It has been just over 5 years since Stan Kroenke’s Kroenke Sports Enterprises officially completed a takeover of Arsenal Holdings PLC. It had been in the offing since Kroenke purchased 9.9% of the club and 50% of Arsenal Broadband Ltd in April 2007. The process moved into the realms of soap opera, with familiar faces such as David Dein, Lady Nina Bracewell-Smith and Keith Edelman removed with differing degrees of forcibility, whilst Danny Fiszman’s health failed rapidly.
Dein’s parting gift was to toss another piranha into the tank, introducing Alisher Usmanov, Fahrad Moshiri and Red & White Holdings into a convoluting mix. Kroenke’s short, sharp coup had turned into a full blown Cold War. Obviously, this level of turbulence created a lot of uncertainty and anxiety amongst supporters. For once, Peter Hill-Wood actually seemed to find the pulse of a section of the Arsenal fan base when he said of Kroenke, “We don’t need his money and don’t need his sort. He knows sweet FA about our football.”
Hill-Wood was soon b(r)ought into public relations rank and file, but it’s a sentiment that holds water for English football fans, even if many would not express their doubts in such uncouth terms. (Many undoubtedly would). English football has a troubled history with American owners, exacerbated by the contrasting infrastructure of American sports. The disquiet of Malcolm Glazer’s controversial takeover of Manchester United was still ringing in the ears of Arsenal fans as the takeover gathered momentum.
In hindsight, it is ironic to recall one of the chief supporter anxieties as KSE’s stake in Arsenal increased. Arsene Wenger’s stock was much higher at this point and there were concerns that Kroenke, the ‘Yank’ who “knows sweet FA about our football” would meddle with the manager. In 2016, there aren’t many Arsenal fans that would chastise Kroenke for unwelcome interference with the machinations of Arsene Wenger.
The chimes of “fuck off Stan Kroenke, get out of our club” are an away day staple in the stands nowadays. To say that he is unpopular is an understatement. He has been taciturn with the press, earning the nickname “Silent Stan.” This partial media blackout sits uneasily with Arsenal fans and has been interpreted as disinterest. Arsenal merely form a part of KSE’s extensive sporting portfolio and Kroenke spends the majority of his time on the other side of the Atlantic.
I do think the perception of total disengagement is a tad misguided. Whilst Kroenke is clearly not heavily involved with Arsenal in a personal capacity, it is clear that a lot of delegation goes on. There’s little evidence of neglect. Ivan Gazidis was hired as Arsenal’s CEO less than a year after Kroenke bought shares. Gazidis had spent the previous 14 years working with the MLS stateside, which heavily suggests that he was Kroenke’s appointment. For all of the anxiety over Stan’s personal counsel, it ought to be reasonably obvious that Gazidis acts as his trusted mouthpiece.
Under Kroenke’s ownership, Arsenal have purchased a data analytics company, they have restructured the coaching at academy level, invested heavily in improvements at London Colney, the medical staff has been restructured and the Arsenal Ladies side have benefitted from on and off pitch investment.
Arsenal’s commercial revenues have also risen significantly in the last 5 years. Whether they have risen “enough” is a question for
someone with significantly more informed commercial expertise than I Swiss Ramble. Likewise, the quality of the investments made is subject to debate. But there seems to be little evidence of neglect or disinterest, despite Kroenke’s distance and silence. I think we can assume that these enhancements and alterations were sought by people employed to advise Kroenke at the very least.
However, the few media appearances Kroenke has executed heightened the anxiety levels of Arsenal fans, possibly explaining his reticence with the press. Recently, he created alarm by declaring “If you want to win championships then you would never get involved.” It confirmed the suspicion that the club are in something of a headlock under KSE; the fiscal rewards of finishing 1st compared to finishing 3rd or 4th are not great enough to necessitate the investment required.
Yet that quote was clearly cherry picked by the English media to create a frisson. The remainder of his monologue qualifies the remark. By the end of the transcript, you almost believe that he is describing responsible custodianship; that it is not only about winning championships, but running the club responsibly. The constant use of the word ‘brand’ in the transcript obviously sits awkwardly with supporters; it reveals an uncomfortable truth about modern football.
In order to increase resources and to progress, all elite clubs are forced to think of themselves in these terms (not that one feels Kroenke uses the term reluctantly). However, there have been other utterances that have caused trepidation. In a 2011 interview, Kroenke claimed not to understand the venom aimed at the Glazers, which is obviously troubling. But not quite as troubling as the £3m fee for “the wide range of services provided to Arsenal Football Club” that Kroenke has extracted from the club for the last 2 years.
Arsenal have repeatedly struggled to explain these “services”- services apparently so crucial as to be of greater value than the annual salary of the CEO. The board have not only failed to justify this annual allowance to supporters; they have not explained it to shareholders, turning the last two AGMs into combustible affairs. Whilst this sum continues to be extracted and whilst it is not explained in anything other than the vaguest of terminology, Kroenke will only ever be viewed in a dim light by Arsenal supporters. He probably does not greatly care about that and even if he does, distance insulates him from the opprobrium it creates.
Ticketing is a sensitive issue for modern supporters as prices inflate. Season ticket prices were increased by 6.5% one month after Kroenke completed his takeover, an instant PR defeat against a backdrop of fear and uncertainty. The rise was announced in advance of the last home game of the 2010-11 season, with the team in miserable form, creating a mutinous atmosphere during a limp 2-1 home defeat to Aston Villa.
The club’s PR machine learned its lessons from the nuclear fallout of that announcement. The subsequent ticket rise announcement was ‘managed’ more cynically. Arsenal were forced to do an about turn having surcharged season ticket holders for this season’s Barcelona tie, though the messaging still carried a distinct whiff of passive aggressiveness.
It’s difficult to speak about what goes on behind closed doors with any confidence, but there isn’t a hint of evidence that Kroenke is responsible for Arsenal’s perceived parsimony in the transfer market. Arsenal bought 6 players during the 2014-15 season; having smashed the club transfer record the summer prior. All circumstantial evidence suggests that Arsene calls the shots in the market, but it’s difficult to imagine that Kroenke is applying much in the way of downward scrutiny or pressure.
I do think a small part of the distaste for Kroenke emanates from a desire to be protective towards the manager. Given his achievements at Arsenal to date, it is difficult for many of us to lay issues at Wenger’s door and Kroenke probably gets caught a little in the crossfire. Allowing for Wenger’s stature and longevity, I think the jury is just about out on KSE’s tenure until a new manager is appointed and overseen. At the moment, an uneasy adhesive seems to have formed between a laissez-faire owner and an autocratic coach.
The handling of Arsene’s departure and replacement will tell us a lot more about the quality of KSE’s custodianship and their’ interest in our affairs’. At the moment, willingness to invest does not seem to be an issue. For me, the conviction of Kroenke’s leadership remains open to question until Wenger the benevolent dictator departs.
Follow me on Twitter @Stillberto