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American owners have a sketchy record in British football - can Sunderland afford another one?

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Jack Ford looks deep into the murky topic American ownership of British football clubs following recent rumours that a US-led investment group are set to take up a majority stake in Sunderland AFC.

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When I first heard the news that Stewart Donald was in advanced talks with a New York based consortium with links to the “Far East” (whatever that is) I was initially excited. My mind was set racing with fantasies of spending tens of millions, signing whoever the League One equivalent of Robinho is, and blowing other teams out of the water in a quest to get back where we belong in the Premier League.

But then, a very culpable uneasiness hit me. I couldn’t help but worry that we’ve only just gotten rid of one American nightmare to potentially replace it with another.

I look at the current regime, and the absolute masterclass they’ve performed in transforming the entire atmosphere around this club that just 12 months ago was on its arse, with the emotions of the fans ranging from depressed to apathetic, pink seats conspicuously faded and the whole point of the club lost.

These owners “get it”. They might not be from Sunderland but they understand the fans, their bond with the club and the role the club plays in the community as a whole.

The idea that we’re replacing Donald and Methven with financiers from the one continent on the whole planet that doesn’t have a rich footballing backdrop and cultural heritage from which to draw on makes me fear we could potentially see the club literally sell its soul.

They call football soccer, they call clubs franchises, they talk about MVPs, they don’t have promotion or relegation, they call penalties PKs and sometimes they run from the halfway line to take them, they cheer Zlatan when he’s playing against their home team. They’re just… wrong.

Now I don’t know the faintest thing about ‘Mark Campbell’, the stockbroker reportedly leading this consortium, nor can I be sure that this feeling of mine isn’t just a mixture of Ellis Short PTSD and hackneyed “Brad Bobley” type xenophobia.

Which is why I set out to quantify my concerns by writing this article, setting the Good and Bad that I can see in current and recent American owners of British clubs.

Sunderland v Burnley - Premier League Photo by Nigel Roddis/Getty Images

The Good

I’ll be honest, I could only really conjure up one example of this, but these owners may well be the best in world football. Fenway Sports Group, owners of Liverpool FC since 2010.

While I understand FSG aren’t the most popular amongst Liverpool fans, and their early years were quite the mess, the recent transformation of Liverpool under them has been nothing short of spectacular.

Fenway have recently achieved record profits at the club that was on the brink of bankruptcy when they first took over, but instead of doing it by scrimping and refusing to spend, they’ve done it the right way – from on-field success and ruthlessly effective player trading.

By accepting their limited knowledge of football and installing people at the forefront of the game in backroom and leadership positions, Liverpool have managed to turn themselves into the model football club, an on-and-off the field success. Liverpool have recently been outspent only by Man City, and when was the last time they signed a flop?

Rather than scouring the Premier League top scorer list in a desperate bid to replace Coutinho, they waited until the summer and targeted what must be the best £35m transfer in history – Mo Salah. They’re also not afraid to spend big and refuse to compromise, and backed Klopp’s decision to sign Virgil van Djik with a record transfer fee.

If the new ownership were to take this approach, and bring this synthesis of American sports methodology, focusing on data and sports science, with English football heritage and a global understanding of the sport, we’d have absolutely no complaints.

It’s become clear that apart from extra resources, we obviously require more smarts when it comes to the transfer market, especially if we need to recruit almost an entire new XI with promotion this season. If there’s one thing American sports can teach football, it’s the value of data and the need to embrace the new science of the sport.

Fenway Sports Group
Liverpool FC

The Bad

Now for the most obvious, and probably the most familiar to ourselves and other fans of clubs afflicted with American owners: the Bad. I’ve split these into two categories.

First up, the one most familiar to Sunderland fans, the hopelessly incompetent. Owners that cross the Atlantic in search of Premier League glory with their hearts largely in the right place, but their brains back in the US. Ellis Short at Sunderland, and Randy Lerner at Aston Villa are the two clearest examples of this.

I don’t think I can say anything about Ellis Short that hasn’t been said before. In my opinion, his catastrophic failure at Sunderland can ultimately be traced to the fact that he just didn’t “get” football. He might have initially had billions of dollars and a bit of enthusiasm at his disposal, but he just couldn’t fill that knowledge gap.

The total opposite of FSG, Ellis managed to recruit a raft of “proper football men” that had all the modern football thinking of your local boozer on Super Sunday, people more interested in fleecing the club than running it successfully.

Short also curbed his own spending in an overly naïve following of the FFP regulations that don’t seem to hold tiny clubs like Bournemouth back a jot, something I personally believe was tellingly reminiscent of American sports clubs’ adherence to measures such as salary caps.

As we all know, this all ended with Ellis getting fed up with his shiny new toy once the extent of the consequences of his mismanagement became clear to him, something in my opinion that no amount of debt write-offs will ever make up for.

Sunderland v Middlesbrough - Premier League Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images

At Aston Villa, Randy Lerner had a very similar trajectory to Short. Initially arriving with an enthusiasm for the Premier League and British football, Randy honestly tried to embrace the British model of club ownership, touting himself as a steward of the club running it for future generations and the local community.

However, the differences between American and British sports club ownership soon became too much when he discovered to what extent he was expected to use his own personal money to fund the club, especially in the transfer market, and make significant losses.

As we all saw, Aston Villa had a relegation season in 2015/16 that was possibly even more embarrassing than our own, and Lerner’s policy of selling key players and attempting to replace them on the cheap ultimately meant everyone lost out.

The fact is, Lerner and Short failed everyone surrounding their clubs, including themselves. The two owners progressively saw stars leave and be replaced with dross, relegating two big, proud clubs, and leaving them on the brink of administration in the name of financial responsibility.

They both entered their Premier League ventures thinking they understood football and its financial and cultural climate enough to successfully run a club, but found their sporting knowledge gap insurmountable.

This is the most obvious risk I see in embracing American ownership of the club, the fact that the most glaringly obvious truisms to us can just seem lost on those not brought up in the same sporting climate. In some areas this can be fantastic, such as the aforementioned approach to statistics and sports science, but in other areas it creates a divide between fan and owner expectations that will ultimately leave all parties unsatisfied.

However, while possibly less likely, there is another clear archetype of American ownership: the profit-maximisers.

Huddersfield Town v Arsenal - Premier League Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images

Think of the Glazers at Manchester United, Stan Kroenke at Arsenal, or Steve Kaplan and Jason Levein at Swansea, and you see the same institutional illnesses holding these clubs back.

While America certainly isn’t the only nation to breed the asset-stripping parasite of a club owner, and we certainly have had plenty of our own here in Britain, they seem ruthlessly effective at it, and immune to any criticism from fans on the issue.

It’s hardly controversial to say the Glazers own Manchester United purely for avarice. They couldn’t care less about owning what is arguably the world’s biggest football club, what this club means to the fans and Manchester as a whole.

No, Avram and Co. bought a brand, a “franchise” to be whored around the world to Malaysian tractor manufacturers and Russian vodka sellers. The reign of the Glazers has seen a footballing giant fall prey to a culture of greedy mediocrity and mission drift, the whole institution turning from a winning machine into a vehicle for Official Bedwear Partners and dividends to be extracted tax-free to the Cayman Islands. Any excitement or enthusiasm for buying the club came not because of the team or the history, but the logo, the “brand”, and what it could do for bank accounts in tax havens around the world.

Similarly, Stan Kroenke didn’t buy Arsenal because he was swept up in the romance of the club, or recognised an opportunity to help the club kick on and make the most of its new stadium. He bought Arsenal because he could sit back and rake in the Champions League revenue, fostering a culture of 4th Place being a trophy, and of mediocrity becoming the norm.

This is his Modus Operandi when it comes to the running of the LA Rams, the Denver Nuggets, and the Colorado Avalance and Rapids – the clubs are private businesses that exist to maximise the profits of the shareholders, anything more is a bonus.

Steve Kaplan and Jason Levein
Swansea City FC

Further down the football pyramid lie Steve Kaplan and Jason Levein. These investors led an American consortium that bought Swansea in 2016 and have overseen the complete regression of a once model football club. This pair took a club with a clear tradition of football that wasn’t just attractive but successful, and replaced it with Bob Bradley.

Yes, things were bad when they got there, but Swansea’s incumbent ownership have taken the club down to the Championship and spent about as much as we did with Bain at the helm.

The result: a strikingly similar apathy to the one surrounding our club last season. For Swansea fans, the two shining lights throughout this mess have been Dan James - who came into the first team by accident as a result of poor recruitment and was initially agreed to be sold to Leeds in January - and Graham Potter, who has now left for Brighton. No one on an upwards trajectory sticks around these clubs for long.

Like the Glazers and Kroenke, Kaplan and Levein have the particularly American view of their ownership of the club representing a private investment in a private business. Of course they’re asset strippers, why shouldn’t they be?

To the profit-maximisers, fans don’t represent stakeholders in the club, but customers there to be exploited. Games become an inconvenience, something that takes players away from their real job of promoting apps and face creams, and winning or losing takes place on the balance sheet not the pitch.

Manchester United Training Session and Press Conference Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images

While I’m not deluded enough to think we’re as attractive a “brand” as Manchester United and Arsenal, I have the fear that someone with an eye for making overseas agriculture sponsorships has seen Sunderland ‘Til I Die on Netflix and recognised an opportunity to exploit some pre-made marketing. As we saw with Ellis Short, all it takes is one owner to use our top-class club facilities as collateral for financing and the very existence of the club can be at risk.

For better or worse, football does strange things to grown adults. Football needs emotion to thrive, and these profit-oriented vultures destroy entire fanbases, creating a culture of apathy and avarice that in the long-run devalues their investment.

They’re only in it for themselves, and in my opinion the seemingly common American separation from the culture of football fandom ultimately enables this behaviour.

Those who fundamentally do not understand the culture of football, and view fan expectations as irrational or trivial, cannot replace owners like Donald and Methven that may lack their financial firepower but make up for this in their common understanding with the fans.

Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

How can a culture that accepts “Franchises” moving thousands of miles away from their fans, and has created sports with a complete lack of transfer fees and the degree of owner investment we expect, adjust to owning one of the biggest clubs in England without significant help from someone who does indeed “get it”?

If the new investors come in with an acceptance of the great work done by the current regime, possibly even installing Methven and Donald in a permanent role on the board, a lot of my fears will be alleviated, but even with this in place I think we all know that men with enough money rarely will take no for an answer.

Has the club suffered enough to justify a potentially parochial policy of saying “no thanks” to owners with big pockets but little understanding of the true meaning of Sunderland as a club?

I’m sure Stewart Donald will do his due diligence and ensure the investors are the best men for the job, but then would any of us have thought Ellis Short wasn’t about to herald in an era of Wearside dominance when he first came knocking?

No matter how Sunday’s match ends, this summer looks to be another time of massive change for the club, and I only hope we come out of it with the same positive momentum as we did in 2018.