Paul Revere rides again

February 8, 2007

PAUL REVEREIt’s Paul Revere in reverse. English patriots are riding out to warn against the American forces threatening their homeland. Only this time it’s Americans advancing and winning the battles for England’s premier football teams. There are Russian forces too, but that’s another story. Will the victorious leaders win the support of the natives, or are we in for prolonged insurgent battles in the name of independence from the invaders?

This week Liverpool FC was acquired by two sporting Entrepreneurs from America. The event met little resistance from supporters, in contrast to an earlier takeover at Manchester United FC two years ago.

The battle for MUFC

When two American sporting entrepreneurs took over Manchester United Football Club a few years ago, the fans rose up in a display of organized resistance. The initial reactions were intense suspicion that the move was the prelude to the destruction of the club in the interests of short-term financial manipulation. The more extreme predictions have not come to pass, and the club is experiencing an upsurge of results on the pitch. Boycotts by disaffected season ticket holders have been rather ineffective, as the enlarged stadium at Old Trafford since the take-over has regularly claimed Premier league record attendances.

In England, changing financial requirements brought about by TV rights and product franchises, were increasingly forcing a generation of club chairmen to sell their majority holdings and control.

But football’s more than a business – isn’t it?

Much has been written about the intensity of the cultural identity provided to a region, by its football clubs. An earlier example in England saw fans of the ‘Old’ Wimbledon form a breakaway club as the original team was relocated to Milton Keynes.

Thus the outcry at MUFC. But even before, there had been a relatively smooth transition at Chelsea FC, during which fans quickly accepted the potential of what was at first seen as an unlimited budget provided by Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich.

A succession of takeovers were to follow those at MUFC and Chelsea FC. At Aston Villa, all the dedicated efforts of Chairman Ellis in investing his own fortune in the club had cut no ice with the fans. The chairman’s commitment and willingness to fire the coaches he appointed had earned him his nickname of Deadly Doug. This probably helped reduce opposition to the take over at the club by another American sporting entrepreneur, Randy Werner.

West Ham succumbed to offers from an Icelandic football administrator and retailing entrepreneur. Arsenal FC, one of the elite and revered names of English football, retained its broad governance, but at the cost of moving into a new stadium named after its backers, the United Emirates.

What sense can we make of the reactions to the takeovers?

At first sight it might appear that English football fans have become less susceptible to the ‘shock of the new’. This might have been because the governance at Chelsea and MUFC was seen to be, if not models of benignity, then were not as deviously short-term and threatening as the Paul Revere outriders were crying at the time.

Overall, however, it seems to me that we have several factors that come into play, influencing the receptiveness to the new regime. Dissatisfaction with the prevailing leadership in achieving the expectations of the fans is one such factor. This was stronger at Liverpool which had lost its one-time supremacy over other English clubs, than at MUFC which had been enjoying a lengthy period of success. The threat of Chelsea was still largely unappreciated. There was probably even stronger dissatisfaction at Aston Villa/

Meanwhile, across the channel

The threat of forein invasion is less acute elsewhere in Europe. Italy’s clubs remains beset with a range of problems which produced assorted punishments and leagl proceedings. Such turmoil did not prevent Italy winning the greatest prize of all, The last World Cup. Last weekend’s rioting was another eruption of the culture of football violence in Italy. However, Italy’s leading clubs tend to have backers of enormous resources and have have not been such an attraction for American sporting entrepreneurs.

Nor have the clubs in Spain, which can boast two of the world’s most glamorous and wealthy clubs (Barcelona and Real Madrid). France and German clubs and also remain relatively untouched by foreign predators. Again wealth (Real) and interestingly democratic ownership (Barca) offer protection. Top teams in Germany and France likewise have resisted foreign invasion.

So what can we conclude?

First, that England, despite strong local culture in football historically, has been rather open to new ownership promising better success on the field. There is an interesting parallel with the openness to foreign ownership of commercial concerns, for example in the automotive industry. Secondly, the resistance will still vary according to local circumstances.