Football club owners: Billion Dollar maybes

A FEW weeks ago, I was interviewed outside Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium by Spanish TV on the subject of club ownership and the European Super League concept. As I was speaking, there were a few irate Arsenal fans in the background shouting their disapproval of their own owner and the broader issue of billionaire club owners.

Although the European Super League debacle has gone away for the time being, it is likely to return. The underlying narrative has been about some billionaires misunderstanding the game and selling the souls of their clubs. Regardless of the motives of these people, they do own the clubs concerned, both legally and financially. They paid good money for their assets. In theory they can do precisely what they like with those assets, no matter how many people protest.

Most fans, when their club is taken over or sold by legacy owners, may wonder what lies in store, but generally, the financial benefit of a Russian oligarch, middle eastern oil man or Asian tycoon enthuses them for a while. To many, the cash influx means transformation of a club or salvation. Chelsea, for example, moved from being an under-achiever to one of the world’s top clubs, creating history by the season. 

On the other hand, the attractiveness of an established super club as a portfolio asset has often resulted in playing performance stagnating – such as at Manchester United and Arsenal. While Chelsea’s fans love Roman Abramovich as he’s funded something of a supermarket trolley-dash, Arsenal and Manchester United’s financial performance – largely dismissed by supporters – has been acceptable for their US owners. 

Now, Arsenal fans are urging Stan Kroenke to get out of “their club”. Kroenke and his contemporaries are, de facto benefactors. The fans complain about a club’s lack of “ambition”, which invariably means a reluctance to spend money in the market, while also moaning if a club raises prices or makes adjustments to accommodate the spending. 

As far as some folk are concerned, owners are supposed to stump-up and shut-up, providing the resources to facilitate success. Mike Ashley at Newcastle United is not popular with the fans but Newcastle have remained a relatively stable club. However, the last piece of silverware was won in 1969 and the last domestic trophy was secured in 1955. Newcastle fans have been longing for the club to be sold and it almost happened when the Saudi Arabian sovereign wealth fund made a bid. 

Fans point to owners that don’t “engage”, but at Chelsea, Abramovich’s voice has rarely been heard. But regardless of this, the Russian will always be seen as a good owner given the club’s record since 2003. 

For all the claims they want engagement, empathy and cultural alignment, what speaks loudest of all is simple – money. So does the money give you license to do as you please? In virtually all aspects of global business, it does, but not necessarily in football. 

What attracted the likes of the Glazers, Kroenke, Fenway and Abramovich to British football was the attractive revenue streams the growth trajectory and the links to customer bases. This may appear transactional, but the commercialisation and globalisation of football has made it appealing to investors, people who know how to run global businesses. 

Naturally, in a situation where income and profitability appears to be compromised, owners will invariably look for solutions to ensure stability and future growth. It’s not exactly “live by the sword, die by the sword”, but if you have prospered from football capitalism, which some clubs undoubtedly have, you will also be vulnerable to the downside of the free market.

And football ownership, predominantly, is a one-person board game, it’s not often that equity markets reward holders of football shares. This all flies in the face of the traditional football model, but the days of flat caps, terraces, Bovril and poor stadiums have largely gone.

So would life be better without the billionaires? Who will they sell to if that moment arrives? For every unhappy fan, there are others who long for a billionaire to drive into town and buy their club – to make them competitive (another term for big spenders in the market). As former England international John Barnes recently said, everyone wants their club to be richer than the next one and to win prizes. They urge their clubs to pay £ 100 million for an Erling Haaland, yet they don’t always want the baggage that comes with that status. 

Increasingly, British football fans are looking across to continental Europe at the model in Germany, the 50+1 system. There’s a lot to admire about German football and its ethics, but it may be too late for Premier League clubs to adopt such a concept. For a start, club owners may not play ball (why would they?) and the mechanics behind the transition may take years. But Britain can learn from Germany.

Whatever the solution, we have reached a point in time where better governance, financial reality and corporate behaviour within football has to be addressed. It’s a crucial time and the opportunity should not be wasted, but instead of banishing the money men, maybe stronger regulation and governing bodies with more teeth need to be introduced as soon as possible. In the meantime, fans should be careful what they wish for.

@GameofthePeople

This article appeared in Football Weekends magazine. Reproduced by permission.

Photo: Alamy

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