Have Arsenal sold themselves down the river or found a good ally in Stan Kroenke?
American looks to be a safe pair of hands, but appearances can be deceptive
WHICHEVER way you look at it, 11 April 2011 will have to go down as a momentous day in the history of Arsenal Football Club.
Almost 125 years after the club was founded by the artillery workers of Woolwich, the Arsenal board confirmed that they will now be owned by an American, and run by an American company.
While foreign ownership is nothing new in English football and certainly not in the globalised money-saturated Premier League, it is certainly something new to Arsenal.
In the last decade, while all of England’s other top clubs have gradually sold themselves to Americans, Russians, and even the oil barons from Abu Dhabi, Arsenal have stood firm.
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This was the club, lest we forget, that was coined the ‘Bank of England’ club, a place where tradition, history and doing things ‘the right way’ was always at the top of the agenda.
That may still be the case now that Stan Kroenke’s KSE group have taken control of the club, but the rapid transformation of attitudes towards the American have still been little short of startling.
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“We don’t need his sort,” came the infamous comment from chairman Peter Hill-Wood when Kroenke first surfaced on the scene in 2007.
That was primarily a reaction to the tensions that had engulfed the Emirates boardroom after it became clear that David Dein had been talking to Kroenke behind the backs of his fellow directors.
Dein paid the ultimate price for that perceived betrayal but, four years on, the former vice-chairman will be having a wry smile to himself that the rest of the board eventually came around to his view, and decided that Stan Kroenke was a man worth knowing after all.
Not just worth knowing, but worth selling the club to. Hill-Wood, so vociferous in his opposition four years ago, could not have been more compliant this week as Kroenke assumed control.
As Ivan Gazidis and Hill-Wood have said since, Kroenke’s position on the board since 2008 has allowed them to develop a good working relationship. Resistance has thawed, and now the reins of power have been handed over.
Danny Fiszman (16.1 per cent) and Lady Nina Bracewell-Smith (15.9) are not the only shareholders to sell to Kroenke this week. Hill-Wood himself has pocketed a tidy �5m by selling his remaining stake, and other directors have also cashed in.
Clearly, they trust Kroenke to continue their work at the club in a similar vein, and will remain on the board to monitor that, in the short term at least. Ultimately, the lure of such an influential backer, and at the same time negating the advances of the more aggressive approach from Russian billionaire, Alisher Usmanov, proved too tempting for the board.
The sale of Arsenal is the latest in the Americanisation of England’s top clubs, according to one expert on football finance, Professor Stefan Szymanski of Islington’s City University-based Cass Business School.
But while the controversial, debt-ridden ownership of Manchester United by the Glazer family and the horrendous mess made at Liverpool by Tom Hicks and George Gillett are worrying precedents as American owners, Szymanski does not see Kroenke in the same light.
“I think Arsenal fans should welcome this move by Mr Kroenke,” said Szymanski this week. “He has a solid reputation in the US as a smart guy who knows how to manage successful sporting franchises. It will be interesting to see how Kroenke translates his experiences from the NFL, the world’s most profitable sporting league, into the Premier League.
“Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United are now all being controlled by Americans. This foreign investment clearly indicates the value that these investors can see in the Premier League as a product, especially as the League itself already has a strong foothold in a number of the emerging economies.
“Arsenal have a reputation as being one of the best-run clubs in world football and already have a number of Americans in senior positions, such as CEO Ivan Gazidis, so I don’t think this takeover will signal a significant change in strategy but we may well see a more aggressive marketing push in untapped markets.”
The general consensus appears to be that Kroenke is a decent man, that he is, in fact, ‘the right kind of sort’.
In a short time he has earned the trust of those in the corridors of power at Arsenal and has now been handed the keys to the kingdom. Whether he stays loyal to their intentions over the coming years will be the acid test.