Is the Premier League a Billionaire’s Playground?


After the 2-0 loss to Manchester City in the Community Shield match over a week ago, yet more questions arose as to the validity of Chelsea F.C as title contenders. The yo-yo effect of Chelsea’s success, trophy-winning campaigns and completely unsuccessful campaigns following each other in a cyclical effect, has slowly bitten at the patience of the club’s fans. Nine managers in seven years, limited spending on incoming players and the last-minute transfer of key player Thibaut Courtois (signing at Real Madrid C.F for a rumoured fee of £35m), all fingers are pointing towards the man at the top, Roman Abramovich.

The sporadic successes of the club have undoubtedly kept Abramovich from being forced to sell the club, but the bittersweet reign of Antonio Conte saw him sacked despite a league win in his first season and an F.A. cup win in his second. It was Conte’s public image after the Diego Costa debacle and ultimately the fifth-place finish in the Premier League; missing out on the elusive Champion’s League spot that lost him his place at Chelsea. Perhaps Conte staying at the club wouldn’t have changed the result against Premier League champions Manchester City, but yet another transitionary period is indeed detrimental to the development of the squad and the confidence of the fans.

Abramovich, the second wealthiest club owner in British football, has come under scrutiny for his methods of ownership: releasing managers left and right, exploitation of the loan system and stockpiling youth players. Although his practises are unlike any other club in the Premier League and are most likely experimental, there are ethical and economic problems that are attributable to the practise. When teams of youth players get little to no playing time and signings such as Jorginho make it straight into the first team, that leaves 23 players this season and 37 last season loaned out to other clubs.

Loaning out players is a guaranteed method of increasing their value, in which case the Chelsea youth squad is just a money-making scheme at the club, monopolising the aspect of the football club that requires a developmental eye rather than a capital investment eye. The irony of this shady monopolisation was when former Chelsea youth prospects that slipped through the cracks scored against Chelsea last season; Mohammed Salah, Kevin De Bruyne, Ryan Bertrand, Romelu Lukaku etc. Issues such as these make fans question his actions as owner: are all of his actions renouncing the undeniable potential the club possesses?

Most recently, Abramovich was granted Israeli citizenship, but still hasn’t gained a working visa for the UK. The Russian oligarch purchased a ‘triplex penthouse’ apartment worth £30m on Chelsea waterfront last week, after his UK visa application had been delayed since May, thought to have been due to the tension between London and Moscow after the Salisbury scandal. This led to the delay of the new Stamford Bridge’s construction, which Chelsea announced was due to “the current unfavourable investment climate.” Whether this is an actuality is highly questionable, especially with Abramovich’s investment group ‘Aristus Holdings ltd.’ making a massive £900m investment on a developing copper mine owned by ‘Kaz Minerals’. Abramovich is definitely playing games with not just the Premier League, but the UK economy.

Another billionaire Premier League club owner, Stan Kroenke, has come under scrutiny as well after forking out £600m to become full owner of Arsenal, when he is already the majority shareholder for the club. KSE, his sports driven conglomerate, issued this statement: “KSE believes moving to private ownership will bring the benefits of a single owner better able to move quickly in furtherance of the club’s strategy and ambitions.” Alisher Usmanov agreed to sell his 30% stake in the club, which he also originally planned to takeover, mostly because of the lack of influence he had in the decision making behind the scenes. The Arsenal Supporters Trust reacted swiftly to the news, stating: “The AST is wholly against this takeover which marks a very sad day for Arsenal football club.” They also stated, “Stan Kroenke taking the club private will see the end of supporters owning shares in Arsenal and their role upholding custodianship values.”

The deal seems on surface level just another buy-out or big money deal that appears in the news frequently, but this will have a lasting painful effect on the club. The fans malcontent towards their club’s owner is wholly based on a complete lack of transparency. Hitherto the end of the 2016/17 season, known on football twitter to be the ‘banter era’ at Arsenal, the problems the club faced with the boycott in ticket sales, livid fans on YouTube and the players’ lack of confidence was all attributed to manager Arsene Wenger. Irrespective of the previous success the club had with Arsene and the ‘invincibles’ squad, all blame was dropped onto Wenger’s lap. This new season with new manager Unai Emery will be a telling document of whether it really was Wenger’s fault or perhaps the owners of the club who limited spending and enabled mediocrity.

The timing of this deal, just a few days before the start of the first season with a new manager since 1996, seems eerily non-coincidental. Perhaps Usmanov had no confidence in Emery, or pre-empted the downfall of Arsenal as a whole. ‘Silent Stan’ was last criticised for purchasing a 510,000-acre ranch worth around $725,000,000, meanwhile the surplus cash of around £160,000,000 meant for transfers to Arsenal was hardly touched in the 2015/16 and 2016/17 seasons. The deal to buy out the club is also being paid mostly by loan, only $45,000,000 is actually being paid with his own money. Football pundit and Arsenal legend Ian Wright spoke out indefinitely against the decision, stating: “I can sum up the prospect of Stan Kroenke becoming the sole owner of Arsenal in two words – absolutely disastrous.”

The cornerstone of the working man’s life in 20th century Britain has become a megalomaniacal, billion-pound industry full of greed and plutocratic influence in the 21st century. However, the common misconception of Premier League club owners is that they tend to be American, middle eastern or Russian; such as Liverpool owners Fenway Sports Group (USA), Manchester City-owner Sheikh Mansour (UAE) and Bournemouth majority owner Maxim Demin (Russia). This is not completely true, and even so these clubs are definitely in the fans good books for their successful seasons in the last few years.

British billionaire Mike Ashley owns Premier League side Newcastle United and is certainly not a fan favourite. He initially wanted to rename the historic St James’s Park stadium to the ‘Sports Direct Arena’, a decision that was overturned due to fan protests against it. After becoming owner eleven years ago, the club has faced two relegations, several fan boycotts and now the ever so imminent departure of the best manager they’ve had in decades. Rafael Benitez is proven European royalty and according to the independent Newcastle based outlet ‘The Mag’ has been “shafted by Mike Ashley.” The passionate Magpies fan also goes on to note: “In classic Newcastle United style, despite the huge profits made from selling players like Mitrovic, Merino and Mbemba, Newcastle have shamefully failed to build on last season’s impressive tenth place finish by giving Benitez nothing but crumbs to spend in the transfer market […] it now seems incomprehensible that Benitez will remain at Newcastle once his contract expires in May.”

It isn’t just London clubs and foreign owners who exploit their fans in the name of brand image. Newcastle’s Mike Ashley is the perfect example of an owner who is completely blinded by profits and gain, to the detriment and disenchantment of the fans without whom there wouldn’t be a club in the first place. Newcastle, unlike most English major cities, is a one club city with a huge fan base and was the 20th richest club in the world back in 2016. Recently, Ashley bought the high-street department chain ‘House of Fraser’ for £90m. Less than £30m was spent on incoming players during the summer transfer window and more than £40m was earnt on departing players. As full owner of a Premier League billion-pound club with millions of loyal fans, it seems as if he trusts the dying high street shops more than a huge historic club with heaps of potential. An irate Alan Shearer ranted about Ashley’s ownership on Match of the Day after Newcastle’s opening game against Tottenham Hotspurs: “I’m not happy. I’m exactly the same as the rest of the Newcastle fans because Rafa has not been given the ammunition to take the club forward.”

These once successful clubs are being exploited for cash thanks to TV deals and fan loyalty. The potential of the clubs and the passion of the fans is now buried alive, and the bigwigs who care nothing about football are disenfranchising those who gave them their city’s club in the first place. We just have to hope and pray that our teams find luck in the new season… and stay in the Premier League.

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