A guest post today from @SeanMarland, who has looked at the success – or otherwise – of Stan Kroenke’s American sports franchises. Sport-loving success junkie or highway robber – which is Stan closer to?
(A very similar version of this article appeared in Issue 235 of The Gooner, and is reproduced here with Sean’s permission.)
We’re three years into Stan’s austerity project and it’s become clear that no one is going to save us. Forget Usmanov, forget FFP and forget about that Middle Eastern consortium whose wondrous manifesto might as well have included unlimited free booze for all season ticket holders. Silent Stan has never sold a single share in any of his sport franchises, so we can assume that he and his parasitic stooge will be running things for many years to come. Even amongst the most optimistic Gooners he’s pretty unpopular (George Osborne would probably get a warmer welcome at his local Job Centre than Kroenke would get in an N5 tavern), but we’re not the only fans who’ve become collateral in his quest to build a sporting empire, so what do our American counterparts think of him? Armed with a modest understanding of US sport and a sudden urge to find my old copy of EA Hockey, I fired up my computer and engaged our transatlantic brethren.
Stan Kroenke: A Beginner’s Guide
Stan made his fortune from real estate, increased that fortune significantly by marrying an heir to American retail behemoth Wal-Mart and then decided to buy up a host of sports teams. There are also unconfirmed reports that he’s in the process of building his own Death Star. Future projects aside, Kroenke currently owns NFL franchise the St Louis Rams, NBA side the Denver Nuggets, NHL outfit Colorado Avalanche and MLS team the Colorado Rapids. He also owns a lacrosse side and an ‘arena football’ club (whatever that is) – neither of which I’ve bothered with in this article, because let’s face it, who cares? Due to American ownership rules, some of the aforementioned franchises are technically owned by his son Josh, but it’s all the same really. To write this article I contacted supporters who contribute to their team’s respective independent fansites in a bid to gauge fan opinion.
Meet me in St Louis: A Love Affair
As a semi-ethical writer, I felt honour-bound to write this article as impartially as possible and report all sides equally. However with my Arsenal hat on, I was desperate for the American fans I contacted to corroborate my own opinions and allow me to denounce Stan as the antichrist he almost certainly is. Unfortunately for me, the first person to respond to my email was a man who may have a framed picture of Kroenke on his bedside table. Eric Nagel edits Turf Show Times – a leading St Louis Rams fansite – and he told me the team’s owner has been nothing but a positive influence since he became majority owner in 2010. “He’s hired one of the top coaches, an excellent general manager and shown no aversion to spending money on talented players. Kroenke wants to win and has done everything in his power to do so. You can’t ask for more than that in an owner!”
However before we go any further with this love-in, I should point out that the Rams were hardly a force in the NFL when he took over and have only ever won one Super Bowl (1999) in their whole history, making them one of the most unsuccessful franchises in top-level gridiron. What’s more, bean counters at Forbes recently rated them the 30th most valuable of the NFL’s 32 elite franchises. Once you consider the fact that there’s more money to be made in American Football than any other US sport, you start to see the attraction of taking an under-performing but well-established side and pumping in some capital. Relatively speaking, you don’t need to put much in to get something out, yet the spending curve required to actually win something is far more severe. In financial terms, the Rams are probably more similar to Arsenal than any of his other sides.
Eric threw a little more light on the situation when I asked him how highly he believed Stan valued the team’s success. “Very highly,” he said. “No success, no money and that doesn’t fit at all with Kroenke’s business plan. He certainly cares about having a winning product on the pitch, but make no mistake – he’s in it to make money.” Now I for one wouldn’t be against Stan making a bit of cash, as long as he was delivering a winning team on the pitch (as the Glazers are at Man Utd) but our definition of a winning team and Stan’s seems to differ greatly, as I’ll demonstrate.
“The Rams haven’t been successful by any stretch for the last decade, normally ranking bottom of the league,” Eric continues. “But last year they constantly competed against some of the best teams in the NFL.” Rome wasn’t built in a day, but ‘competed against’ sounds suspiciously like ‘lost to’ to me. Eric is understandably delighted by the prospect of his side dragging themselves off the foot of the league for the first time in a decade, but will Stan stop pushing once they’ve won another Super Bowl or once he’s secured a regular profit? The fact is, none of his teams have won much under his business model, but not just because he’s a shabby owner with short arms and deep pockets, it’s also because they’re all eternal also-rans within their respective sports and Stan seems happy enough with that state of affairs providing the cash rolls in. Apart from Arsenal, the only exception to this rule is his NHL team. So let’s see how they’ve fared since he snapped them up in 2000.
“Can someone take this big silver thing away from me? It’s making me nervous.”
Puck you Stan: An Avalanche of Criticism
In terms of stature and history, the Avalanche are more similar to Arsenal than any of Stan’s other sides and as such, their fans dislike him about as much as we do. “When he first purchased the team in 2000, it was a wildly successful franchise,” says Cheryl Bradley, the Assistant Editor of Mile High Hockey. “The team had won the Stanley Cup in its first year in Colorado (1995-96) and had been riding a sell-out streak that set league records which still stand.” Sound familiar? So Stan inherited a good side which then won another title in his first year (2001) and stayed competitive until 2004, when there was an NHL ‘lockout’ (a labour dispute which caused a whole season to be cancelled) before play resumed in 2005 with a firm salary cap. Which is where Cheryl picks up the story.
“The Avalanche roster had been gutted of some of its top players because of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement which forced cutbacks in contracts. Subsequently, the team dropped into mediocrity for the next few years, bottoming out in 2008-09. The management essentially blew up the team and went with young players who were on entry-level contracts and journeymen who didn’t command high salaries. At that time, ‘Kroenke is cheap and that’s why the team is losing’ became a common theme among fans.” I’m a novice when it comes to the finer points of the NHL’s structure, but Cheryl goes on to explain that Kroenke played safe by not paying big wages after the lockout and the team hasn’t really recovered since. Next I asked her whether she thought he put the team before his own business interests. “No I don’t,” she scoffed. “He took over the team to make money and build his sports business portfolio. He is not, nor ever has been a hockey guy.”
So where did it all go wrong? “One of the franchise’s biggest weaknesses is in renegotiating contracts. They do little of it. Instead they say, ‘This is our offer. Take it or leave it.’ If players push for more money they are either not re-signed or traded. There was a time when the Avalanche didn’t need to negotiate with players; the team was so successful that players vied for an opportunity to play in Colorado. Despite the allure of the Avalanche wearing off, management still approach contracts in the same way. It’s hurting the team, even if some of the choices they’ve made may have been the right ones.”
We all took Samir Nasri’s recent comments with a pinch of salt, but these comments certainly don’t contradict him. The Avalanche fans I spoke to also urged me to look up the situation with Ryan O’Reilly, the team’s star player who was effectively sent out on loan for a year while management stalled over his new contract. You don’t need to be much of an analyst to draw comparisons because it’s a story we’ve all heard before, but one thing I wasn’t prepared for was the way Cheryl described our much-vilified overlord as having a penchant for media totalitarianism that would bring a tear to Kim Il-Sung’s eye.
“There appears to be a mandate with all media associated with the Kroenke Sports Group that limits criticism of the team,” she explained. “Since KSE owns the media venues that cover the team, there’s nowhere to turn to get an honest assessment of the operations at the Avalanche – which even extends to the Denver Post!” And you thought the Arsenal website was a bit one-sided! No wonder she says Stan sees bloggers as ‘the Devil’s Spawn’.
The titles may have dried up, but Stan is getting his money’s worth. Cheryl’s colleague at MHH David Driscoll-Carignan agreed with her and when I asked him how highly Stan valued the team’s success and he told me that his hockey side have basically been turned into a giant cash machine. “Frankly, I haven’t got a clue if he cares about the team’s success. He’s so secretive about everything it’s hard to see what motivates him. The fact that he bought all the ancillary business surrounding the Avalanche makes me assume he’s motivated by profit more than winning championships. The franchise has a safe future. They aren’t in danger of failing, like some other NHL teams, but without money to bring in star players – or retain current players – it’s hard to picture the team thriving either.”
“Seriously, even I have no idea if my hair is real.”
Which Way Are We Shooting?
Having bought every other sports organisation within a 500 mile radius of Denver, Kroenke decided to press on with his quest to achieve a statewide monopoly and purchased the Colorado Rapids in 2004. Chris White, editor of the soccer side’s fansite Burgundy Wave, explained how Stan has done ‘fantastic’ things since he took over, paying for a new stadium and even constructing a standing terrace for ‘ultras’ (how good would that be?). In a rare interview with The Daily Telegraph in 2011 (well worth Googling) Kroenke said the team was in trouble when he stepped in and he simply wanted to ‘help out’, but, as Chris explains, he was also helping himself like a Northerner at a Greggs lock-in.
“Kroenke bought the team when the league was just starting an incredible growth spurt, in terms of attendance, team numbers and overall quality. In addition, MLS teams are rather cheap to maintain compared to EPL, NHL, NFL or NBA sides so it was very little risk and potentially lots of reward.”
Make no mistake, the Rapids have come a long way since Stan bought them, but he hasn’t gone any further than most other MLS owners. In business terms he’s also got in early on what is a rapidly expanding market. The Rapids may be currently losing cash, but Kroenke knows his investment will eventually come good because the MLS is on a fast upward trajectory, whereas all the other sports he’s involved in are generally plateauing.
Yet Colorado have won some silverware since he took over – not that Stan knew much about it, as Chris explains in a story which illustrates the pitfalls of having an owner who’s following more teams than Robbie Keane.
“In 2010 on our way to the MLS Cup, the confusing playoff seedings in MLS that year had the Rapids – a Western conference team – playing in the Eastern Conference final. In a famous moment, Kroenke, making a rare appearance at a Rapids match, turned to the league’s commissioner and said something to the tune of, “Why is my team playing in the Eastern Conference finals, again?” Not much confidence is instilled when it seems like he isn’t watching what’s going on.”
Silent Stan may not be a ‘hockey guy’ but everyone I spoke to agreed that he’s certainly a ‘basketball guy’ – or as Nate Timmons of basketball fansite Denver Stiffs puts it, a ‘basketball junkie’. Stan had to hand the Denver Nuggets over to his son Josh (who apparently has a slightly more hands-on approach) when he bought the Rams in 2010 due to rules of NFL ownership rules, but he remains the de facto owner and Josh is just as enthusiastic about basketball as his old man. Indeed the two things that everyone I spoke to agreed upon were: 1. Stan is hyper-secretive, and 2. He prefers basketball to all other sports. As such it’s no surprise to hear that Nate’s pretty satisfied with Kroenke’s ownership, although he did also raise some interesting questions about his operating procedures.
“Had Stan not purchased the Nuggets in 2000, there was a small chance that the team could’ve left Colorado. The Nuggets have also made the play-offs for the past nine seasons and the stability he brought has caused that. Before Kroenke took over, the Nuggets had not made the play-offs since 1995.” However, just as with the St Louis Rams, if we look a little further we see that historically the Nuggets are archetypal also-rans. Indeed a quick Wikipedia search reveals that they’ve never appeared in an NBA Final, let alone actually won a title. Essentially, this lot are the Aston Villa of the NBA and that’s probably being generous. “The Nuggets aren’t an elite team, but they’re getting there,” explains Nate. “It’ll be interesting to see if Kroenke will go ‘all in’ to try and bring a title to Denver.”
Apparently there are plenty of fans who hold a more skeptical view than he does, but being the level-headed sports fan he is, Nate still has a few gripes. “I wish Kroenke & Co. wouldn’t wait until contracts are up to renegotiate deals!” he says. Tell us about it mate!
Carmelo Anthony’s Dream
One player the Denver Stiffs writer singled out for my attention was Carmelo Anthony, the Nuggets’ star 6 foot 8 inch ‘small forward’, who decided to leave for the New York Knicks after several successful seasons in Colorado. Reading around the subject led me to believe that the situation was quite similar to our own Fabregas debacle (Anthony had persevered with the Nuggets but he’s from New York originally), yet it’s also clear that Kroenke’s cronies hardly tried to break the bank to keep him and Anthony’s comments following his departure could have been spoken by a host of former Arsenal players. “To have so many memories and being at the pinnacle, going to the conference finals here, having a team that we thought could win here, to see that break up. That’s where it all started,” he told the press.
“Are you sure this is me? I think it’s just some guy who looks like me.”
He Who Shall Not Be Named
Nate wasn’t the only Nuggets fan I approached for an opinion. I also spoke to another prominent member of their blogging community who said he was happy to talk to me, but that our conversation should be strictly off the record. Obviously I was intrigued by this and assured him that his identity would not be revealed. This was it – I’d landed a scoop! It would be like Watergate and the Phone-Hacking Scandal all rolled into one! I’d sell the story and finally be able to afford a season ticket AND central heating! But even though my dreams of a Pulitzer had evaporated faster than Arsenal’s annual title charge, my paranoid contact did have a few interesting insights.
“In the States, we’re well aware of what’s happening with Arsenal in the UK,” he said. “One of the things you need to know about Stan is as much as he wants to win in sports, his desire to win in ‘business’ sometimes supersedes it. While I’m not familiar with the way the Premier League conducts business, his habits in American sports are to play hardball in Collective Bargaining negotiations with the players union, get the best deal he can, then adjust player salaries to fit the new business model.”
Essentially, Stan’s ethos does not allow for managers to pay special wages for special players. Back in September 2011 when The Telegraph asked him if he was confident that Van Persie would stay at the club in light of that summer’s exodus, he replied: “Yes. Fabregas and Nasri were unique situations. Arsenal is a great club. London is a great place to live. Why would you want to throw that away?” His advocates might point out to this winter’s Walcott fiasco as evidence that he is shifting his stance, but you can be sure that his attitude towards wages is a good indicator of his attitude towards transfer fees. The Glazers do not throw money around like many other foreign owners but Ferguson is allowed to break the rules by paying over the odds for a striker or upping another striker’s wages to prevent him leaving for a rival, because they understand the subtle difference between Premier League football and US sport.
Meanwhile Stan seems to be risk-averse and stuck in small-club mode. As such, when the Telegraph asked him about the slump Arsenal found themselves in two years ago he said: “That’s just part of the game. Everyone thinks it’s always going to be like that (pointing upwards to indicate success) but it’s not.” Rousing stuff.
For more of Sean, follow @SeanMarland
And follow me – @AngryOfN5. I practically insist.