While I find David Conn’s alarmist piece in today’s Guardian excessively xenophobic and reactionary, the continued buying of English football clubs by American owners does pose larger questions long term.
Having bought teams that had this most previous season just avoided relegation, Randy Lerner (Aston Villa) and Ellis Short (Sunderland) have seen their sides continue to fight relegation despite large financial outlays on players. Lerner’s initial spending saw Villa climb from 17th to 11th to 6th in three successive seasons, but difficult times have since befallen the Birmingham based club.
Given the background of the likes of Stan Kroenke and Malcolm Glazer, both of whom can be reputed as owners looking to making money off their investments in English institutions, will we soon see a closed league in England based on the model of Major League Soccer?
While I doubt we will ever see a single division without promotion/relegation, I can clearly see American owners, who have been beneficiaries of crony capitalism at home, putting in place a system that mitigates risk.
This would include cost controls on spending, possibly involving salary guidelines (not caps), a luxury tax and a league closed after 44 teams, allowing for promotion and relegation among the top two divisions of English football but not beyond. Once more American owners gravitate to the sport, these controls will be pushed and likely implemented.
I disagree with Conn and the general fear of capitalism and investment represented on the pages of the Guardian regularly when it applies to English football. Investment in the sport is a positive particularly when so few British billionaires are community minded enough to invest in the sport. Most football clubs that have failed recently have been due to domestic ownership and greed among upper-class Brits, skimming money off the top on clubs and not soundly investing in the future.
One need not look any farther than the recent debacle at Coventry City, one of the great English clubs of the period between 1970 and 2000 to see where domestic ownership has failed.
But where I see Conn’s logic is that American owners are fundamentally more dangerous to English institutions than those from Malaysia, Russia or Abu Dhabi who have enough understanding of football as a global game and entity to respect its traditions.
Americans have created their own peculiar though more financially viable set of rules governing sport in this country. These American owners do not understand soccer in the way others around the globe do. They at least ostensibly do not care for its traditions and history.
The growing trend of American ownership is a threat to the traditions of the English game, make no mistake about it. The question is how and when will the Americans strike to change the rules and structure of the game in England. Sentiment would dictate that we would hope those who love soccer and love the English game will win out when this inevitable battle occurs. However, business sense may actually mean the American model or some hybrid of the two will ensure the continued success and survival of the English club game.