Of the 20 clubs currently operating in the Premier League, four of them are owned completely by American owners (Manchester United, Liverpool, Aston Villa and Sunderland) while one other has a majority shareholder (Arsenal) looking to invest more in the club in the future, but has this spelt good news for the clubs involved or bad?
The temptation when discussing people from the same country, particularly in business, is just to lump them all in together because it’s simpler that way, but in truth, the way that each of the owners in question goes about their business couldn’t be more different if it tried and it’s best to take each case individually on its merits rather than the somewhat lazy cultural brushstrokes a lot of articles would plump for.
League Managers Association chief Richard Bevan stated back in 2011: “There are a number of overseas-owned clubs already talking about bringing about the avoidance of promotion and relegation in the Premier League. If we have four or five more new owners, that could happen. Certainly you’ll find that with American owners and you’ll find that with some of the Asian owners (they have been talking about scrapping relegation). If you look at sports all around the world and you look at sports owners trying to work out how to invest to make money, you will find that most of them like the idea of franchises. If you take particularly American owners, without doubt, there have been a number of them looking at having more of a franchise situation and that would mean no promotion or relegation. Obviously if I was an American owner and I owned a football club or I was an Indian owner I might be thinking I would like to see no promotion or relegation, my investment is going to be safer and my shares are going to go up in value.”
Now, the above may be somewhat shocking from our standpoint but you can also see why a Premier League football club is seen as something of a risky investment, particularly in light of the current financial climate (the roots of which emanated from the US mortgage market collapse). There’s no salary cap and no draft on emerging players and so competitiveness is always fairly skewed in favour of the already more established sides. In short, if you want to become one of the big boys in the top flight, it’s going to take the sort of investment that Manchester City’s owners have plowed in to catch up which is not really possible with Financial Fair Play now on the horizon.
Liverpool are the first club which springs to mind when it comes to American owners simply by virtue of having two successive and contrasting administrations from over there. Tom Hicks and George Gillett, similarly to the Glazer Family that own Manchester United, have a well-worn tradition of running sport franchises back in their homeland.
However, the problems first arose in how they came to purchase the club in the first place, front-loading their own personal and leveraged debt onto the club and hoping to use its established global reach as a way to make themselves a profit. Buying a club largely without your own money is no way to do business and both have left a hugely bitter tastes in the mouths of the supporters.
The Glazers latest move of floating shares on the New York Stock Exchange hasn’t quite gone according to plan already and there’s a sense that the financial burden on the club has impacted on their ability to compete off the pitch in recent times, while Hicks and Gillett nearly ran Liverpool into bankruptcy. It wasn’t because they were American that they were and still are poor owners to have, that’s just a coincidence, but it’s become clear that it’s a flawed and deeply dangerous approach to take with a beloved football club, even if western society is by and large built upon the basic principle of debt, but on such a grand scale, it’s alarming to say the least.
Over at Aston Villa, though, Randy Lerner has proved himself to be the very model of a sensible businessman, cutting the clubs expenditure in recent times to suit his own needs and due to the team’s under-performance out on the pitch. Sure, he’d love to spend more if he had it and he’s already backed Paul Lambert to an extent this summer and Martin O’Neill heavily in the past, but he’s taken a pragmatic, long-term approach and he seems to genuinely care about the club, while the same could be said of Ellis Short at Sunderland, who has allowed the club to compete, but never without losing sight of the bottom line.
At Liverpool these days, Fenway Sports Group rule the roost and while they may have dithered to an extent over the stadium issue, which finally looks like coming to a resolution, and spent wastefully under Kenny Dalglish’s tenure, there’s no denying that their intentions have not been above board unlike the previous owners.
They haven’t misled the fans at any point and while their decision-making hasn’t always been fantastic, John W. Henry in particular seems keen to keep channels of communication open with the fans and he’s done well back home with the Boston Red Sox, so he has a history of caring about the clubs he owns.
It’s difficult to truly quantify the financial impact that American owners have had on the Premier League until they’re all gone but the financial route that some have taken is clearly in danger of damaging the game, while the aforementioned rule changes that could come into effect in the future should more foreign owners come to England would do more harm than good for most clubs.
It’s not the easiest league to make a quick buck out of these days, but that sadly hasn’t stopped some trying, but it would be a shame to tar every American owner with the same brush and we shouldn’t judge in sweeping statements simply due to the nature of a person’s passport, rather their ethics, or in some cases, rather lack thereof or the individuals involved.
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