Part One of this piece was posted a couple of days ago here.
Then we had the Q&A with Ivan Gazidis (part one and a half) where we learnt not very much at all, other than Ivan continues to believe, or at least claim, that everything will be fine, or that if it isn’t it will be no fault of anyone at the club because they’re doing a bang-up job (transfer window problems were minimal, contracts are pretty good, very little wage inefficiency, etc). Looking back on it, Ivan got a very easy ride this year. Most of the difficult questions have been asked many times before, and the people who asked them have largely given up because the answers remain the same. So it was mostly questions that Ivan has rehearsed answers for that he can trot out as required. He is a master of public speaking and would make a fantastic politician.
So what was the point? In one way, very little, because we learnt very little. In another way, it is useful for Ivan and other employees to mingle with hoi polloi and get a sense of what real supporters feel. Does Stan do that? PH-W? Arsène? They’re all insulated in their own way from the real world of the Arsenal fan, so at least Ivan is making an effort.
To bring you up to speed on history, the AST instigated this CEO/supporter Q&A with Keith Edelman when he was in charge. Edelman had agreed to a second annual event with AST members when he suddenly left, and Ken Friar stepped in at short notice. When Ivan arrived he was persuaded that it would be a good idea to continue, and he got a couple of good grillings in the first two years. This year though, someone decided that other supporter groups should also be represented and the format should be changed to give Ivan a chance to prepare answers to questions. It’s easy for the club to justify this on the grounds that they want to engage with all supporters, and Ivan wants to give the fullest answers possible so it helps to know the questions, but that’s what I’d call a politician’s defence. Because it’s also more convenient for the club to marginalise small shareholders and therefore also reduce the influence of the AST by including others in this event (not that I have anything against other supporter groups, but it’s a fact that this was instigated by the AST for its own members), and it helps reduce the chance of antagonism if the supposedly tricky subjects are tackled in Ivan’s way rather than leaving it to chance with audience members jumping up and giving their views.
After all, who can forget the horror of someone at the shareholders’ Q&A with Arsène daring to question him on the subject of buying a past-it Man Utd defender? Unbelievable. The cheek of it. And so there aren’t any shareholders Q&A sessions anymore and supporters don’t see Arsène face to face from one AGM to the next. Instead we have ever more sanitised sessions which are inclusive for all, and everyone loves everyone and no one can be offended. Especially not the manager, because he doesn’t have to answer to anyone.
See how I’ve effortlessly segued back onto my main subject of the importance of accountability? See also how I use the words ‘small shareholders’ and ‘supporters’ almost interchangeably? That’s because the small shareholders who are left pretty much are all also supporters. They’re not interested in getting dividends, they’re not interested in the value of their one or two shares going up; no, they’re interested in Arsenal being successful and well run, without people at the top being out of touch and siphoning off profits. The small shareholders are much bigger fans than the big shareholders, and deserve a say. And that includes all the 2,000-odd who have joined the AST’s Fanshare scheme in the last two years precisely because they have an emotional attachment to Arsenal. The FSA judge Fanshare as a financial investment (which is why it can’t be offered outside the UK, sorry overseas fans), but for those paying into it it’s not being done as a financial investment.
I’m sure everyone in Fanshare would happily buy new shares if the club would issue them, so that the money went directly to the club rather than to an existing shareholder, but the club are refusing to play ball – despite Ivan reiterating his (apparently) wholehearted support for Fanshare at the Q&A.
Accountability. That’s the biggest reason for having small shareholders, and the biggest reason for having the AST. Accountability is needed in any business, especially football. Everything else flows from the business being run well and being run for the benefit of supporters.
I don’t understand people who say, “I’m not interested in what happens off the pitch, I just support the team.” How blind can you be? The point of having a business behind the team is to make the money that is needed to build and pay for the team. The team does not exist in isolation. Therefore it makes sense to have the best business you can behind the team, making the most money and acting in the most professional way. But there’s a caveat here: football clubs exist only because they have fans. The ‘product’ is intangible. What you get from football is emotion and then memories. Sure you can buy as much merchandise as you want, but that is also in a sense entirely worthless without the emotion and memories.
So the ‘business’ of the club needs to make money, but not at the expense of alienating its fans and supporters. It needs a sense of fair play and decency, so that supporters are treated as part of the club, not just consumers. Football clubs should be making a lot more from commercial activities than from ticket sales, and it’s laziness that prevents it: for successful clubs the captive market is there, so the captive market gets exploited with higher and higher ticket prices.
People who are ‘only interested in what happens on the pitch’ are also quite often the ones who overreact to a single defeat instead of looking at the bigger picture and longer term.
I also don’t understand people who say, “What right have you (as an individual or the AST or anything else) to tell the professionals how to run the business? Leave them alone, they know best.” That kind of statement is naïve beyond belief. ‘Professionals’ run every football club, and yet football clubs go bankrupt or into administration quite often. The economic crisis we’re all enduring was caused largely by the stupidity of professional investment bankers and professionals like Fred Goodwin who didn’t understand what was going on. The professionals at Arsenal presided over the transfer window debacle last year; they also paid £3m for advice on selling their shares to Stan Kroenke, which was demonstrably not in the best interests of the company or all shareholders; they changed the total number of shares Stan owns according to Arsenal.com recently because it took them about eight months to do some paperwork that should have taken two weeks. Is Peter Hill-Wood’s performance at recent AGMs professional? I haven’t even started on all the decisions about ticket prices, where away fans are seated in the stadium, what the kit looks like, how badly some contracts and negotiations are handled, etc etc. And people really think there’s no need for accountability? Unbelievable.
For people who say “Stop concentrating on finances, concentrate on the team” – one is the flipside of the other! No finances, no team.
For people who say “Who cares about shares, what about the fans?” – the person with the shares decides what happens to the fans! How much they pay, what they can do, whether they have a team worth watching.
For people who say “So what if there’s a single owner, I want some trophies” – that ownership model is a one way street. Now there is a majority owner we’re already on a slippery slope. I would welcome Usmanov to the Board for several reasons: I don’t want Arsenal to be Stan’s toy or money-making machine; I want him to be challenged and forced to do things for the benefit of supporters. And I want to see what Usmanov is going to bring to the party. But saying you want Usmanov to take over 100% of our club because we haven’t won a trophy for seven years is ridiculously short-termist. It will be very hard to change back from a single owner to plural ownership. Not impossible; stranger things have happened and nothing lasts forever, but it will be a dark day for me if one person owns all of Arsenal.
One final point about the AST: people who aren’t members accuse it of all sorts of things, from being too cosy with the club and not criticising, to constantly being negative, seeing trouble where there isn’t any and causing problems. It all depends what your personal views are. No organisation can please everyone all the time. But if you’re on Twitter or look at Arsenal blogs, there are a number of writers who have a lot of followers and are very popular. The reason they’re popular is usually because they talk a fair amount of sense, and their views coincide with what most people consider to be reasonable and balanced. Now look at who your favourites are and then how many of those popular tweeters and bloggers are members of the AST.