At first glance, an early-season Football League Championship match between Fulham and Millwall at London’s historic Craven Cottage may have appeared to be just another early-season tilt in England’s competitive second division. But just off the pitch, in the owners’ box, it was reflective of a growing, but largely unknown, trend. Both team owners are American.
It is becoming increasingly common for American citizens with financial means to look abroad, and to the globally popular sport of soccer, when looking to invest in a sports franchise. “The Premier League is hot property,” according to Andrew Brandt, former vice president of the Green Bay Packers. “These are businessmen looking for glamour, sexiness, and excitement.”
With the cost of entry into American professional sports franchises becoming increasingly astronomical (witness Microsoft guru Steve Ballmer’s recent $2-billion purchase of the NBA’s Los Angeles Clippers), and the global growth potential and relative lack of regulation in European sports leagues, English soccer teams present an intriguing alternative.
Currently, five of the twenty teams in the English Premier League — Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal, Sunderland and Aston Villa — and two more in the second division — Fulham and Milwall — are held by Americans. Additionally, individual teams in Italy (Roma) and Sweden (Hammarby) are American owned.
In some cases, the American owners have encountered hostility, but in others, their approach has proved a winning combination.
The earliest attempts at American ownership of British teams met with much resistance. The case of Malcolm Glazer and the Glazer family, owners of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and Manchester United, is instructive. The Red Devils were purchased by Glazer in 2005. The deal was a leveraged buyout — Glazer reportedly borrowed upwards of $800 million for the purchase and then transferred most of that debt to the club, limiting its ability to compete effectively. The Glazers further enraged fans when they took personal loans from the club and doubled ticket prices.
The leveraged buyout model was also used by former Texas Rangers and Dallas Stars owner Tom Hicks when he bought Liverpool in 2007. Hicks came on board promising a new stadium and investment in the club, but not being able to make payments on his debt during the global financial crisis, he unloaded the club, ultimately presiding over a largely unsuccessful spell. The club was subsequently sold to Red Sox owner John Henry.
Needless to say, English fans were not keen to have American billionaires using their beloved clubs as profit centers, and their ire was on display in many forms. Glazer was reportedly the subject of death threats, and a public campaign declared, “Love United, Hate Glazer.” Liverpool fans’ signs declared, “Yankee Liar$ Out” and “Thanks But No Yanks.”
Other owners have had quieter and slightly less controversial spells at the head of English clubs. Stan Kroenke, Wal-Mart heir and majority owner of Arsenal since 2007, has had mixed results. Although his initial involvement, financial plan and focus on financial sensibility was not initially accepted by the Gunners faithful, recent returns have created a more favorable opinion of his tenure.
The cornerstone of Kroenke’s ownership has been the building of Emirates Stadium and the redevelopment of the stadium site. The $390-million investment initially limited the club’s financial flexibility in the transfer market, much to the dismay of the fans, but the long-term financial stability of the club is now bearing fruit. The club is on an upswing on the pitch and in the transfer market.
Kroenke’s stadium-based model of club growth is being copied in Italy, where the American ownership, headed by Thomas DiBenedetto and James Palotta of Fenway Group, purchased Serie A giants Roma and plan to build a new stadium for the 2016/2017 season.
In addition to these high profile teams, several other Americans currently own English teams — former Cleveland Brown owner Randy Lerner bought Aston Villa in 2006. He has had some detractors, as the club has been perpetually mid-table, but he has pumped significant money into the club over the years, and many have cheered his recent moves to keep the club competitive, despite his divestment plan. Lerner is currently trying to sell the club, with the price tag estimated around $300 million. Financier Ellis Short has also kept his team Sunderland in the Premier League two years running and largely flown under the radar.
The most recent case is Shahid Khan, who just last season purchased London’s historic Fulham franchise for upwards of $300 million. The owner of the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars, Khan came aboard saying all the right things, stating “I do not view myself so much as the owner of Fulham but a custodian of the club on behalf of its fans.” Although Fulham was relegated to England’s second division after poor results last season, Khan will likely be judged, like the other American owners, largely by their club’s future success on the pitch.
It seems, in the end, it really is results that determines fans’ attitude toward American owners. John Berylson bought third division club Millwall in 2007 and has since seen the team move up a division. He has said, “the Milwall fans like me now.” In other words, as former Liverpool player Ian Rush succinctly described the situation — “It’s like everything. If you’re successful, you’ll be fine.”
With global financial flows and soccer’s increasing exposure in the United Sttes, the future of world soccer is likely to include increasing investments in European franchises from Americans. Those that say soccer is not an American game just may not be looking in the right place. If you want to find Yanks at a Premier League game, check the owner’s box.