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Alisher Usmanov “exploring sale” of Arsenal shares

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Alisher Usmanov Visits The Turner Bequest Photo by Oli Scarff/Getty Images

For quite some time now, Arsenal has been effectively owned by two people, Stan Kroenke and Alisher Usmanov. Kroenke owns 67% of the available shares, and Usmanov 30%. There is a small pile of shares in other hands (most notably the Arsenal Supporters’ Trust and whatever remnants of the Arsenal fan investment scheme still exist), but for all intents and purposes Arsenal are owned by those two. And with shares currently trading at £34,500 a share ($45,345), there’s not a lot of outside interest in becoming an Arsenal shareholder.

For almost as long as Usmanov has controlled his stake in the club, his presence has been polarizing, to say the least. There are a great many Arsenal fans uncomfortable with Usmanov because of the way he acquired his wealth, and there are probably as many on the other side, who want Usmanov to have more say in the running of the club, because he has long been vocal about the need for Arsenal to spend like the oil clubs in an attempt to stay in touch with them.

Usmanov’s desire to spend relatively unfettered, of course, ran counter to Arsenal’s desire for budgetary restraint and sustainability, which led to many Usmanov outbursts over the last several years, and culminated in a rumored $1.3 billion buyout offer to Stan Kroenke last spring, an offer that was either fabricated or rejected.

Reports today are that the tables of that transaction are turning, as it were. Usmanov, whether out of frustration at Arsenal’s lack of interaction with him or some other reason, is said to be exploring the sale of his shares to Stan Kroenke, a move that would give Kroenke unfettered control of the club.

The ramifications of this are unclear and yet interesting at the same time. If Kroenke is the sole owner of the club, there’s nothing stopping him from changing the club from a publicly traded company into a privately held one based, as all his other businesses are, in the US. This would mean that, at a minimum, there would be no more annual general meeting - those are required of public companies (in both the US and the UK) by law, but no such rule exists for privately held businesses.

Another potential effect here is that while Arsenal, like most large companies, aren’t really “transparent” about their business dealings in the way many sports fans might like them to be, they at least do publish their financials every year. People like the Swiss Ramble and our very own fbj0 and Travis can then dive as deeply as their nerd hearts desire into those financials and extrapolate useful information, trends, and themes from it. If Arsenal are privatized, that’s gone.

The question does remain how much of that matters to the enjoyment of watching Arsenal play football - it’s the classic “not my money not my problem” scenario. I mean, I fully get the armchair GM thing, but I’m not sure us not knowing with any certainty Arsenal’s turnover and profit margin is a loss here.

The bigger concern, to me, is the lack of transparency in personnel and operations that may take place if Stan pulls Arsenal entirely behind the curtain. Right now, we know that Arsenal have a board of directors, and that Ivan Gazidis is CEO and that Sven Mislintat and Raul Sanllehi are the recruiters/directors of football, for instance.

If Stan is the sole owner of a private business, he could remove the board (again, as a private company, there’s no legal requirement to have a board of directors), and then all of a sudden...who’s in charge? Gazidis? Stan? And what if Mislintat annoys Stan one day and gets fired?

I don’t think that privatization would automatically or inevitably lead to those scenarios - Arsenal are too big and robust of a company to be that fragile. But just look across the Thames at Chelsea, where they go through managers like a sick person goes through Kleenex, to see at least one (albeit kinda surface-level) manifestation of what happens when one person is the sole lever of responsibility at a club, and ask yourself if that’s really a good thing.

The fact remains that, as a public company, there are controls on how Arsenal can operate, and if they go private, those controls largely go away. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing on an operational basis, of course, remains to be seen, but I think we can agree that more transparency is generally better, particularly when it comes to the motivations of otherwise super-secretive billionaires.