Monday, July 21, 2008

Arsenal Is Now a Selling Club

Every day, I start off the morning surfing around various sites and checking for interesting stories or issues relating to, most often, the Premiership. You all know by now how much I despise the summer (in the soccer world, that is, not in real life) and the gossip used as filler to pass the time until August, when the new season kicks off.

Two leading media outlets in this country -- ESPNsoccernet and CSRN -- have raised the question in recent days of whether or not Arsenal is now a "selling club". Soccernet's Norman Hubbard believes Arsenal could be for the next 20 years (, while my colleague at CSRN, Johnathan Starling, takes the opposite viewpoint and doesn't believe Arsenal is a selling club even now.

When you simply look at the Gunners' domestic and international prestige, not to mention the fact that they're a perennial top-four team in the Premiership and a participant in the Champions League, it would be hard not to agree with Starling. More often than not, success doesn't come cheaply, and sustaining success is even harder to do without spending money.

We've seen this in England with Chelsea, a mid-table team until Roman Abramovich bought the club and invested hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars to launch Chelsea to the status it enjoys now. We've seen it with Portsmouth, who you could count on to finish in the lower half of the league until a wealthy Franco-Russian-Israeli businessman, Alexandre Gaydamak, became the sole owner of the club in July 2006. We've seen this here in the States with the New York Yankees and now the Boston Red Sox, and especially in college football and basketball, sports traditionally dominated by larger, public, well-endowed universities.

Upon closer examination, though, Arsenal doesn't fit that same mold anymore. To me, they're still a successful club, although those with different definitions of success have every right to disagree with me, but they're not doing it in the same manner as any of the teams mentioned above.

It seems like too many people attach a negative stigma to the term "selling club", and they're wrong for doing so. Look, soccer is a business just like any other professional endeavor: it's all about the bottom line, money. How much money can you make, or perhaps to put it another way, how much money can you save while not compromising your high standards and still putting a good product out there for the consumers.

There's nothing wrong with being a selling club, just like there's nothing wrong with buying every player in sight if that's what you want to do. It's a personal choice made by those in charge, the ones spending the money.

Arsenal just moved into a new ground, Emirates Stadium, after spending decades at Highbury, which had become a charming but antiquated and out-of-date stadium for the North London club and their large fanbase. It takes a lot of money to build new, state-of-the-art stadiums, and the Emirates was no exception -- cost of construction was roughly $860 million for a stadium that can seat 60,355 people. That may be chump change when compared to the new Wembley Stadium, also in London, which took four years and over $1.5 billion to construct, but still, the Emirates didn't come cheaply.

To pay back the loan required to build the Emirates, Arsenal needs to bring in a surplus of $48 million a year for the next quarter century. Ticket prices are rising every year and fans who love their club will deal with it and pay the extra money, but that alone isn't going to completely repay the debt. Arsenal also has to rely on bonus money from playing in the Champions League and from finishing at the top of the Premier League, not to mention merchandise sales and other financial efforts that are based off the field.

Manager Arsène Wenger has earned a well-deserved reputation over the years of having one of the keenest eyes for talent in the game. He buys players when they're young, often times in their mid-to-late teens, and cheap, then brings them through Arsenal's youth system and, if they develop sufficiently, into the first team. If/when they play well enough at the highest levels, raising their values, and if/when Wenger sees fit, he sells them off, thus making a huge profit on his original investment. He then takes that money and spends it on more young players, and then the cycle repeats itself again. Remember, this is a man who holds a Master's degree in economics; he knows what he's doing.

We've seen this model most recently with Lassana Diarra, who was sold to Portsmouth last winter, but perhaps most famously with Patrick Vieira (signed for $7 million, a relatively large sum by Wenger's standards, then sold to Juventus for nearly $27.5 million) and Nicholas Anelka (signed for $1 million, then sold to Real Madrid only two years later for just over $44.5 million). We're going to see it continue the future with players like Kolo Toure, who was signed for just $300,000 from Belgian club ASEC Mimosas, Cesc Fàbregas, who joined as a 16-year-old from Barcelona, and perhaps as soon as later this summer with Emmanuel Adebayor, who came to Arsenal from Monaco for a reported $6 million but could be sold for anywhere upwards of $50 million.

He is loyal to his players, but only to a certain degree. He'll stick by them when it suits him and the club, but when he believes it's time for them to go, even if they'd essentially devoted their lives to the club and contributed significantly to the club's success like Thierry Henry, Freddie Ljungberg, Robert Pirès, and Martin Keown all did, they go.

Wenger refuses to pay his players a salary that would break his traditional wage structure, meaning that no matter how good Cesc Fàbregas becomes, it's likely Arsenal won't pay him what he could make at that same point in time as, for example, Inter Milan, AC Milan, Barcelona, Real Madrid, or Manchester United. Wenger would rather sell Fàbregas to one of those big clubs and take the transfer fee and replenish the already-thriving youth system he's helped create.

He had the opportunity to raise Mathieu Flamini's wages when other teams became interested, but he declined and let Flamini walk to AC Milan without getting a pound in return. Instead of paying Flamini, a very good holding midfielder with the ability to get forward, what he could get elsewhere, he let his fellow Frenchman go, showing his steadfast desire to stick to his guns.

Wenger beat the likes of Manchester United and Everton to bring in Aaron Ramsey from Cardiff, who's only 17 and, in a not-so-coincidental anecdote, will wear #16 with Flamini's departure. Ramsey is an extremely talened (for his age) center midfielder, which Arsenal have plenty of already, and probably won't play more than a handful of games for Arsenal's first team this season. He may make a couple appearances in the Carling Cup, which Wenger seems to use as a glorified training ground for his young players, but likely won't play in the Premiership. Wenger may or may not be around for many more seasons, but there should be no doubt that if in three or four years, Ramsey could bring a substantial return, he'll be moved elsewhere.

Even the cost of Arsenal's high-profile signing this summer, 21-year-old Samir Nasri, formerly of Marseille, was basically offset by the sales of Aliaksandr Hleb to Barcelona and Gilberto Silva to Panathinaikos. The net sum of players brought in compared to the net sum of players sold is generally very close to equal for Wenger, and rarely does it exceed more than $10-12 million, which is play money these days in the Premiership.

Like I said earlier, this is an interesting issue that had been brought to my attention recently. Arsenal doesn't buy established, big-name players like Chelsea, and won't pay to keep players at the Emirates when they become superstars. It's a personal philosophy that Wenger and club executives clearly believe in, and even if the fans don't agree, it's not necessarily about them. Yes, the club has the responsibility to provide its customers with a capable product, but at the end of the day, those who foot the bill are the ones who get to make the decisions, not those who benefit or don't benefit from those decisions.

In Arsenal's case, a clear pattern has emerged during Arsene Wenger's tenure and it's one that favors young players over veterans, cheap over expensive. It has brought the club success, but the question is, can they maintain that success in a global soccer market fueled by large amounts of money more so now than ever before? We'll see.

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