Erik Ian Larsen: Profits versus Performance, a post-Chelsea reflection
Written by Erik Ian Larsen on October 5, 2010 18:30
I realize we’ve built a marvelously profitable business here at Arsenal FC. I know that the bulk of the accolades for our balanced books and fiscal heroism fall on the shoulders of our manager, Arsene Wenger, who, during construction of a new stadium and cost-cutting measures to reduce debt, was still able to keep the club competitive for five years despite shedding most of its high-profile talent.
Arsenal recently released staggering numbers detailing never-before-seen profits pouring out of our football club, nearly £56m in pre-tax profits, and a full reduction of property debts on Highbury. Compare that with the more than £100m losses seen at Manchester City just in the past year, and things couldn’t be brighter in North London. For that fiscal responsibility and tremendous business success, I am eternally grateful. I’m proud that our club isn’t run like some foreign owner’s play thing, a ridiculous amalgamation of questionable money, desperate board rooms, and irresponsible spending. Arsenal FC can hold its head above that fray, and its fans should celebrate those moral and fiscal victories.
But isn’t there more to sport than finances? Isn’t there more to running a successful club than just money? When Deadspin leaked the financial summaries of some American Major League Baseball clubs a month or so ago, detailing massive profits of a few of the lowlier clubs in the league, clubs that systematically cut costs and payroll in an effort to maximize their profits through revenue sharing and cost reductions, the public outcry against those clubs couldn’t be louder. People were livid that the front offices of their clubs were sacrificing the best interests of the fans in an attempt to exploit their support.
The loudest theme was: If you’re in this to make money, leave. If you’re in charge of a team to try to make money off of that team, OUR TEAM, then stay away. That was the response, and, as someone who watched money issues rip the professional basketball team out of my home city, the Seattle SuperSonics, who had a 40-year history in the city and an NBA Championship in 1979, I couldn’t agree more. Sports are supposed to be an escape for the less-fortunate, supported by owners who are willing to take a hit on the chin if it means investing more in their clubs’ success and their fans’ joy. Mark Cuban, owner of the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks, is known equally for his success in business and his recklessness with that earned money investing in his (and his city’s) franchise. He’s willing to throw money away if it means supporting his team, supporting his players, and keeping Mavericks fans engaged and loyal.
After the heart-wrenching 2-0 loss on the road to Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, a club diametrically opposed to Arsenal’s business and football models, I’m ready for a change. The fact that very few Arsenal fans expected to win that match says it all. What have we become? We excuse ourselves from big matches because we aren’t supposed to win them? A point would’ve been fine? We’ve lost 16 of our last 18 matches against Chelsea. We’ve won zero matches against Chelsea and Manchester United since a win at Stamford Bridge in 2008 … just one draw and nine losses. This is about competitiveness, that’s it, and unless we’re willing to go out and spend the money and pay the wages that other top clubs are paying their players in this new international market, that gap at the top will continue to grow. Don’t forget that Tottenham and Manchester City aren’t far behind us, either, and both are notorious for their rampant consumerism.
We can’t watch the footballing side of our club wither under the weight of veteran wage restrictions and tight-pursed spending anymore. Not while the rest of the league is evolving and changing without us. Not when the market prices for players and wages are increasing. If we want to simply be “competitive,” if that’s all we’re shooting for as a club, then business should go on as usual. We’ll continue to qualify for the Champions League, claw at the top of the table, and rake in profits. But if we want to be great again, as we have been for so many years of our glorious history, we have to evolve with the league and the trends of global football. Wenger has to wash his hands of his ridiculous stubbornness and start to pay deserving players to play for our amazing club. We don’t have to swing to the excessive side of the spectrum either, it’s not an argument about extremism; we simply need to use the money we have to infuse our club with more world class talent. People too easily try to shoot down discussions about money at Arsenal by using reductio ad absurdum, but this is a plea for fiscal reason, fiscal common sense, not free-wheeling irresponsibility.
My dad always used to say: “Never buy anything you can’t afford.” Well, we can afford better players than many of the ones we played against Chelsea, and until we do, we simply don’t have the talent or the quality to beat a well-constructed, fiscally-charged juggernaut like Chelsea. I hate that money has built that club — I hate that foreign ownership is involved in the first place, because I strongly believe in local ownership in sports — but when you look at the talent disparity between the clubs, money is simply a moral victory for Arsenal, not an on-field one. What makes that loss to Chelsea, and our ignored personnel issues, so frustrating is that we have the money. It’s hard hearing Wenger and Ivan Gazidis whinge about the fiscal landscape of the Premier League handcuffing them against success when the club releases a statement about record profits a few weeks later.
“The competitive landscape makes it ever tougher to achieve success on the field and standing still is simply not, and never has been, an option for the club,” Gazidis said to the BBC. “It is important that we continue to develop a vibrant and robust business with sufficient revenues to sustain success.”
It’s important to run a solid business, sure, but isn’t it also important for that business to turn those “sufficient revenues” into football success? Maybe even at the expense of financial assuredness every now and then? I still believe we’re a club on the upswing, that we have some really great young players filtering to the top of the club for the first time in a while, but we need to surround them with something more than simple squad players and one-dimensional tactics. I still also believe in Wenger’s ability to build a winning Arsenal team, but he needs to take a step back from the squad and his righteous philosophies as they are and attack our problems from a new angle. This “same old Arsenal” stuff has to stop.