STAN KROENKE may not be every Arsenal fan’s idea of the perfect owner, but letters of complaint and stamping feet will probably not have much impact on the US businessman. Arsenal have almost become a typical US sports franchise, well run, nicely-housed, profitable, conservative and driven by the bottom line.
Arsenal, in all reality, will never be a club that gets into financial trouble, but on the evidence of the past decade, they will struggle to compete with more aggressive and speculative business models. Arsenal last finished out of the top six in 1994-95 when they were 12th. In the past three campaigns, they have been out of the top four.
The Premier League, indeed European football, is a free market. That means club owners can decide how they want to run their clubs, either leveraging their revenue streams to borrow and speculate or prudently managing their finances and accepting moderate success as the goal. While the football landscape has never been a level playing field, the composition of the Premier League means the clubs that are pumped-up by inflated investment will always have an advantage over clubs that refuse to go down this road. Since 2003-04 when Chelsea were bought by Roman Abramovich, Arsenal have won five trophies versus Chelsea’s 16, Manchester United’s 13 and Manchester City’s 10. In the 16 seasons prior to that, Arsenal won 10 major trophies. During that time, Arsenal are the only club to have finished in the top six every single season.
Supporters of clubs that are in the latter category resent the steroid-driven approach of clubs with financial advantages. Yet when fans start to complain about “lack of ambition”, “directionless ownership” and “commitment” they are talking about the difference between the clubs with open wallets and those that cannot or choose not to compete. In other words, they want their club to change their strategy.
Fans are still under the illusion that they “own” a club when the very existence of that club depends on a benefactor. In short, many clubs would not be viable without the support of a wealthy owner or group of investors. Most do not turn a profit on their stake, but fans expect the owner(s) to fund their beloved pastime and make decisions that suit the fans rather than the owner. The wealthy tycoon sees a football club as an extension of their own support or as a solid investment. In the case of the latter, the very idea that a club could actually give an owner something back, be it a dividend or wage, goes against supporter perception of what a club owner should be. While the likes of Abramovich take nothing out of the clubs they back, American owners, such as those at Liverpool and Manchester United, do expect a return of some sort.
Arsenal fans have made it clear they are unhappy, but where is the motivation for Kroenke to do anything about it? Arsenal may have extremely high ticket prices, but they play to sell-out crowds and they have waiting lists. A hard-nosed businessman will point to the fact that Football is a discretionary activity, not a matter of life and death. Furthermore, the fans have a choice. Of course, the diehards will remind Kroenke that football is not a conventional business, it is about emotional stakeholders and fans have always been frightened of missing something if they exercise the right not to attend games. A split-second of drama can make an afternoon worthwhile even if the other 89 minutes have been dire.
For fans to really make their point, they need to stay away – and we are not talking about season ticket holders who elect not to attend, we are looking at refusal to buy in the first place. This not only creates a poor atmosphere, which will also upset football’s prime sponsor, TV, but it will also hit commercial as well as matchday revenues. When a club starts to get hit in the pocket, deaf ears suddenly become very receptive.
Fans would worry about the prospect of losing their place in the queue if they boycott a club. In the case of Arsenal, there are plenty of people out there to take-up the season tickets if existing holders decide to vote with their wallets.
However, what can people seriously expect Kroenke to do? The anti-Wenger segment got its way, but it has become clear that Wenger was not the club’s only problem. In some ways he became the sacrificial lamb for dissenting Arsenal fans, and despite the initial wave of enthusiasm for the appointment of Unai Emery, all the Gunners achieved in 2018-19 was consolidation of Europa League status and a heavy cup final defeat at the hands of London rivals.
Crossroads, what crossroads?
The fan groups, in their letter to Kroenke, claimed the club was “at a crossroads”, something which Jason Kroenke denied in his response. This is not a major crisis, however, no matter how frustrated Arsenal’s fans are, this is still a top six club with an excellent stadium, rich heritage and strong financial fundamentals. But it is very evident that the club has fallen away from the status it once enjoyed and if the truth was known, the fans are now probably intensely worried about their old rivals Tottenham now that they have a shining new ground. Giants can spin into decline, though – look at AC Milan and Inter, two institutions that stood astride Europe but have now been pushed into the also-ran bracket.
Arsenal are not alone, either. For all the praise about Klopp’s Liverpool, they have won less than Arsenal since 2003-04 and Tottenham have won just one trophy. But while Liverpool are certainly in the ascendancy after their UEFA Champions League triumph and hope still springs eternal for Spurs, the outlook is less optimistic for Arsenal. The fact is, they are probably now more than one season away from closing the gap on the top teams, especially after an unimpressive summer recruiting programme.
Will Arsenal fans’ outburst make a difference? Kroenke has never been popular and since he became majority shareholder there have been concerns that the club will continue to struggle to keep pace with the top four. He’s undoubtedly a tough businessman, so he won’t allow fan discontent to worry him too much. The response from the Kroenke’s sounded awfully like corporate speak, but at least they know that Arsenal fans will not be taken for granted. But of they want to really hit home, they need to make another statement, but not on paper…