Reality hits the Premier League's American dream
A quarter of England's top-flight clubs are US-owned, so how fares the state of the union? Troubled, as today's game at Villa Park highlights
It will be 6.30am on the Atlantic coast when Fox Soccer broadcast today's match between Aston Villa and Liverpool, but fans of both clubs hope that is not too early on an Easter Sunday for Randy Lerner and John Henry to tune in.
Lerner and Henry have every incentive to set the alarm, as they own the clubs, but it is feared their interest is waning. After early enthusiasm, especially from Lerner, both men seem to be running their English sports franchises remotely: Henry from Boston, where his Red Sox baseball franchise tailed away badly last season amid tales of management disconnect; Lerner from Manhattan, where his paper wealth appears to fluctuate wildly depending on the health of the American banking sector.
The pair are among five American owners of Premier League clubs, a quarter of the division, but it is debatable whether this sporting manifestation of the "special relationship" has been mutually beneficial in any of the instances.
The first owners to cross the Pond were arguably the worst. The Glazer family were never welcome at Old Trafford and, while Manchester United continue to win trophies and US marketing expertise has driven huge revenue growth, the steady drain of capital from the club in debt repayments and "management fees" following their leveraged buy-out continues to provoke bitter opposition.
"Silent Stan" Kroenke's influence on Arsenal is harder to discern. The club are wealthy, stable, with a high-earning new stadium, and there is no indication to date that Kroenke intends to use it as a piggy bank. However, with a ninth successive year without a trophy looming, fans are growing mutinous.
Sunderland's Ellis Short is the only American Premier League owner to regularly attend matches. It helps that he lives in London, but he seems genuinely enthusiastic. Earlier this season he saw Sunderland's academy team play at Chelsea's Surrey training ground and has been known to accost journalists in the Stadium of Light to take issue with their copy.
Short has also ploughed funds into the club, an estimated £90 million to date, most of it in equity, and is understandably popular on Wearside. The problem is that results are not matching his investment. The club have lost £25m in each of the past four seasons, much of it linked to transfers, spent another £30m on new players this season, yet are still in danger of relegation. Short remains determined to take Sunderland into European competition, last experienced in 1973, but that looks a long way off.
There are many similarities between Short's involvement now and Lerner's when he arrived – he was also full of hope, ambition and commitment. He refurbished the Holte pub behind Villa Park's home end and drank in it with fans, he had the rampant lion that adorns Villa's crest tattooed on his ankle, and he put money into the team.
So popular was he that in 2010 CNN quoted a director of the Aston Villa Supporters Trust thus: "I don't think there has ever been a football- club owner more in tune with his own fans. He really does have the club and the Villa fans at heart."
Fast forward to this January, and the Birmingham Mail went public with six questions it had asked Lerner without response, the first of which began: "Are you still committed to Aston Villa?" Lerner eventually replied insisting he was, but his transatlantic visits are now rare.
Lerner's early courtship of the fans was backed by huge financial input. Martin O'Neill was allowed to spend around £100m net on transfers. However, when this produced three sixth-placed finishes but no Champions' League, Lerner turned off the money tap and has been trying to stem losses ever since, mainly by selling players and cutting the wage bill. Inevitably results have suffered, with relegation a real concern.
The last time the drop threatened, Lerner gave Gerard Houllier £24m to buy Darren Bent. The striker scored eight goals to keep Villa up but is usually now found on the bench or the treatment table. Lerner, having trebled his initial £63m investment and ploughed in more than £100m in loans, put his faith in Paul Lambert's youngsters this January and kept his wallet shut.
Not so Henry, who gave Brendan Rodgers £20m to spend on Daniel Sturridge and Coutinho and presumably hopes they will be more effective than Fabio Borini and Joe Allen, bought for £25m in the summer. More investment is expected this summer, with Rodgers seeking to recruit in several areas, which means Henry, who has put in £70m in loans in the past two years, is likely to have to do so again – as far as Financial Fair Play regulations permit.
Eventually, one assumes, Henry will want to see a return on his investment. The aim appears to be selling the Liverpool brand globally just as the Glazers have done with Manchester United, but it is a slow process. Last year less than £5m, under three per cent of Liverpool's turnover, was earned overseas.
Being back in the Champions' League would boost revenue and profile but, as Lerner could tell Henry if both were in attendance in Birmingham this lunchtime, that is easier said than done.
Aston Villa v Liverpool is on Sky Sports 1 today, kick-off 1.30pm
Arsenal Owner: Stan Kroenke. Estimated net worth: $5bn. Base: Colorado. Bought-in: 2007-11. Est. cost: £420m (62% controlling interest).
Aston Villa Owner: Randy Lerner. Est. net worth: $1.1bn. Base: New York. Bought: 2006. Cost: £63m.
Liverpool Owner: John Henry (as part of Fenway Sports Group). Est. net worth: $1.5bn. Base: Boston and Florida. Bought-in: 2010. Cost: £300m.
Man Utd Owner: Malcolm Glazer. Est. net worth: $4.4bn. Base: Florida. Bought-in: 2003-05. Cost: £780m (mostly via loans).
Sunderland Owner: Ellis Short. Est. net worth: $800m. Base: Texas, Ireland and London. Bought-in: 2008-09. Est. cost: £80m.
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