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Liverpool, Arsenal…should we fear this invasion?

Shahid Khan

In the 17th Century, a group of Calvinists fled England to escape religious and political persecution. Leaving from Plymouth on the Mayflower, they headed for the new world – America. Since, the United States has developed into the globe’s most dominant modern imperial power, with enough military might to take on the rest of the world combined, and a capitalist stranglehold on the world economy.

The money-loving Americans have it all, but now they want our football clubs. Fulham’s recent change of ownership brings the tally of American owners of Premier League outfits up to six, along with the Glazers at Manchester United, Randy Lerner at Aston Villa, the Fenway Sports Group at Liverpool, the Gunners’ majority shareholder of Arsenal Holdings PLC Stanley Kroenke, and Ellis Short, who took full control at Sunderland in 2009 after previously holding a 30% share.

The purchase of Fulham by Shahid Kahn, a Lahore-born entrepreneur said to epitomise the American dream, who bought the club outright from Mohammed Al-Fayed for £200million, is just another development in an incredibly alarming trend in the English game.

Call me a tad xenophobic, but there is a stark contrast between the influx of owners from the United States and those arriving from Russia and the Middle East. First of all, Russia have a strong heritage in the beautiful game; they are European Championship and World Cup regulars, whilst recently, their domestic clubs, most namely Anzhi and Zenit, have flexed their financial muscle to become emerging forces on the European stage. Culturally, football has always been popular, and is now regarded as the top sport in Russia following the break-up of the Soviet Union.

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Granted, the Americans have come a long way in recent years. They held the World Cup in 1994, and the MLS has grown rapidly since its first season in 1996. But in cultural terms, it still remains behind American Football, Ice Hockey, Baseball and Basketball, and at youth level, is largely considered as a women’s sport. Whereas Chelsea’s Roman Abramovich and Reading’s Anton Zingarevich had a basic, spectatorial knowledge of football before purchasing their respective clubs, the likes of John W Henry at Liverpool, or the Glazer clan at Old Trafford, have about as much footballing nous at the average English toddler. Overall, the United States is one of the only highly-developed nations in the world that hasn’t fallen in love with the beautiful game.

In the Middle East too, football is a popular past-time. Perhaps their footballing investors are less equipped at understanding the Premier League in comparison to home-grown owners and chairmen, but compared to their American counter-parts, they have one distinct advantage – money. Manchester City’s Sheiks have spent almost £1billion on the first team at Eastlands, whilst there have been obvious investments at many levels behind the scenes, including the club’s new Etihad campus, designed to create a stronger academy.

For the likes of Sheik Mansour at City, as well as Abramovich at Chelsea, their clubs are prized possessions, that can be propped up no matter what by their personal fortunes. But the same cannot be said for the American businessmen making the trip over the Atlantic pond. They are businessmen first and foremost, not men with too much money, and they’re here to make a quick buck rather than enrich the quality of the Premier League, and that alone is their soul motivation.

John W Henry and Tom Werner admitted as much to The Guardian in 2010, the Glazer family purchased Manchester United on a huge debt package in 2005, whilst Randy Lerner and Ellis Short have hardly filled Aston Villa and Sunderland with unprecedented dividends to propel them up the league table. All are here to increase their personal wealth; actual success in footballing terms comes a distant second.

Of course, that’s hardly a rarity in the modern game. Most chairmen or board members come from the business world, often excited by the challenge of making money from an incredibly volatile industry, where profits can depend on performances on the pitch. But whereas Tottenham’s Joe Lewis has an entrenched understanding of the club’s unique connection to the Jewish community, or Norwich City’s Delia Smith is well aware of the working class roots and values of the English game, the same can’t be said for the American contingent that’s rapidly expanded over the last decade.

Furthermore, these aren’t simply businessmen from across the pond taking a punt on an alien industry, for the sake of advancing their portfolio. The vast majority own sports franchises in the United States; Khan also owns the Jacksonville Jaguars of the NFL, Liverpool’s Fenway Sports Group own Baseball side Boston Red Sox, and Malcolm Glazer has run the Tampa Bay Buccaneers since 1995.

But all have come to realise one fatal flaw in the American sports industry that is almost impossible to overcome and will one day stagnate the market; the NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL are highly popular within the realms of the United States but none have global appeal, at least not to the same levels of the Premier League.  The English top flight is expected to make £3billion in profits next season, with half coming from TV revenue that sees games broadcast across the world. Similarly, shirt sales of star players brings in added profits that can’t be replicated in the US; Real Madrid claimed in 2010 to have already sold £100million’s worth of replica Cristiano Ronaldo kits world-wide. It’s football’s mass appeal the Americans wish to tap into, having realised the short-comings of their own native franchises.

Combining the two markets and creating synergy between the industries also appears to be a big part of the master plan. Fulham’s new owner is a champion of bringing NFL games more regularly to England, whilst the Glazers and the Fenway Sports Group will be hoping their franchises’ loose affiliations with Premier League clubs will turn more English fans towards American sports, or at least break down the cultural barrier that seems to severely limit our interest.

Its globalisation the Americans want, and it will remain their ultimate agenda. Most alarmingly about the current situation however, is the numbers of US owners, which only looks set to accelerate. Khan’s acquisition of the Cottagers makes the American clique just one owner shy of having considerable power, as it takes seven votes to block any proposal put forward to Premier League proprietors at their collective meetings with representatives from all twenty top flight clubs, although they will need to increase their numbers considerably to 13 to pass their own suggestions.

But with the national game already in disrepute as it finds itself crushed under the financial power of the English top flight, it doesn’t suggest any huge reforms for the sake of English football and English football alone, regardless of its hypothetical effect on the division’s overall income, will be passed any time soon. Similarly, with the Americans pushing for globalisation at every opportunity, the chances of match-day rejuvenation to counterbalance the growing generation of armchair supporters who prefer to watch their football via their Sky Sports subscriptions in the safety of their own homes, remains incredibly unlikely.

The Premier League has always maintained its neutral stance on ownership, with nationality, race, colour, creed or background never used as a form of discrimination. It’s allowed for unprecedented wealth and continuous expansion, but the influx of American businessmen is taking our game down a dangerous path. They have no interest in the quality of footballers produced or provided, the happiness of the fans or the intrinsic involvement our clubs have in their respective local communities. They have no wealth to offer us that others can’t, and whereas Roman Abramovich or Sheik Mansour view their hefty financial investments as a gift to a project taken up on their own personal accord, the US contingent expect big profits in return.

They’re here to make money, by whatever means, and their overall view of the direction the Premier League should be heading in is in disturbing contrast to the average English fan. The Premier League is being Americanized, at the cost of the heart and soul of the English game.

Should the Premier League be concerned by the growing number of American owners?

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Article title: Liverpool, Arsenal…should we fear this invasion?

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