Posted by: mdegeorge | April 22, 2011

An American owner in London … and Rome

With the run into the European soccer season’s final month and change upon us, it’s surprising to see the stories usually reserved for the offseason – no, not updates on Cesc Fabregas to Barcelona – filling the newsfeeds.

But major front office happenings crossed the wires with the contingent of American owners of European soccer clubs growing significantly. These aren’t fifth-tier regional pub teams being invested in with major American dollars, but rather some of the biggest names in the European game, with Stan Kroenke starting his takeover bid of Arsenal and a group led by Thomas DiBenedetto becoming Serie A’s first foreign owners at the helm of Roma.

Both have extensive experience in the field of sports ownership, and Kroenke has the added advantage of being a long-time shareholder at Arsenal who has gradually increased his share in the club until earlier this week when he triggered the threshold to automatically make a bid for the remaining shares. His increased involvement, through the purchase of shares from the late Danny Fiszman and Lady Nina Bracewell-Smith, was first met with decisive rebuke from the Arsenal Shareholders Trust before a sudden change of heart that looks like it will lead to a formal acceptance of Kroenke’s £700 million offer.

Experience in the American sports ranks is no harbinger of future success though. The European soccer game is a different beast with a vastly different set of rules and expectations.

To try and encapsulate just what Kroenke and DiBenedetto are getting themselves into, here’s a quick rundown of the other prominent American owners in European soccer.

Malcolm Glazer, Manchester United

Glazer is the posterchild for anti-American ownership feelings. The Glazers, owners of the 2003 Super Bowl Champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers, emerged as players in Man U’s finances in 2003 after the club experienced several failed takeover bids in the late 90s and a power-struggle between owners J.P. McManus and John Magnier and manager Sir Alex Ferguson. The Glazers upped their share from an initial £9 million investment for 2.9 percent in the spring of 2003. By May 2005, he became the majority shareholder by buying out McManus and Magnier, and by the end of June, he controlled the team, then valued at around £800 million.

Despite success on the field during the Glazers’ reign (three Premier League titles and likely a fourth this season, three League Cups, and a Champions League title), the Americans have been anything but welcomed in Manchester. The most prominent concerns have been over the family’s willingness to accept nine figures of debt (estimated in excess of £700 million) leveraged at least in part against the club, possibly putting the club’s future at risk for present success and risking running afoul of UEFA’s increasingly stringent stipulations for maximum debt allowable for clubs competing in European competitions like Champions League. The Glazers have, however, managed not to uproot beloved figures such as chairman David Gill and Ferguson, while steadily increasing the value of the club as an international brand and amassing a sizeable stable of young talent upon – long the modus operandi of enduring Red Devils dynasties – at cost compared to major transfer market dealings.

The reaction against them has been vitriolic. Actions against the Glazers have taken many forms. There’s the sentimental: The formation of FC United of Manchester in the Northwest Counties League Division Two (English 10th division) in 2005-06, a fan-owned enterprise seeking to get back to Manchester United’s roots that could seek its fourth promotion in six seasons next month.

There’s the outspoken: The revitalization of the Manchester United Shareholders Organization, which successfully fended off a takeover bid by Rupert Murdoch in the late 90s, into the more robust and vocal Supporters Trust (MUST). The group, which is over 150,000 strong, has been ubiquitous in their protests in green and gold, spurring editorials, demonstrations galore, and the Glazers into freezing ticket prices. Old Trafford luminaries such as Ferguson and David Beckham have been linked to the group, though both remain supportive of the ownership regime.

And there’s the financial” A group that has MUST’s support, the Red Knights, that has attempted for over a year to raise a group of investors to meet the Glazers’ valuation of £1.5 billion to assume control of the club. The group has hit obstacles in its path and repeatedly drawn the ire of the club, but remains a constant threat should the Glazers plan on getting complacent. They haven’t been enough, however, to stop the industrial city’s team from being the most valuable soccer club in the world and the only valued at over $1 billion, appreciating by around 40 percent (not adjusted for inflation) over the last half decade.

Tom Hicks and George Gillette, Liverpool

The Hicks-Gillette regime in Liverpool featured all the consternation and fan outrage the Glazers experienced in Manchester without any of the on-field boon like silverware or European qualification. Hicks and Gillette rode into the blue-collar town on a promise of fiscal responsibility and not placing heavy burden of debt on the club. After three years, they managed to rack up such illustrious accomplishments as very public falling outs with manager Rafael Benitez and chief executive Rick Parry, constant delays on plans for a new stadium, a disgraceful exit for Hicks’ son from the Liverpool board thanks to an abusive email to a fan, accumulation of debt as Hicks took a bath in the global economic meltdown, borderline delusional valuations of the club, and a disagreement between the co-owners when Gillette attempted to sell his share. The situation devolved into a legal battle when court-appointed directors deemed a sale of the Hicks-Gillette “toxic assets” necessary, with Hicks trying to oust the directors. Eventually Hicks was compelled to the sale, passing the club onto…

John Henry, Liverpool

Despite his American compatriots’ difficulties on Merseyside, Henry and his New England Sports Ventures consortium has been nothing but welcomed in Liverpool. Their commitment to debt-free living, including an early pledge to clear the debt left by the preceding owners, has ingratiated them to the fans. They’ve also not been shy about splashing the cash, perhaps too indiscriminately, on the likes of strikers Luis Suarez and Andy Carroll and shaking things up with the dismissal of manager Roy Hodgson in favor of Anfield icon Kenny Dalglish. It hasn’t translated to silverware and European position yet, but with an anticipated summer cull on the way, Henry and company have a chance to make their stamp on what they hope is a rejuvenation of the most successful English team of the 20th century.

Randy Lerner, Aston Villa

Lerner has long been pointed to as proof that an American can be a public figure spending wisely for his club and actually be well-received by the fanbase. But cracks are starting to appear in that veneer. Lerner’s ability to amass young talent led to three straight sixth-place finishes in the Premier League, but the team of young footballers playing attractive attacking football that was tipped to be the first to bust the Big 4 couldn’t take that next step. The result is a financial imbalance thanks to increased spending without increased return (read: Champions League television revenues) that needs to be rectified quickly and could cause some belt-tightening and fan grumbling. Villa currently sit 10th in the league, thanks in large part to Lerner’s willingness to splash out big bucks on Sunderland striker Darren Bent in January to give his floundering side a jolt towards the top half of the table.

Lerner spent the better part of the last five years endearing himself to the West Midlands club supporters, infusing almost 200 million to the club and nearly tripling revenues. But that has come at the price of an escalating wage bill that has reached almost unsustainable levels without attaining the ultimate goal of a top-four spot. Lerner’s popularity has suffered lately with the crumbling of his relationship with long-time manager Martin O’Neill that precipitated the latter’s sudden resignation just before the start of the current term. The Villains’ glacially slow start out of the gate is a reflection of O’Neill’s sorely missed prowess. His replacement, Gerard Houiller, isn’t the most popular figure, and the increasingly likely prospect of having to cash in young stars like Ashley Young and/or Gabriel Agbonglahor during the summer certainly don’t sit well with the Villa faithful. Lerner has taken calculated and conservative chances in building the squad in the past, but without O’Neill to spur the side of regular overachievement, the challenge is all the more daunting.

Ellis Short, Sunderland

The native Missourian who amassed his fortune at the helm of Lone Star Funds, a private equity firm, took over in the fall of 2008, attracted largely by the craziness of the football town he experienced on the final day of the season in which the Black Cats barely held onto Premier League survival. He’s taken a few lumps at the club, including the volatility that was manager Roy Keane and quick departure of his replacement, Ricky Sbragia, after piloting them to safety (though it’s probably indicative of the club’s culture that Sbragia chose to remain with the club as a scout). But overall, Short has loved his time at the helm.

He’ll face some rocky days ahead. With Bent pouring in goals, the Wearsiders finished the fall with a chance to get involved in the European conversation (as I boldly predicted earlier this season). But they’ve been in freefall this year, winning three of their first four matches, including the first match after Bent’s move, but have picked up only one (a draw at Arsenal, no less) of the last 27 available points in the league to enter the relegation fray. Relegation avoidance specialist Steve Bruce has avoided blaming Bent’s move as the reason for the free fall, but the shocking nature of his transfer surely had some effect. Chairman Niall Quinn has vowed an inquest into the cause of the recent struggles, which have severely angered the fan base.

Some point to Short himself for not reinvesting the spoils of the Bent transfer into the squad to equip them for the season’s final four months. It may be that they accumulated enough points early on to safely see themselves through and reinvest in the club during the summer. Relegation would be devastating to the club, but they could find themselves in the running for European spots again next season if they can navigate the final few months and regroup in the open transfer window. Short will play a major, albeit quiet role in all this, benefiting from the very public profile of Quinn to maintain his private existence in the owner’s box.

John Berylson, Millwall

Out of the Premier League spotlight, Boston native Berylson has done an impressive job in South London, recently celebrating four years at the helm of the Lions. In the time since his 2007 investment, he’s survived boardroom unrest, anti-American sentiment and helped reverse the fortunes of a club best knows for several ugly incidents of fan hooliganism as the ugly stepsister of London football. Berylson assumed the owner and chairman position of the strugglers in League One and led them to promotion playoffs two straight seasons before reaching the English League Championship behind iconic manager Kenny Jackett Millwall currently sits 10th in the Championship with an outside chance of working its way into the promotion playoff picture. Saying the investor who specializes in revamping and turning a profit with moribund firms has led a revival at Millwall into a Premier League-worthy club is not understatement. It looks particularly impressive given that Berylson had the opportunity to purchased a moribund Leeds or enter the hornets’ nest that is Liverpool with New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft.

Andrew Appleby, Derby

Appleby has been a fairly quiet figure with the Rams. The club cost him ₤50 million in Jan. 2008 while the club was locked in an prolonged cycle of overinvestment and owner shuffling. After a ₤60 million investment by a consortium of local businessman led by former club executive Peter Gadsby and his subsequent hightailing out of town, Appleby swooped in largely with just a flick of the financial pen to erase some ₤25 million in debt. The first few months of his reign encompassed half of the worst season in Premier League history. But the earliest ever team relegated from the Premier League stabilized itself in the Championship the following year, and while flirting with relegation this term, appear to have what it takes to stay up. Whether they’re anything more than a championship club is an open question. But the Rams will at the very least turn Appleby a tidy profit if and when a larger investor comes to pass.

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