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American ownership wave washes over Premier League.
By Ed Draper
LONDON (Monday, February 26, 2007) - The Americazation of British football. Where will it all end?
It seems like the United States sports tycoons have finally cottoned on to the Premiership gravy train. There's seemingly more American moguls pouring off the boat, or more correctly their private jets, every day. The money's been sloshing around England's Premier League for years, but with a new lucrative TV deal set to kick in next year, the financial frenzy is about to step up a couple of notches. Each club in England's top flight is set to receive a guaranteed £30 million (around $59 million at the time of writing) with the bigger clubs -- Chelsea and Manchester United, for example -- getting a bigger slice of the pie.
No wonder the likes of Randy Lerner, George Gillett and Tom Hicks have clambered aboard the money train. Lerner bought Aston Villa -- the perennial underachieving, "sleeping giant" -- located in our nation's second city, Birmingham. Gillet, meanwhile has gone for a club with greater marketing potential - Liverpool, the most trophied team in the land. Then of course there's Stan Kroenke, billionaire owner of Major League Soccer's Colorado Rapids who formed some vague alliance with Arsenal, presumably aimed at inter-league and then inter-stellar domination once football teams are found on Mars.
They are all following in the footsteps of the buccaneering Malcolm Glazer, who perhaps worryingly for him, has presided over Manchester United's slip from being the word's richest club to fourth spot in the revenue list.
Unfortunately for those of a morbid sense of humor, Glazer hasn't pulled off any gaudy U.S.-style revamp of United. But maybe the slide down the money rankings might spark some flagrant commercialization of the Red Devils.
There were rumors, for example, that United's hallowed home, Old Trafford would soon change it's name to reflect a new sponsor: Pizza Hut Park, perhaps or maybe McDonalds Stadium, with the outside bet on Twinkie Field. Might the club's falling revenue force Wayne Rooney to be renamed Wayne Rolex, or perhaps more fittingly the Burger King? Given the fact United is at the top the table and is still in three Cup competitions, it doesn't seem the Glazers will be forced into such drastic measures.
Aston Villa, on the other hand, requires a commercial makeover and fast. By all accounts, their training ground is a shambles and the team's not exactly flourishing on the field despite the appointment of Mr. Motivator (Martin O'Neill) to head coach.
In fairness, Mr. Lerner says he's in it for the long haul and says he'll invest money so the midlands team can become more than a mid-table outfit. But long-term, the owner of the National Football League's Cleveland Browns owner will surely be looking to add to his estimated $ 7.5 billion fortune -- he can't like visiting Birmingham that much, no offense intended!
Now, I think the answer lies in the team's nickname -- the Villains. A marketing masterstroke would be to turn the dilapidated Villa Park Stadium into a giant prison, a Fort Knox motif, if you like. The players could all shave their heads, wear eye patces and have bags labelled "$" hanging from their shorts. It's difficult to know if Lerner, who spent a year at Cambridge University in England in the early 1980s, will be too bogged down by British tradition for such a dramatic revamp. But, hey, if something's worth doing, it's worth doing well, or at least dramatically.
Moving northwest to the winningest team in English football history, what lies ahead for Liverpool? The obscenely rich Gillett and Hicks have swooped to buy the Reds for £174m (over $341 million). Hicks, who owns baseball's Texas Rangers, is famously known for bidding against himself until he arrived at the $252 million, 10-year contract for shortstop Alex Rodriguez. Three years later, Hicks admitted his mistake, paying the Yankees $9 million per year for the remaining seven years to accept Rodriguez in a trade.
Gillett and Hicks have pledged to pour money into the club. Rafael Benitez, the team's manager, has been positively licking his lips at the prospect of adding some more Spanish-speaking players to his ranks. But, again the question is where will the return come for the American owners?
Perhaps, the answer could be found in Benitez's mission to make Liverpool a bit more like his homeland. Let's make his wish come true. On the culinary side, paella could replace meat pies in the concession stands, salsa music could create a Latin ambience, but for the pièce de resistance, how about pre-match bull fighting? Obviously, the playing surface might suffer as a result of two-ton beasts rampaging around, but it would surely ensure bumper attendances at the new stadium promised by the U.S. pair.
Of course, this is all tongue in cheek. The Americans and the other mega-rich tycoons (such as Chelsea's Russian owner Roman Abramovich) muscling in on English football don't need any tacky gimmicks to make money back on their acquisitions. Unlike any sporting league in the world, the Premiership can boast vibrant fan bases across the globe, from Los Angeles to Lagos, Nigeria. The money men certainly say that the well isn't going to run dry anytime soon, but still, the U.S. billionaire owners of today and those to follow - New England's Kraft family, owner of the NFL Patriots and MLS Revolution -- is reputed to be poised to pounce and could bring a marketing savvy to make the most of the brand's current popularity.
Let's hope it doesn't get too garish though and undermine the traditions and history of the sport. So far the signs are good, although bulls at Liverpool would be quite a sight!
Ed Draper is a freelance sports journalist working in London. He currently works mostly for BBC Radio, as well as teamtalk.com, after making past contributions to the Manchester United MUTV channel, which was nice considering he is a United fan.
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