American ownership hoodoo: a myth or pattern?

The Guardian and New York Times writer James Montague tells The Voice of London about the reality behind American ownership in football, its genesis and impact.

That Americans don’t know much about football has become a cliché almost as common as that white men can’t jump. Yet, in London there are three clubs owned by investors from across the pond: Arsenal, Crystal Palace and Fulham. What else is a common thread between them? They haven’t been particularly successful for some time now.

“It’s just a different way of getting what success is,” says James Montague, author of the book The Billionaires Club, which delves into the issue of wealthy oligarchs taking over football.

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Listen to James Montague bringing up the only non-money American takeover story, explaining the origin of the term ‘soccer’ and talking over the anti-Americanism in football.

For football fans, success means glory. Simple as that. Glory from winning cups for the top-table clubs. Glory from over-performing or pulling off a miracle for the small or medium market clubs. From setting off on an exciting, Tottenham-like project or, from fighting for promotion to an upper division.

However, the aforementioned clubs have hardly been through good times recently. A lack of on-pitch stability, lowering standards and early-season disappointments – that’s the reality for those fans who sometimes cannot bear the owners from across the pond anymore.

“Somebody like [Stan] Kroenke would say ‘look, we’ve won the FA Cup two years in the row’,” Montague explains. “He’s famous for saying on the record ‘you are not in it to win trophies’.”

That’s the mantra the Arsenal owner has brought with him from the States. His Denver Nuggets, playing in the NBA, and LA Rams from the NFL haven’t made it to the post-season since 2013 and 2005 accordingly.

But, the Nuggets are profitable and have expand their brand globally, having played in London last year, for instance. The Rams, who have just moved to LA, an up-market city, played in London this year as well; and will soon be homed at a new, £3bn stadium in Hollywood Park, the world’s most expensive sports arena.

“The people involved in ownership at Arsenal, Fulham, Palace; they are not idiots. These guys are very, very successful businessmen who know how to make money out of sports teams. The way the clubs are being run, they are being run like businesses which,” Montague says, preparing football fans for a sting straight to their hearts, “doesn’t necessarily mean you are going to win cups.”

The Glazers were the trailblazers for the Americans here in the UK. Envisioning the club’s global commercial potential, they borrowed money against its value and then leveraged the buy-out between 2003 and 2005.

Although the severe criticism pouring from the fans experiencing first-hand the hurtful big-money takeover, Manchester United have been incredibly successful since then, despite the recent post-Ferguson hiccups, winning all the trophies a club can possibly win.

“When Malcolm Glazer died, there was a big piece in one of the Florida papers [the Glazers own NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers] they said this guy has kind of revolutionised America’s thinking on sports business outside the US.

“There is also a great interview with Jerry Jones, the owner of the Dallas Cowboys. What the Glazers did at United, for Jones it was a huge success and a model for others to follow.”

You can guess, the Cowboys haven’t played in the Super Bowl since 1995. But, the franchise is the most valuable sports enterprise in the world.

That’s the money-orientated thinking that has attracted the Americans to the British sports market. The booming TV rights deal and global marketing potential of the clubs have created financial opportunities never before seen in football; which couldn’t go unnoticed by the hard-headed Americans who have capitalism running in their blood.

“There is an interesting story how Kroenke came to Arsenal in the first place. He was in Hong Kong doing business, he looked at a newspaper and it was just wall to wall Premier League football. That’s how he came to decide ‘this is something we have to look at’.”

The takeovers of some sports entities in Europe could well be just the beginning. The Americans might not know much about football, but they do about business; and with their money they have the power to push certain ideas that facilitate their interests even further.

The closed-league format, inspired by American major sports leagues, has been an inspiration for football grandees for a while, exemplified by the constant tinkering with the most prestigious club competition – the Champions League.

No relegation or promotion means protection, and securing the long-term futures of their investments. That’s the kind of thinking that actually pretty much converges with the interests of sports investors from all around the world, thus the pressure to adapt the model mounts.

“We already have kind of semi-closed European Super League and it will get worse,” Montague says about this year’s changes to the Champions League allowing the Premier League to have five clubs playing in the competition, for instance.

“We might be just a couple of years away from a big team not qualifying for the Champions League and given a kind of wild card pass. It’s going to be chipped away.

“I think what is going to come next is a global closed Super League. If you think about the number of fans and growth of football in China. A team like Guangzhou Evergrande is going to be compatible to any big European club in terms of fanbase, money, type of players you can attract.”

And that rings a bell. We’ve already had proposals of the North European League, and we’ve seen big offers from the Middle East for Barcelona or Manchester United to participate in their Super League project making the headlines.

Money and prestige over football, matchday excitement, trophies and results? Sadly that looks like an ongoing process. The oversimplification of our beloved sport, to just some financial results, means the issue of American ownership, under which many clubs are in decline, is not a hoodoo. It’s a pattern.

Out of political dimension, opportunistic, nationality ignoring, and absolutely devoted to profit-making; this model is changing the vintage definition of success, in which to compete is to earn. The desire to win is being put on the back burner.

Perhaps it is time to start appreciating lower league competitions, domestic cup success, or any form of competitiveness a bit more until it’s too late? If ‘we are not in here for cups’ they might disappear for good, sooner than expected.


Words: Damian Burchardt | Subbing: Étienne Fermie

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