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Stan Kroenke, Arsenal, and the end of accountability

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The changes at Arsenal have left Stan Kroenke in an immense amount of unaccountable power

Arsenal v Burnley - Premier League Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

David Ornstein’s interview with the double-head executive, Vinai Venkatesham and Raul Sanllehi, revealed a lot. That is to say, in their perfected corporate non-speak, they revealed absolutely nothing of interest other than retread lines about self-sustainability. In a sense, that is not entirely new at Arsenal: it’s not as if Ivan Gazidis didn’t roll out lines of filler, designed by a PR executive. Yet there are two main differences: to his credit, Gazidis actually addressed fans, in part because he had to, as Arsenal still had an AGM, but at other times too, and there was also a very erudite manager whose press conferences were revelatory, something which is no longer the case with Unai Emery.

The message coming from Venkatesham and Sanllehi is the same as it was before: “We have a self-sustaining business model at this club. That means all the investments we make on the pitch are funded by the revenues we generate off the pitch.” With that model, the Kroenkes “are 100% committed to this club and want to get the club back in the Champions League, back competing for Premier League and competing to win the Champions League.”

The Kroenkes, of course, are now fully owners of the club. If they want to not spend any of their own money on the club, that is their prerogative. Furthermore, they need do nothing more other than trot Venkatesham and Sanllehi to talk about “values” of the club, before confirming that there really is going to be no outside money, meaning Arsenal have to compete, domestically, with three clubs that spend far more than they do, and two clubs, Liverpool and Spurs, that are in the same financial range as Arsenal—and in Europe, it’s even harder. Occasionally, you get something, like Leicester winning the league, but that is a miracle, not something you can actively make part of your plan—otherwise, everyone would be doing it. And with Unai Emery as head coach, press conferences are never going to be more than the head coach not answering questions about the ownership’s level of ambition, with those questions being referred to the club—that is, Venkatesham and Sanllehi.

Perhaps this is all a coincidence. But with Arsène Wenger gone, and Ivan Gazidis following him, it became a very convenient time for the Kroenkes to complete their takeover of the club, safe in the knowledge that if they wanted to stop interacting with the fanbase and the media in a critical, meaningful way, they could. The things that made those at Arsenal feel somewhat accountable—the AGM, a manager who actually responded to questions about ambition and the club’s direction, board members who engaged with the fans—and gave some thought to Arsenal belonging to the fans, even with a majority shareholder, are gone, likely never to return.

These were inevitable events, but it doesn’t mean that they’re without negative aspects or that they won’t fundamentally change what Arsenal mean to the people who have invested, either time or money, into them. The nature of sport now means that for the most part a very few select group of rich people (usually men) get to make decisions about sports teams that thousands, and perhaps even millions support. Those decisions, as we see with Arsenal, are rarely about putting the club in the best position to succeed at what it is, a sporting team, but rather, they are mostly about putting the club to be in the best position to make ownership profits. That Arsenal can be vaguely competitive without costing the Kroenkes is a major attraction; that they can claim a profit of at least £3m a year without doing anything other than owning all of the shares is the icing on the cake. And with a new two-headed director team that was picked by the Kroenkes, they no longer have to answer to any outside scrutiny about their investment in the club. When Sanllehi and Venkatesham talk about evolution, not revolution, this is what they mean: the evolution of Arsenal to just another identikit sport franchise.