England's greatest soccer teams and American owners, a match made in hell.

The stadium scene.
Sept. 20 2010 10:02 AM

Debt, Lies, and Cowboys

England's greatest soccer teams and American owners, a match made in hell.

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In Europe, by contrast—and especially in England, where the league system goes hundreds of teams deep and every dell and hamlet has its own club—teams are seen as something much closer to community institutions. Spiritually if not practically, every English club is the publicly owned Green Bay Packers. Owners are expected to act as responsible stewards of teams that really belong to the fans. The word franchise, relatively innocuous in American sports, is hotly offensive in England. Other American Premier League owners have adopted the English model and found favor with their supporters. Randy Lerner has generally won praise for his term at Aston Villa, and Stan Kroenke, the largest shareholder at Arsenal, is at least preferred to the predatory Uzbek oligarch Alisher Usmanov. But it's not a stretch to say that the Liverpool and United owners' chip-raking behavior—six separate members of the Glazer family have taken out more than $30 million in personal loans and fees from Manchester United, while almost doubling ticket prices—represents the American model at an advanced stage of development.

When the Glazers bought Manchester United, the nature of the deal was public knowledge, and they were loathed before the ink on the contracts was dry. Hicks and Gillett were more wickedly canny at Liverpool. They entered from stage left declaiming promises—that they would build a new stadium, that there would be no debt—then draped themselves in red cloth and went to games. By the time the facts were known, the deal had already gone through. They pantomimed sympathy for the English view of soccer clubs, waxing in the epic mode about tradition and loyalty. "We believe that as custodians of this wonderful, storied club we have a duty of care to the tradition and legacies of Liverpool," Hicks cooed. Then they shifted into American high gear. "Liverpool will be the most profitable investment I've ever made," that careful custodian of tradition later crowed in the Wall Street Journal.

The irony here is that the American-style rapaciousness of Hicks and co. would be more strictly regulated in the United States. The top American sports leagues operate as monopoly cartels, and the conduct of teams as businesses is thus subject to more internal oversight. The NFL, the NBA, and MLB all limit the amount of debt teams can carry. Revenue-sharing agreements and salary caps exist not only to ensure competitive parity, but also to guarantee some degree of financial stability. (All of that didn't stop Tom Hicks from driving the Texas Rangers into bankruptcy, of course.) In England, partly because teams are so tied to their localities, there's less top-level oversight. Clubs are allowed to act largely as they please, which opens a dangerous gulf between what fans expect owners to do (keep ticket prices down while safeguarding the club's viability) and what owners are allowed to do (pillage, strip-mine, rob trains). To be sustainable, this culture requires a sort of gentleman's agreement between owner and supporters, one that might work well enough when the owner is a product of the community, but that falls apart completely when Tom Hicks canters in with his six-shooter and squirts tobacco juice all over your club's native honor.

So it's fallen to the fans to protest, which they've done using imagery that's sometimes nationalistic, sometimes class-based, and sometimes a combination of the two. Liverpool supporters have adopted a quasi-revolutionary style, burning American flags and waving Communist-style red banners. At Manchester United, unhappy fans have taken to wearing green and gold, the colors of United's 19th-century progenitor Newton Heath, a club founded by railway workers. Against Liverpool on Sunday, United fans staged "Old Shirts Day," wearing club gear that was manufactured before the Glazers took over. They've also made "Love United, Hate Glazer" into an inescapable populist refrain, stickered on countless street signs and graffittied on numberless walls. (The walls of the club's English CEO, whose home was vandalized in 2008, got a simpler slogan: "Judas.") Where the green-and-gold protesters haven't succeeded is in convincing their fellow fans to stop buying tickets.

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This, then, is the state of the Premier League at the moment. As the world's only ubiquitous sports league, it's attracted owners from across the globe, some profiteering capitalists, some idle oligarchs, some the royal family of Abu Dhabi. But as an outgrowth of the intensely local English league system, it relies on a core of fans many of whom resent seeing their clubs become playthings of global commerce. The Premier League is in a painful state of transition between two ways of thinking about sports, and as such it's both exploitative and ripe for exploitation. Paradoxically, the only thing that will keep the league from becoming more "American" is American-esque regulation, and until that arrives, its teams will go on being vulnerable to Glazers and Gilletts. America can provide the cowboys, but the Premier League is the real Wild West.

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Brian Phillips writes regularly about soccer for Slate. He blogs at The Run of Play.

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