In recent weeks, as Arsenal’s annual Groundhog Day of disappointment struck again, fans began to look for this year’s scapegoat. It began with Piers Morgan sticking his head out of the hole he lives in and tweeting abuse at Arsene Wenger (we as a staff refuse to give his actual tweets the oxygen he craves for them; you can look them up if you’re interested). This anti-Wenger sentiment grew, and many who had previously stood up for the man realized that maybe it was best it club and manager parted ways. Then, oddly, as things got worse, Wenger began to be absolved somewhat and the blame for Arsenal’s failure shifted over to its American majority shareholder, Stan Kroenke.
The most common criticisms of the billionaire are that he doesn’t care about winning, he doesn’t invest in the club and is only in it for a profit, he doesn’t put second-largest shareholder Alisher Usmanov on the board. It’s also said that he doesn’t care about the fans, and hugely mismanages the on-field product of the teams he owns.
Look, I don’t like Kroenke personally. The Rams move was despicable. He seems devoid of any personality. He’s a billionaire, so there’s a 99% chance he’s so disconnected from normal people and their daily struggles that the portion of his brain that contains the capacity for empathy has atrophied.
With all that said, though: he’s not the problem with Arsenal Football Club.
Winning championships is clearly not the ruler by which Stan measures success, but that does not mean he doesn’t care about winning. Kroenke is certainly in the business of Premier League football for the money. He is also most certainly not in it for “profit” in the sense most people are throwing around that word. It is not a cash cow, something he’s milking year to year to better himself financially. Even if you think the KSE payments he took the last couple years were improper, they were a relatively paltry £3m/yr, or less than 1% of our total revenue. This was not the difference in Arsenal’s recent disappointing campaigns.
He’s not the Glazers, leveraging Manchester United to its eyeballs for solely their economic benefit. He’s in it for the long haul, knowing his asset will continue to appreciate for the foreseeable future if the club roughly maintains its current status.
That last phrase is key: “roughly maintains its current status.”
It’s true that Kroenke is hands off and has not been particularly pro-active in facilitating winning cultures at the US teams he owns, even if I have minor quibbles with the portrayal of the Denver Nuggets. It’s also true that American teams don’t have to deal with promotion and relegation, or in a more relevant example for Arsenal, a lack of Champions League income. If the club drops from its current status into second-tier Europa League level, that costs Kroenke money. Not only does upwards of £50m in revenue disappear every year, but sponsorships, attendance, and potentially Premier League TV slots change, all of which hurt the bottom line of the club in the present and future. It’s a perverse motivation in some sense, and certainly not the football purist’s ideal, but Kroenke is significantly more motivated in cultivating on-field success for Arsenal than he is for any of his other investments.
As for Kroenke’s lack of personal investment in the club, I’d point out that the prior board, made up of the Arsenal fans-cum-owners many critics of the current setup pine for, handicapped the club by not putting their own skin in the game when obtaining the loans for the Emirates. While there’s no way of knowing how much that decision negatively impacted the club, it’s safe to say that is the biggest ownership decision of personal profit over club success in the past two decades, at least, for Arsenal.
Next, on the issue of Usmanov, I [REDACTED FOR AUTHOR’S SAFETY]. Even if you don’t believe the rumors (totally untrue rumors, Alisher! I’d never republish them. Please. I have a family.), you can maybe hazard a guess that the guy that became one of the world’s richest men in the aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union, as its natural resources were privatized, isn’t the nicest guy.
We, as a club and a fan base, have decried the influence of the sort of financial doping that Usmanov represents. Now we’re longing for it? Count me way the hell out.
As for Kroenke’s on-field mismanagement, I’m not sure that’s a fair critique at Arsenal, considering he hasn’t changed much of the setup on the playing side since his purchase of the club. Owners do not have to be involved in the day to day affairs of the club in order to foster a good on-field product. In fact, that’s more often a detriment to the club. Rich sugar daddies (Tony Xia) and wealthy fans that love the club and want to be involved (Mike Ashley) are more likely to flame out and hurt their clubs as they are to be the next Abramovich or Mansour.
The key is to hire good people to run the club for you and let them do their job. Whether Gazidis is that or not is certainly arguable, as the South African has had his share of positives and negatives so far. The next round of sponsorship deals will be decisive in determining his legacy with the club.
Allowing Wenger to stay on as a client king has largely been an overall positive decision, even if the relationship is reaching the end of its shelf life.
Arsenal have unleashed much of the financial power they hoped for when they moved to the Emirates with a massive wage bill and a net transfer spend only behind Manchester City and Manchester United since the 2013/14 campaign. While the club will likely have an annoying high cash balance for as long as the stadium loans exist, they have shown a willingness to dip into those funds for the right players. Kroenke greenlit the purchase of StatDNA, something that gives the club an edge in player scouting and talent identification for years to come. The improvements to Arsenal’s training facility that will begin this year will also keep the club on the cutting edge of player maintenance.
I get it. Kroenke is an outsider that doesn’t care to fit in. After decades of small, closely-held club ownership, that’s a drastic departure. If you’ve grown up with things a certain way, it’s understandable to buck at change. But, I would argue there’s a reason that prior board broke with David Dein and backed Kroenke over Usmanov. They did not want the club to be one man’s vanity project, they wanted it to be well run, stable, and financially secure club for decades to come. The creation of the Premier League and explosion of television rights deals completely changed the game. While there was no way of continuing the past, Kroenke offered the closest approximation of the interested parties.
Kroenke’s never going to operate the club at a yearly loss to maximize title chances, other than perhaps a random year or two here or there. He’s never going to be sitting by the bench shouting at fourth officials and tweeting at the BBC to cool its criticism of Alexis. He’s probably never even going to come to more than 5 matches a year. What he will do is trust the experts to do their job and allow them to spend more money than most clubs have to spend. It could be better - by definition, it can always be better - but it definitely could be worse.