The battle over Liverpool’s ownership future has been dominating the headlines the past few days, with every step towards resolution being met with further legal action from Tom Hicks and George Gillett. It’s a nervy time for Liverpool supporters to be sure, with the threat of administration and the resulting nine point deduction casting a dark cloud over a season that is going poorly enough as it is. While it’s true that there is no such thing as a relegation battle in October, Liverpool have won only six points from the twenty-one available to them meaning a loss of nine would put them into the negative and with quite the hill to climb just to stay up. And while I am no great fan of Liverpool, almost everything about this situation upsets me.
American ownership hasn’t gone over especially well in England. Some supporters of Manchester United have been so disgusted by the Glazers that they’ve formed their own club, currently competing in Conference North. The green and gold worn in opposition to current ownership is widely visible at each and every game held at Old Trafford. While Randy Lerner has so far enjoyed the praise of Aston Villa supporters, many began to turn against him over the summer with the sale of James Milner and the failure of the club to make any acquisitions aside from Stephen Ireland who came to Villa as part of the Milner transfer. Liverpool supporters have compared the club’s woes to, amongst other things, the Biblical Apocalypse. There’s a fair amount of mistrust there, to say the least.
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As an American with a great love for English football, this makes me beyond uncomfortable. It’s irrational really; I’d wager that I have a great deal more in common with your average English person than I do multi-billionaire owners of incredibly valuable sports franchises. Aston Villa has a sell-to-buy policy; I get legitimately excited when I find quarters on the street as it will allow me to do laundry without having to break a $20. Still, Hicks, Gillett, Glazer and Lerner are my countrymen. They’re the most visible representatives of the United States in the Premier League. And when they act like asses, as most would agree Hicks and Gillett have done, it’s embarrassing to me. Because soccer is so much more important to the public at large in England than in the US, the general impression seems to be that American owners seem to view their clubs as little more than a cash-grab. And to be fair, nothing about the tenure of Liverpool’s current ownership has really served to change that impression. As much as I like to see teams that I root against fare poorly, I don’t especially want one of the most storied clubs in England to be run up against the rocks due to incompetent American ownership.
In a somewhat amusing twist, Liverpool’s apparent savior is John Henry, the American owner of the Boston Red Sox. Henry is widely regarded as one of the best owners in American sports; under his watch the Red Sox have gone from perennial also-rans to one of the most well-run and heavily monetized teams in Major League Baseball, winning the World Series in 2004 and 2007. The Red Sox have made their usage of advanced statistical analysis and spending on youth development their hallmarks, allowing them to stay consistently competitive and highly profitable every season. I don’t know enough about Henry’s tastes to speculate on his affection for soccer, but he’s clearly a good enough businessman to understand that the best way to ensure that his potential ownership of Liverpool is profitable is through investment and sustained success, and he’s shown that he’s capable of taking a forward-thinking approach in pursuit of that goal. Hicks and Gillett were focused more on making the club a brand in emerging markets than winning trophies, and it shows in the results. There’s no reason that Liverpool can’t be tremendously profitable, but marketing alone can’t make it so.
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Globalization already plays a huge role in English football, and its influence will only continue to grow. A Russian energy magnate has turned Chelsea into one of the best teams in the world. A United Arab Emirati Sultan has spent an amount of money that seems almost unfathomable in pursuit of taking Manchester City to the same level of success. An American investment banker dismantled the core of one of Brazil’s most successful clubs before leading one of England’s most successful clubs down the road towards financial ruin; an American futures trader appears to be the greatest hope to turn the latter around. Count me among the skeptical that UEFA’s financial restrictions will do much to improve things (assuming they actually go into place at all.) There’s simply too much money to be made to prevent investment, and if people like John Henry can make things work, other businessmen the world over will continue to be drawn to the Premier League.
I hope Henry does make things work, and I hope that he does it in a sustainable fashion. Because for every Abramovich or Mansour there are several Hicks, Gilletts or Glazers. Not every club an have an owner for whom money is no object, but clubs without those owners can still put an exceptional product on the field. Smart enough to embrace tradition in the marketing of the club and shun it where it impedes success on the pitch. Short of an NFL-esque salary cap, which seems neither likely or desirable in the Premier League, outsmarting the competition is really the only way to beat them.
I sometimes wish I were capable of mustering outrage at the role money has come to play in sports, but I frankly don’t have nearly enough energy. It’s fighting a losing battle. It’s reality, and as distasteful and potentially disastrous as I may find it, I simply love the game too much to allow it to distract from my enjoyment. I still recognize its potential to destroy, however, and my greatest hope is that potential owners will take lessons from the fates of Leeds, Portsmouth, Liverpool and the countless other clubs that have faced grave financial challenges. But while the optimist in me can point to Randy Lerner as a model for second-tier clubs and John Henry as a potential model for the elite, the pessimist in me has too little faith in the nature of people where there are profits to be made to see a great deal of hope. For once, it would be nice if the optimist in me could win out.