On Tuesday, two days ahead of tomorrow’s AGM, the Guardian’s Owen Gibson ran a story on the letter four Arsenal supporters groups wrote to majority Arsenal Holdings PLC shareholder (and effective team owner), American Stan Kroenke. Gibson wrote:
The Arsenal Independent Supporters Association, the Arsenal Supporters Trust, the Black Scarf Movement and REDaction wrote a joint letter to Kroenke last month reiterating their belief that it was important to have a dialogue with the owner. Given the lack of response, a question has been tabled on the matter at the AGM.
In the formal offer document Kroenke made a firm commitment to meet fans and his failure to do so has prompted some to consider reporting him to the takeover panel for reneging on his commitment. “Mr Kroenke has made it a priority to meet with supporters and fan groups in formal and informal settings. He recognises that fans are at the heart of the club. Their opinions and involvement are important to him,” said the clause, before his April 2011 takeover.
The full letter from the Arsenal supporters groups can be read here.
The Guardian and the Arsenal supporters groups are implying that Kroenke’s failure to meet with them over the last two years violates the spirit of the formal offer document Kroenke issued in May 2011, which was the basis for the decision of the remaining shareholders at the time to sell their stake to the American businessman. Therefore they believe they have a case to take Kroenke’s purchase to the takeover panel.
Before we begin, a reminder: I AM NOT A LAYWER. As ever though, some context is needed.
First, Kroenke’s commitment to meet with supporters groups was contained within a fairly boilerplate biographical section titled “Information Relating to Mr Kroene and KSE” (the whole letter can be read here [PDF]). Here is the relevant paragraph:
Mr Kroenke has made it a priority to meet with supporters and fan groups in formal and informal settings. He recognises that fans are at the heart of the Club. Their opinions and involvement are important to him. Mr Kroenke fully expects himself, the Arsenal Directors and Club executives to continue to engage with supporters for the long-term good of the Club.
That Kroenke has failed to meet with Arsenal supporters groups is unfortunate, and he is obliged to do so based on his own commitment to the club. However, at the same time both chief executive Ivan Gazidis and the Arsenal board have met with various fan groups, in formal and informal settings.
Yet there is also an interesting irony in supporters groups going down this “bad faith” path.
That’s because in Kroenke’s original takevoer offer, there is a section preceding Mr. Kroenke’s biography, one entitled ‘Intentions for the club, management and employees’. I will reprint a couple of key points here:
Mr Kroenke and KSE have confirmed to the Board of Arsenal that:
• it is [Stan Kroenke's company's] current intention that, if the Offer becomes or is declared unconditional, they will continue to support and adhere to the self-sustaining business model hitherto pursued by the Board of Arsenal;
• it is their current intention that, if the Offer becomes or is declared unconditional, existing
employment rights of the executive management team and the employees of Arsenal will be fully
(Explanation for the language—in any company takeover, an offer becomes unconditional once the shareholders accept it).
So Kroenke essentially included a promise to keep the “self-sustaining business model” maintained by the existing board. This is echoed in a later section titled Background to and reasons for the offer, which states that “Mr Kroenke believes that the self-sustaining model which is currently followed is the most effective way to ensure the longevity of Arsenal, whilst maintaining its unique history and traditions.”
Why does this matter? For one, there is a case to be made that the demands from some supporters groups for Arsenal to spend more on players would violate the spirit of Kroenke’s takeover offer.
Let’s look to a letter that one supporters group, the Arsenal Supporters Trust, wrote to Ivan Gazidis back in August of this year ahead of the transfer window. The AST demanded, among other things, that “the club’s entire focus must be on using the remaining days of the transfer window to strengthen the team significantly.” Another Arsenal fan group, the Black Scarf Movement, wrote a letter to Gazidis which included, “Make no mistake, if there is not significant improvement in our playing squad over the next couple of weeks, the rapidly growing anger in the stands will become difficult to overturn.”
This is not the first time a supporters group has called into question whether money kept in reserve was being made available for spending in the transfer market. In February 2012, the AST asked Arsenal representatives, “”Did [Arsene Wenger] have the option to use all or some of these cash reserves in summer 2011 and January 2012? Or are resources being held back as a contingency for failure to qualify for the Champions League?”
While there are compelling arguments from very smart people that Arsenal has been stingy relative to means in the transfer market, the fact is Kroenke has reasonably fulfilled his primary commitment to Arsenal in the original offer document by maintaining a self-sustaining financial model toward “the long-term good of the club.” Had Kroenke met some fans’ wishes and allowed for a massive transfer spending spree in the hopes of short term gain and failed to achieve success (as is reasonable to expect for even the biggest spending clubs, see Man City), he would have arguably violated the terms of his offer.
This example underlines that supporters groups don’t really want Kroenke to fulfill his promises and be a good steward for the club. Because, by the standards of his mandatory offer, he arguably already is. What they want is fundamental control over how their club is run. As long as the current private ownership model in the Premier League exists however, they will never get that, even with symbolic minority shareholder initiatives like Fanshare.
This isn’t about good owners versus bad owners, it’s about public versus private ownership of teams. It’s a fundamental antagonism. Everything that appears to bridge the two sides—whether it be a Gazidis Q&A or Kroenke finally deciding to drop by the AST—is, without conceding actual power, symbolic. As long as the issues of supporters groups primarily revolve around anger over ephemera like lack of trophies or the spending by the manager, and not around the fundamental issue of democratic fan ownership of clubs and a real willingness to use extreme measures like organized boycotts, no amount of meetings with Stan are going to do a thing.