Meet Stan Kroenke, the 71 year old American business mogul who owns one of English football’s most historic clubs. Since 2011, he has held a clear controlling stake in Arsenal FC, and in August of 2018, he moved to take full control of the club. With a reputation for back-seat management, ‘Silent Stan’ is among his more endearing nicknames, whilst others would need to pass a profanity filter.
If you were a student of business, you would be remiss to pick the brains of a man reportedly worth more than eight billion dollars. Starting from humble beginnings, Stan worked his way into a position of significant wealth before meeting his wife, Ann Walton, one of seven heirs to the Walmart empire. In recent years, the Kroenkes have amassed an impressive collection of some of the world’s most valuable sports teams, their portfolio including the NFL’s Los Angeles Rams, the NBA’s Denver Nuggets and Arsenal. However, his ownership of sports franchises in the United States has not been without controversy.
It’s clear that the values of traditional English football clash with those of American sports franchises. Look no further than the widespread animosity that follows the controversial MK Dons wherever they travel. Formed from the ashes of Wimbledon FC, the ‘Dons’ were relocated 55 miles to Milton Keynes following the club’s entering of administration. The club is chastised for being nothing more than a franchise and is almost unanimously despised by football fans across the nation.
American sports teams are ludicrously wealthy brands regardless of their individual success but can offer little in terms of long-term security to die-hard fans. Since the 20th century, there have been 48 franchises that have relocated across all three of America’s most popular sports. This flexibility is exactly what makes these franchises such as enticing business propositions for owners such as Stan Kroenke. There were no concerns on his behalf when his St. Louis Rams moved 1,800 miles southward to The Golden State in 2016. The move effectively doubled the valuation of the now Los Angeles Rams overnight, despite the protestations of fans back in Missouri, who had endured some of the team’s most barren years in recent memory.
For Arsenal fans, such a move is hardly the most pressing concern. It would be difficult to imagine a move to Inverness becoming the club’s next genuine business strategy. Rather, it is the underlying message that is sent by such profit-oriented decisions as uprooting a twenty year old sports fan base that should concern them. Open, callous exploitation of supporters is nothing new for observers of the Premier League. The league’s boom in popularity has seen fixtures rescheduled to suit the television companies and ticket prices soar, with season tickets at Arsenal consistently priced as the highest in the country. Supporters reacted to news of his bid for full ownership in August 2018 with horror and dismay.
Arsenal have also become accustomed to an impoverished trophy cabinet in recent seasons, something that is inexcusable to fans considering the weight of this club’s history and their present financial situation. In the 2017 annual report, the club’s turnover had crossed the £400m mark, the cash balance was at £180m and there was another year of pre-tax profit, this time of £44.4m. I’m unconvinced that pre-tax profits or operating revenue were considered important during the Gunner’s double-winning season of 1988/89, the European victory in Copenhagen in 1994 or even the year of the infamous ‘Invincibles’. Whilst Arsenal’s self-sustaining financial situation is commendable from a business perspective, it highlights a flawed ambition of trying to wrestle back control of the Premier League title when rivals are pumping money into their teams at record levels.
As a businessman, Kroenke must be licking his lips before the Gunners’ AGM, knowing that his cash cow that is Arsenal will help finance the Rams’ new $4.9bn. LA Stadium in Inglewood. As a sports fan, he should hang his head in shame. His approach to ownership at Arsenal has allowed the club to slip from perennial title contenders to scraping 6th place. Cost-cutting measures such as limited wage structures have allowed key players to run down their contracts and leave on free transfers, a trend we are seeing again this year with Aaron Ramsey. The purse strings have finally been loosened in terms of player recruitment with approximately £170m being spent over the past two seasons, but this spending spree has arguably come too late.
The Premier League has fundamentally changed since Arsenal were last crowned champions in 2004. New financial powerhouses such as Chelsea and Manchester City have thrown money at their squads and reaped the rewards, winning eight titles between them in 15 years. Liverpool and Manchester United got the memo, invested heavily in recent seasons and are both turning a corner, albeit at different paces. In the past two seasons, Everton have spent £272.2m on players compared to Arsenal’s £178.1m according to Transfer Markt. Investment has largely brought on-field success and clubs that are lagging behind are often slipping down the table as a result.
Arsenal moved into the Emirates Stadium in 2006, a year before Kroenke had even first bought a stake in the club. At this time, there were grandiose promises of plans to “keep the club at the top” of the football hierarchy. The Gunners had reached a Champions League final that season, won the FA Cup the previous year and completed an entire season unbeaten the year before that. Everything and anything seemed to be within the club’s grasp.
Thirteen years later, the club appears to be mired in mediocrity, losing players, managers and key members of staff during a new era of upheaval. New head coach Unai Emery has been left to probe the loan market during a critical January transfer window. Under Kroenke’s ownership, a worrying trend established fourth place and FA Cup trophies as an acceptable barometer of success. With ‘Silent Stan’ at the top, things may continue to look bleak for a while yet.