’ money and agreeing to their terms.

This kind of deal is not uncommon in Norwegian soccer, the complex governing and ownership arrangements and relatively humble profit margins of which might make the owner of a cash cow American sports franchise wince. 

Investors can profit from a team and control budgets and other financial matters. But they do not own the team and they share power with members, the team’s home cities and Eliteserien. All expect a steady reinvestment in the team and many investors break even. Traditionally, most profit comes from developing players and then selling their contracts to other, large soccer leagues.

“Turning this into a profitable club takes a lot of work and money,” Egil Imenes, a freelance writer and longtime IK Start fan who blogs about the team, told the Independent. “It's always been local businesses that have helped the club, so we are of course a bit skeptical when someone as far away as America wants to invest.”

He said that some IK Start fans may be willing to give the Pittsburgh group a chance. “Some are welcoming fresh cash and new hope with open arms, while others are healthy skeptics due to what happened before.”

However, he wonders about their long-term plan and if they take the team as seriously as people in Kristiansand do. “Is it just an investment? Do they want to play football manager with a random club? Are they willing to emphasize the local affiliation the club has already?”

Loughney is returning to Kristiansand in March during the IK Start’s annual member meeting, hoping to make connections and ease concerns. He said he is sober about the realities of trying to make a buck off soccer in Norway, telling his potential investors not to expect a return for at least five years. “This is a long-term project,” he said, “and I do disclose that and then it’s up to them to decide. I can’t sugarcoat it otherwise.”