Not many fans of the Premier League will know these names -– Jack Walker
, Matthew Harding
, Dick Knight
-- but they are owners of a bygone era, when the men -- or their
families -- who owned English League clubs served more as custodians than CEOs.
Memories of them and other owners devoted to their clubs as personal responsibilities rather than business
investments have faded as more and more massively rich individuals and corporations -- most of them based outside of the United Kingdom -- have swallowed up majority shares in clubs with more than a
century of tradition.
Of course, there were also those bumbling businessman who regarded a soccer team as just another investment they could run successfully just like their other
enterprises. Fondness for their clubs didn’t stop them from floundering, so those who could back their clubs with acumen as well as resources endeared themselves to the fan base.
Fans can rightly question what it means for their team when the man, or men, at the top know a balance sheet but not a team sheet. Case in point is Arsenal, a wildly successful team on the financial
ledger yet a constant also-ran in the Premier League, and now embroiled in a battle between majority owner Stan Kroenke
and minority owner Alisher Usmanov
The men are not
partners, far from it, and in recent days have apparently been maneuvering to buy out each other. Kroenke owns 67 percent of ownership shares and Usmanov controls 30.4 percent. Usmanov does not have
any influence on competitive or business decisions and has expressed unhappiness with the club’s stagnation; it has not won a major trophy since 2004 and last season finished fifth in the
Premier League to fall short of Champions’ League qualification for the first time in nearly 20 years.
Last year, groups of fans upset over the reign of manager Arsene Wenger
regularly came to matches at the Emirates Stadium carrying signs and belting out chants of “Wenger Out.” During several games, small planes bearing a banner with those words flew overhead
and last May, with his contract about the expire and his future uncertain, an airborne banner expanded the message to “No Contract. Wenger Out.”
Kroenke rebuffed such pressure
and Wenger signed a two-year contract, and reportedly Kroenke is so satisfied with the club that he turned down an offer of $41,180 per share from a consortium. He’s also tendered an offer of
$36,600 per share to buy out Usmanov’s stake. Usmanov has turned down the offer and had reportedly placed a bid of about $1 billion to buy out Kroenke in May.
In bygone days, fans
could gather at games and chant things like “Sack the board!” and shout their frustrations at their beleaguered owner directly, but Kroenke rarely attends games. At first the prospect of a
rich owner who didn’t meddle excessively in team affairs seemed appealing, but as disappointing seasons have piled up Arsenal fans have realized that for Kroenke the bottom line is far more
important than the finish line.
Just how valuable is a club like Arsenal is starkly clear. Since both men began accumulating shares in 2007, the price for such shares has skyrocketed from
7,500 pounds (approximately $15,000). It is not the only club to be pillaged by foreign interests, and the impasse between owners is somewhat reminiscent of that endured by Liverpool fans when
and Tom Hicks
-- partners who quickly became adversaries -- dueled over the club’s direction for months until being bought out by Boston Red Sox owner John