Love the Club. Loathe the American Owner.


On stage, Wenger expressed his amazement at the transformation. He could never have foreseen a time, he said, when Americans owned roughly a dozen of England’s clubs. He was, he said, delighted by it. Polite applause rippled among the guests.

Outside that room, though, the picture is rather more complicated. Barzun might have wanted to celebrate the special relationship that had brought so much American influence into the Premier League, but not everybody in England does.

American Invasion

The detail that Josh Harris and David Blitzer, part of the ownership group that controls the Philadelphia 76ers of the N.B.A. and the New Jersey Devils of the N.H.L., went into as they considered their bid to take over Crystal Palace was forensic.

Over the course of more than a year as they weighed investing, Harris and Blitzer had pored over the numbers so often that, by the end, they had dozens of financial projections for the club, accounting for a host of different outcomes. In none of them, it is fair to assume, did the prospect of firing a coach after 77 days feature.

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Crystal Palace’s American owners, Josh Harris and David Blitzer, fired the team’s coach, Frank de Boer, on Monday after only 77 days in charge. His replacement, the Englishman Roy Hodgson, became Palace’s fourth manager in the 22 months since a group led by Harris and Blitzer bought the club.

Credit
Andrew Yates/Reuters

When Harris and Blitzer finally completed the deal to acquire Palace in December 2015, the South London club became the eighth English team under American control. The Glazer family had been the first on the scene, buying Manchester United in 2003. In the years to come, Liverpool (twice), Arsenal, Aston Villa, Sunderland, Fulham, Millwall and Derby County would follow.

After Harris and Blitzer, Swansea City and Portsmouth, too, moved into American hands; Bournemouth is partly owned by Matthew Hulsizer, a Chicago financier. Barnsley, targeted by a consortium including the Oakland A’s executive Billy Beane, may be next.

Few, if any, would count as unqualified successes. The Glazers faced protests almost from the start; even now, the Manchester United Supporters’ Trust believes no owner has “ever taken so much money from a single club.” Kroenke is blamed for Arsenal’s inertia. Henry is hardly universally popular in Liverpool.

Fulham, Aston Villa and Sunderland have all been relegated. Swansea City only narrowly avoided the same fate last season, and relations between the club’s fans and its American owners, Steve Kaplan and Jason Levien, remain strained. And at Palace this week, the club appointed Roy Hodgson to replace Frank de Boer, fired after only four games in charge. He is the fourth coach in Harris and Blitzer’s brief tenure.

“It is unfair to say they have all been complete failures,” Chris Anderson, who has consulted on a number of completed and putative takeovers, said of American owners in Britain. “But many do struggle with the dynamics of the game, and the industry. They find it hard to understand the nature of the beast.”

According to Steven Gans, a Boston lawyer who advises teams and owners, including several in Britain, there is a direct connection between the way American parents approach their children’s soccer games and the way American owners approach the clubs they pay hundreds of millions of dollars to acquire, and he argues that it is this link that is the root of the problems Americans have endured since they started arriving in England.

“Parents of kids who play soccer tend not to have a frame of reference for it in the same way as they would for baseball, for example,” Gans said in a telephone interview. “They are insecure, only dipping their toes into it. They presuppose they do not know enough. So they outsource it to whoever seems to know more, and that is not always the right person.

“The same pattern applies to owners when they buy an asset. They are at the mercy of their own insecurities. They have less confidence in their own judgment, so they completely outsource the running of it.

“John Henry knows baseball in a way he does not know soccer, so he suspends his normal instincts. He tends not to interject his own thoughts and evaluations. In soccer, U.S. owners outsource the running to people who seem to have the right experience.”

The problem for many American owners — especially at first — is in establishing who, exactly, that might be. “When you land at an airport in a foreign city, sometimes you get charged twice the normal rate by a taxi driver, and you pay it, because you don’t know any better,” said Hendrik Almstadt, a German executive who worked both at Lerner’s Villa and Kroenke’s Arsenal. “It happens to us all.”

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Clockwise from top left: the Liverpool owner John Henry, center, with his wife Linda Pizzuti Henry and Manager Jurgen Klopp; a Manchester United supporter’s scarf in 2010, woven with a protest of the club’s owners, the Glazer family; Arsenal’s owner, Stan Kroenke; and an Aston Villa banner critical of the team chairman Randy Lerner in 2016, months before the team was relegated.

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Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Anderson compares it to someone functioning in a second language: able to grasp the meaning of the sentence, but not always the nuance.

“They cannot necessarily read the signs in the same way as they would in the U.S.,” he said. “These are finance guys, largely. They are used to a macho world, where everyone is wearing immaculate suits and has great teeth. That is what everyone in European soccer looks and behaves like. So how do you tell the good ones and bad ones apart?”

Given the difference between the sports industries in Europe and the United States, Anderson sees establishing that credibility as crucial. “In the U.S., it is highly professionalized,” he said. “It is a small thing, but in a lot of front offices, you have guys with college degrees, a formal understanding of business. That is not the case in Europe.”

He searches for the right word. “New owners do not understand how informal it is. It is less regulated. It is based on personal networks.”

John Henry has put it a little more succinctly: European soccer, he said early in his Liverpool tenure, is like the “Wild West.”

British Influence

At first, in Almstadt’s experience, American owners tend to believe a “cool, rational, analytical approach” will make them the exception in the chaotic, impulsive atmosphere of European soccer.

Few arrive aiming to be a benefactor in the style of Roman Abramovich, lavishing bottomless wealth on their teams. They believe that their knowledge will yield success.

The problem, Almstadt argued, is that English soccer’s establishment — the old hands, longstanding coaches, influential former players and a hostile news media — is inherently resistant to new ideas. Americans arrive wanting to mold their new environment, but on unknown territory in an unfamiliar sport, too often they allow the opposite to happen. It is an echo of Gans’s theory: They are at the mercy of their insecurities.

“Traditionally, owners gave the manager the keys to the car,” Almstadt said, as an example. “And then, six months later, when it didn’t work out, they did the same with another manager.”

That is the way it has always been in England, where managerial omnipotence has long been considered a virtue. It is at odds with what Almstadt described as the “front office model” of American sports, where the coach is just another link in a chain that leads up to the owner, whose position, according to the author Dave Zirin, is akin to “a modern day Caesar.”

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Manchester United fans once protested a takeover by the Glazer family at nearly every match, but the club has won a dozen major trophies under their stewardship, and ranks annually as one of the richest teams in the world.

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Andrew Yates/Agence France-Presse

At Sunderland and at Villa and increasingly at Palace — where Harris and Blitzer have left day-to-day decisions to Steve Parish, an Englishman and minority owner — the managerial churn has been endless. At other clubs, executives, too, have come and gone: owners not trusting their own judgment, vacillating between concepts and advisers, unable to hear themselves think amid the deafening cultural dissonance.

“After a while, you become locked in a death spiral,” Almstadt said. Poor decisions induce panic, and vice versa.

But he and Anderson say they believe things are improving. “The commercial model of the Glazers is now being copied by a lot of teams,” Almstadt said. “More and more teams have a front office model now, too, where coaches are a part of — a very important part of — a broader structure.

“There is a definite American influence on English football starting to show.”

Anderson has been encouraged, too. He praised Henry for his “trial and error” approach, and noted that Liverpool’s gradual improvement suggested lessons are being learned, and that the right people are being retained. He has also found that more owners are doing more comprehensive due diligence on teams before buying.

“They are getting people in to look at their squads, their academies, their staff, to see exactly what they are getting,” he said. Owners have always paid close attention to the finances. Now, they are beginning to dig under the surface of the soccer, too.

That was why there was plenty to celebrate that night at Winfield House. As Wenger said, the special relationship between the United States and the Premier League would have been unthinkable only a few years ago. It is still young, though, still developing. It is perhaps a little too early for the Champagne to flow. There is a lot, still, for both sides to learn.

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