Let them eat chips

“This fee was proposed by myself and Lord Harris (of Peckham) for the wide range of services provided to Arsenal Football Club by Kroenke Sports and Entertainment.”

This was Chairman Sir Chips Keswick’s answer at last week’s Annual General Meeting when quizzed about the controversial £3m fee extracted from the club by Kroenke Sports and Entertainment. Keswick couldn’t, or wouldn’t, say what the payment pertained to specifically, beyond the troublingly vague banner ‘strategic and advisory services.’ Questions for the AGM were submitted in advance and that was as specific as the Arsenal board felt they could be.

In the rolling river of Arsenal’s revenue, which has topped £300m for the first time, £3m is barely a ripple in the stream. But to place that fee into context, chief executive Ivan Gazidis’ basic annual salary is reported to be in the region of £2.2m per annum. The ‘services’ KSE provided were deemed to be of more value to Arsenal than 12 months of output from their chief executive. Yet even in light of that, the board could not detail what these services entailed.

If you insisted an employee should be on your payroll for £3m a year but you were unable to write them a specific job description, you would start to wonder whether they were really worth such an exalted fee. What’s more, this fee was apparently suggested by the chairman and one of the club’s senior directors, of their own volition and without prompting. I would love to have been a fly on the wall in that board meeting. “Hey chief, the guys and I were chatting and we’re going to propose paying you an extra £3m. All those in favour say ‘I!” Forever in debt to your priceless advice, as Kurt Cobain once howled.

Sir Chips’ rather vague and muddled rebuttal raised more questions than answers. Or maybe it didn’t. A dividend by any other name smells as sweet. Because what we are increasingly seeing is the ‘human face’ of Kroenke’s ownership gradually melt away. Most of us knew this would happen of course. Investors like Kroenke don’t buy football clubs because they are attracted to the club’s values, or their style of play, or their tradition or history or any other such nonsense. They buy in to make money. A lot of money.

We all know this, but for some reason, the corporate world has a kind of allergy towards the literal. You only have to watch television advertisements, concocting increasingly bizarre narratives to hawk their wares. If a product is being advertised, it is because the company behind the product wants your money. Everybody knows this as an indisputable fact. Yet for some reason, nobody is allowed to say it. When Stan Kroenke bought Arsenal, we all knew what was going to happen.

The most we could hope for was a benevolent dictator, who may even increase the value and profile of the club. Despite having not put a penny in, we all knew that there would come a day when he would dip his hand into the till. Sitting in the audience at the AGM, it struck me that Kroenke’s ownership is no longer in its infancy. A czar will usually spend the nascent years of his premiership trying to present himself in a favourable light to his subjects. However, after a certain amount of time passes, the cynicism of the regime becomes so obvious and so uncloaked, that the mask begins to slip.

Shareholders were asked to vote on whether Stan’s son Josh Kroenke should maintain his appointment to the board. I scanned the room as Sir Chips asked for the hands of “all who oppose.” There were plenty of hands raised, but Stan had already raised his in response to “those in favour.” Stan’s forearm was worth more than everyone in the room combined, so the protest of the objectors was rendered a token gesture (I should clarify that Stan was by no means the only person that indicated he was in favour of retaining Josh on the board).

The charity of Kroenke’s reign significantly eroded with last year’s 3% ticket price rise. In fact, it unmasked him like an unsuspecting Scooby-Doo villain in an abandoned amusement park. The 3% price rise, along with the £3m payment for services so important and so indispensable that we cannot even describe what they are, have seen an acceleration in the corporate mendacity of Kroenke’s tenure. It’s only likely to pick up momentum from here too. Once the veil has slipped, there is little point in trying to butter up the natives any longer. If your toupee slips off in a very public place, its purpose has expired. Even if most people rather suspected your hair wasn’t real anyway.

@AngryofN5 cuts a swathe through more of the prevarication of the AGM here. Arsenal adopted a very, “not me, guv” stance on a number of contentious issues, such as overseas Premier League matches, safe standing, Fanshare and the London living wage. During Kroenke’s premiership, answers to these questions, almost exclusively fielded by Gazidis, have always contained some waffle. But for what it’s worth, you got the impression you were being humoured at least. Maybe it’s my imagination but the answers seem to be becoming more closed.

Corporate avarice in football is not a new phenomenon. Anyone with a vague knowledge of the works of David Conn knows this. The erosion of football’s soul as a result is not a new topic and it’s one I have touched on many times myself. Arsenal can and do argue that many of the developments opposed by the flat-cap sporting hardcore are necessary in the name of ‘progress.’ In many ways, they have a point.

Gazidis used the term ‘progress’ in reference to the possibility of staging competitive domestic games overseas. Sir Chips suggested that KSE’s heavily invoiced expertise was of “the utmost importance to ensure we keep progressing.” Progress has become the foremost example of capitalistic doublespeak, adopted by the small coterie of beneficiaries and foisted upon the rest of us. The winners don’t just get to write history, as the old adage has it. They get to write the dictionary too.

As I sat in the plush surrounds of club level, I became acutely aware that we have left the ‘honeymoon period’ of Kroenke’s ownership. We can expect more ticket price rises, more ‘strategic and advisory’ fees and we can expect to eat cake if we don’t like it. Again, most of us probably knew that the day he parked his boots under our bed. I suddenly became aware during that AGM that my relationship with the club will alter negatively much sooner than I would like.

Either I will be priced out of attending Arsenal matches or else I will become so offended by the Disneyfication of the whole thing that I’ll kind of melt away in apathy. It’s probably just a question of which one comes first. I’ve entered a state of voluntary narcolepsy and tried to ignore much of the commercial side, which, personally speaking, I find very uncomfortable. When the overseas domestic game eventually arrives and the competition’s integrity is nakedly sullied for cash, maybe I’ll be able to keep my head down and stay asleep. But my wallet has a more definite limit than my morals.

Do I prance out or wait until I am priced out? One or both of those things will more than likely happen in the lifetime of Stan Kroenke’s regime. I appreciate that this might sound a little self-pitying – after all, many were priced out well before Stanley kicked the doors of the saloon door open. But if the idea of not going to Arsenal anymore stops making me feel sad and angry, well, then I should probably stop going to Arsenal!

The human mask of Kroenke Sports Entertainment has started to slip. We knew it would, but it doesn’t make the face that lurks beneath any more enticing. LD.

Follow me on Twitter @LittleDutchVA

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