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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For the past two years, the home crowd at Anfield, the larger and more reliably histrionic of Liverpool's two major soccer stadiums, has increasingly come to resemble a Tea Party rally from another dimension. Populist chants echo from the stands; angry signs bristle like javelins. But where the American resentment machine is fueled by anger at what's seen as European-style socialism, the Merseyside protesters are incensed by what's seen as American-style capitalism. "Yankee Liar$ Out," the placards blare. "Thanks But No Yanks." Liverpool Football Club, one of the most successful teams in English soccer history, is owned by a pair of American billionaires, and the fans absolutely hate their guts.

It's the same at Manchester United, Liverpool's fierce rival, who beat the Reds 3-2 in a chaotic game on Sunday. By a weird quirk of destiny, England's two greatest soccer clubs have both fallen under the control of American tycoons of a peculiar carpetbagging sort. These minor billionaires have gone to England like backward colonists, looking to reap the bounty of the Premier League's soaring global popularity by taking advantage of its lax financial regulations. The standoff between the clubs' owners and supporters hasn't merely led to innovations in signcraft. It has also thrown an unwitting light on some big differences in the way English fans and American fans view sports.

To line up the protagonists: On the Liverpool side, we have Tom Hicks, the anvil-headed Texas billionaire previously best known for signing Alex Rodriguez to his $252 million contract, and George Gillett, the pinch-mouthed Colorado billionaire who formerly owned the Montreal Canadiens. Hicks and Gillett joined portfolios to buy Liverpool in February of 2007, bringing along the delightful Tom Hicks Jr., who served under his father as a director of the club until a minor lapse of protocol—he responded to a critical e-mail from a fan by writing "blow me fuck face"—precipitated his tragic resignation earlier this year. On the Manchester United side, we have the Glazer family of Tampa, Fla. (and, by way of an afterthought, of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers), who snapped the world's most valuable club off the vine in 2005. United has won three Premier League titles and one European Cup since the Glazers arrived. A lot of fans hate them anyway.

The problem, in a word, is debt. The sales of both Manchester United and Liverpool were structured as leveraged buyouts—the owners borrowed money to finance their purchases, then transferred the debt back onto the clubs. This means, first, that the fans, those obliging trickles of revenue, are effectively being made to buy soccer clubs for owners they despise. It also means the clubs are gushing out millions of dollars each month in interest payments, money that might otherwise be used to help them compete in the cash-maddened upper echelons of the Premier League.

If numbers in sports can still stagger, there are staggering numbers on these clubs' balance sheets. Hicks and Gillett borrowed about $550 million to purchase Liverpool FC. At Manchester United, the Glazers borrowed more than $800 million, much of it from high-interest hedge funds. Liverpool has struggled to make its payments—the economic crisis hit both the club's and the owners' finances—and the Royal Bank of Scotland moved its share of the loans to the bad debts divisionearlier this year. After being rebuked by everyone from bank executives to the former owner of the club to Parliament, Hicks and Gillett have moved to find a new buyer, but so far no one's biting. Hicks is now pursuing a deal that would give him at least two more years  at the club, and see the triumphant return of Tom Hicks Jr. The Glazers have held on more doggedly in Manchester, but United has seen its interest burden swell to $500 million—and the club's total debt has geysered into 10 figures. The angry fans' view of this American financial sorcery is neatly expressed by the billboards that a Liverpool supporters' group hung around the city: "Debt, Lies, Cowboys: Not Welcome Here."

It's hard to imagine that kind of thing happening here: American fans protest losers, not financial mismanagement. In the United States, we've accepted that teams are businesses, even if we don't always like it. We see owners as profiteers whose interests we hope will align with ours. When the Pittsburgh Pirates had their books forcibly opened last month, fans weren't upset to learn that the team turned a profit. Rather, they were outraged that Pirates ownership pocketed money while fielding a losing ballclub. The prevailing philosophy: Line your pockets all you want, just score some damn runs.

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.

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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