On October 26, 2006, Prince Phillip, Duke of Edinburgh officially opened the newly-christened Emirates Stadium at Ashburton Grove. A project that was born in the late 1990s, Emirates Stadium (or Arsenal Stadium or Ashburton Grove) ran into lots of issues and problems before, during and after it was approved for construction in 2002. The royal visit was originally intended to include the Queen herself in a show of celebration, but an injury prevented her from attending. All the same, the visit went off without a hitch as the Duke met the team and staff, saw local youngsters play on the pitch and unveiled the plaque that marked the opening of the stadium – the only club stadium that has opened in London in the 21st Century.
I bring this bit of history up because the Emirates/Arsenal Stadium at Ashburton Grove was built with a purpose. That purpose, to put it simply, was to allow Arsenal to maximize its earnings from every match day and to allow the club to remain in a financial footing equal to the biggest clubs in the world. While TV revenue continued to grow, that was a pie that was to be split equitably amongst the Premier League members. With a capacity to seat over 60,000 supporters as well as 152 executive suites, Ashburton Grove is second only to Old Trafford in terms of size in England for a club stadium. When every seat is sold and every box seat is taken, the club brings in 3 million pounds of profit into its coffers. Money that is then, in theory, supposed to be used in improving the club in its various facets – most notably, the first team.
And before we damn them, we should applaud the efforts of Danny Fiszman, David Dein and the rest of the Arsenal board for ensuring the Stadium project reached its conclusion. Moving from Highbury to Emirates while also ensuring that Highbury was redeveloped was a tough trick to pull – particularly as the real estate bubble collapsed in 2008. Likewise, much respect should be given to Arsene Wenger for ensuring that the loss of financial backing that the move brought didn’t mean a drop in expectations. The team was and is still expected to be amongst the best in soccer.
If the board were unfortunate to think that the spiffy new stadium would be the way to ensure the kind of success the club had seen in the years since Wenger’s arrival, they were mistaken. Only a year after the construction was approved, the dynamics of club football were changed by Roman Abramovich’s purchase of Chelsea. To say it was a game changer is an understatement. Within the first three years, Abramovich funded a transfer splurge like no other – 150 million pounds in the first year alone and 373 million by year three. No club could compete with that spending power. So what you saw was clubs across Europe looking to adapt to Abramovich’s changing of the rules.
Some clubs have tried to follow in similar footsteps. For every club that did find success through a sugar daddy’s outlay (Manchester City), there’s an equally-disturbing example of a club that thought they had found a rich benefactor only to find they’d hitched their wagon to a speculator who left them in a worse state (Portsmouth). Other clubs though tried to maximize every aspect of their operations. The words “commercial revenue” never became more important. Clubs like Manchester United, Real Madrid and Barcelona began to tour the world in earnest in order to increase their global fan bases. Barcelona, long a holdout, finally agreed to begin wearing a kit sponsor – UNICEF at first, but it’s slowly moving away towards a simpler business deal with Qatar Airways. Kit deals, sponsors for the team shirt, sponsors for the practice shirt, the stadium naming rights and so on all became crucial.
And here is where the Arsenal board fell behind. Rather than trying to maximize every potential outlay for cash, there was little effort beyond those that were required to finance the stadium’s construction. Instead, the board fell out with each other over Dein’s attempts to entice a potential benefactor – first Stan Kroenke, then Alisher Usmanov. From every report and story – like Alex Flynn’s Arsenal: The Making of a Superclub – things between the board members got very, very personal between Arsenal’s power brokers. Whether or not they intended to, they let rivals get ahead of them in the commercial revenue stakes. It’s to the point that director Tom Fox’s efforts now are more towards catching up with rivals than trying to outpace them.
Unfortunately, for far too long, the accepted method for balancing the first team’s books has been to make up any shortfalls with player sales. Big name stars have been sold at a premium in order to fund the outlay for new names and faces. While announcements of major funds available to the manager happen every year, the constant lack of a major outlay makes those statements appear spurious. What may or may not be is immaterial. What has happened and continues to happen is – and the simple fact is that we lose top talent far more than we bring in.
Would the club be required to sell players if there was more money from commercial revenue? Would players feel they could make more money elsewhere if there was money at Arsenal to pay them top wages? Would the fabled “wage structure” even be in place if Arsenal had been forward thinking and laid the foundations to hoover up millions of euros, pounds, dollars, yen and so on from being a global team? If the club had jumped feet first into preseason tours of America and Asia, would they have found a way to leap past Manchester United’s and Chelsea’s financial prowess’s? Would the touting of 2014 or Financial Fair Play as potential solutions even exist?
A lot of those questions are and shall remain speculative since the vast majority of supporters were not within the corridors of power when decisions were made. Sadly, in order to have an honest debate, we must take them into consideration since they color everything that has happened at the club before, during and after that sunny summer day when the Emirates was opened. The dichotomy of the financial success off the pitch versus the football failures on it is stark and thought-provoking (if not anger-inducing).
Emirates Stadium was supposed to be the place that would spring Arsenal into the future. This was the vision of the men in charge of the club. Unfortunately for them, it seems as if they failed to adjust their vision to the changing landscape around them. And as the cost of going to games goes up, and results continue to be mixed, supporters are slowly finding it easier to not visit their new hallowed ground. Irony of ironies.