When a Bunch of Bloody Yanks Came for English Soccer

In the first half of a January game at Stamford Bridge, the London stadium where the Chelsea Football Club has played since its founding in 1905, seven well-groomed spectators in green velvet jackets stood up together from their seats behind the substitutes’ bench as players raced up and down the field in front of them. They pulled out books and began to read. Then they all brushed their teeth.

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The publicity stunt turned out to be a promotion for the film “Argylle,” which would be released a few weeks later. The use of a Premier League game in a packed stadium as the backdrop was criticized in the English media as yet another transgression by Todd Boehly, an American investor and the most prominent figure among Chelsea’s owners. Boehly, who also owns a sizable piece of the Los Angeles Dodgers, probably saw it as simply another way to generate revenue — no different than putting advertising on shirt fronts, which English clubs have been doing since the 1970s — and something that would be considered part of the spectacle of sports in America.

In England, though, many fans perceived it as the further desecration of a cornerstone of national culture: a soccer club’s being treated as an investment to be exploited by a gauche American owner. “That may be fine in U.S. sports,” Pat Nevin, a popular Chelsea player in the 1980s who worked for the club until the end of last season, told me. “But to a football fan, that hurts.” A few months after leaving Chelsea, Nevin went on the BBC to warn against the prospect of adopting a popular feature at many American sports venues. “I told them, ‘No, no, don’t do a Kiss Cam,’” he says. “ ‘Such a small thing, but you can’t imagine the reaction you’re going to get.’”

The unabashed attempts to Americanize the English soccer experience range from musical acts as pregame entertainment to the addition of club seats — with waiter service and lounge access — and members-only bars inside stadiums. Later this year, the London club Fulham, which is owned by the Pakistani American businessman Shahid Khan, will unveil a $200 million-plus expansion that includes a stand overlooking the Thames, restaurants curated by a Michelin-starred chef, a street-level produce market and a boutique hotel and spa with an outdoor swimming pool — an attraction also found at the stadium of Khan’s N.F.L. team, the Jacksonville Jaguars. The expectation that such “improvements” mean higher ticket prices led to a fan boycott of a recent game. “People here hold football very, very dearly,” says Nedum Onuoha, who grew up in Manchester and played professionally for several English clubs, before moving to Real Salt Lake in Major League Soccer. “They don’t like change.”

The antecedent to such change occurred in 2005, when the first Americans to buy a Premier League club — Malcolm Glazer and his sons, who owned the N.F.L.’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers — acquired control of Manchester United. Almost immediately, other wealthy Americans set out to get clubs of their own. Nearly all of them already had sports teams in the United States. They figured they could bring their successful business practices to English soccer, which in many ways was stuck in the 1960s. Fans were going to games in decades-old stadiums with hard wooden seats and squalid bathrooms. The fare at concession stands was almost exclusively beer and reheated meat pies.

This season, nine of the 20 Premier League clubs are owned by Americans. The sale of a 10th awaits approval. All of them, you could argue, are being run far more professionally than ever, as the billion-dollar businesses that many have become. Yet most of the Americans spotted in the owners’ box from time to time — or, worse, seldom spotted there at all — are disdained by their club’s fans. The sentiment is easy to appreciate. Imagine Chinese businessmen, say, quickly coming to control half the teams in the N.F.L., a situation that would probably spark congressional hearings. The concern would be cultural as well as economic: How could foreign investors truly understand this integral piece of Americana when they didn’t grow up hearing the stentorian voice of John Facenda narrating slow-motion highlights, or watching Detroit Lions games in the tryptophan haze of a Thanksgiving afternoon?

Now imagine that pro football has been the country’s defining leisure activity for 150 years. “We’ve reached a point,” Onuoha says, “where there is something of a stigma against American ownership.”

At Manchester United, fans regularly gather before games to protest against the Glazers, who have burdened the club with debt (now exceeding $990 million) yet regularly take dividends for themselves out of the annual revenue. At Arsenal, the owner is Kroenke Sports & Entertainment, which has teams in the N.F.L., N.B.A., N.H.L. and M.L.S. “We had our American owner, who everyone hated,” Nick Hornby, the author and noted Arsenal supporter, told me. “People used to bring banners: ‘Kroenkes Out!’” (The anger has subsided as the team’s performance has improved.)

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The new owner of the Chelsea Football club decided to spend more than $1 billion on new players.Credit…Alexander Coggin for The New York Times

Boehly arrived at Chelsea in May 2022 as the epitome of the cocksure American owner, a Ted Lasso of the boardroom. “A man who has looked at football and thought, ‘This is a business which is straightforward and simple — and because I’m so smart in so many other aspects of life, I can handle this,’” is how Graeme Souness, the former Liverpool captain and manager, characterized him in The Daily Mail. Boehly started his tenure at Chelsea by suggesting improvements to the Premier League — adding an All-Star Game, for instance. After the departure of the two executives who had been handling player acquisitions, the English equivalents of an American general manager, he took their place. More than $1 billion later, Chelsea owns the contracts of 25 new players. Currently it is closer to losing its spot in the Premier League than it is to winning the competition.

That’s one reason for Chelsea supporters’ discontent. Another is the wanton pursuit of profit that has altered the club’s relationship with its most loyal followers. Henry Winter, one of England’s most respected soccer journalists, wrote in The Times of London recently that Boehly is “rebranding the club into a business where the sport feels almost secondary.” Consider one example: The club-subsidized buses that used to deliver Chelsea fans to distant corners of England for a nominal fee — standard practice among Premier League teams — have been discontinued this season, forcing fans to rely on trains that often stop service for the day before evening games end. “What they are doing is what great businessmen always do,” David Chidgey, a lifelong Chelsea fan who hosts a podcast about the club, says of Boehly and Behdad Eghbali, a co-owner and principal of the private equity firm Clearlake Capital. “They exploit opportunities and exploit their environments.”

Chidgey acknowledges that Boehly would be perceived differently were Chelsea playing as well as it had over the past two decades, when it was owned by the Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich and won five Premier League titles. But the nature of sports is cyclical; even the richest and smartest clubs inevitably experience disappointing seasons. “And if you get rid of the culture, what do you have during those times when you’re not winning?” Chidgey asks. “You don’t have anything.”

It was probably inevitable that venture capitalists and hedge-fund managers would discover English soccer. The clubs, from the famous ones to those in leagues further down that have plumbers and shop clerks playing part time, enjoy support that most American teams can only envy; they all have the emotional stickiness of the Dallas Cowboys, or even Notre Dame football. It doesn’t hurt that they seem wildly undervalued compared with other sports investments. To take just one example, the San Diego team entering M.L.S. next year, a league that’s 30 years old, is paying a $500 million expansion fee to join; Bill Foley, the owner of the Vegas Golden Knights in the N.H.L., paid less than a third of that in 2022 to buy A.F.C. Bournemouth, a team founded in 1899 that currently sits in the middle of the Premier League standings.

At the same time, underpriced tickets and bad food have provided a significant opportunity for economic growth — “low-hanging fruit,” as investors tended to describe it. So has the propensity of English fans to arrive moments before games and leave right after. Get them to spend more time at the stadium, like their American counterparts, and they might have a meal there. They might linger at an expanded club shop selling branded versions of everything from license-plate frames to dog beds. An N.B.A. owner once told me that a successful sports team should be a kind of mutual fund of businesses, across categories that include entertainment, digital content, apparel, hospitality, even real estate. Until recently, most English soccer clubs were in one business: staging games. And they didn’t do it particularly well.

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English fans tend to arrive moments before games and leave right after. New owners are hoping to get them to linger and maybe have a meal.Credit…Alexander Coggin for The New York Times

But as American owners have sought to optimize their investments, they have found that many fans in England do not want to be reminded that their soccer clubs are in any businesses at all. Their relationship with their clubs is far different than fandom is across the Atlantic, a product of the way sports in each country evolved. Aston Villa was founded in Birmingham in 1874 by four members of a Bible class; Arsenal started in 1886 as a recreation for munitions workers. These were private clubs, but also societal assets that gave communities a reason to gather on Saturday afternoons. “Football clubs have always been owned by rich people, usually rich English people,” Hornby says. “But it was done in a very old-fashioned, gentlemanly way.”

That’s not the case in the United States, where professional sports teams were organized as companies — in a sense, branch offices of a single company. (There’s a reason we call them franchises.) Teams displayed city names on their uniforms, and often played in stadiums funded by taxpayers, but there was never any illusion that they belonged to anyone but the businessmen who owned them. Every so often, those teams would leave their city for another one — even some of the most popular teams, like basketball’s Lakers, or baseball’s Dodgers and Giants, or football’s Raiders. That has happened only once to any team of note in the long history of English soccer, two decades ago, and the outrage it engendered has not yet subsided.

By the early 2000s, the skyrocketing values of American sports teams were starting to attract a new kind of investor, one who was not necessarily drawn by love of sport or civic pride or even ego gratification as much as by economic potential. “If you went back and looked at N.B.A. owners in 1980, they were the local Budweiser distributor, or they owned car dealerships, or they’d been successful in real estate,” says Wes Edens, the owner of the N.B.A.’s Milwaukee Bucks, who partnered with the Egyptian businessman Nassef Sawiris six years ago to buy Aston Villa. “And that might have been OK when your franchise cost $20 million. Once it becomes a billion-dollar business, though, it’s no longer a hobby. And the financial demands of a billion-dollar business are so different. And so, what’s happened is a very natural changeover, from the local guy who ran a car dealership to the guy who ran an equity fund” — someone like Edens himself.

Aston Villa was on the verge of bankruptcy and had fallen into English soccer’s second tier when Edens and Sawiris bought it. During the 2018-19 season, their first, the club earned promotion back to the Premier League. After the deft hires of a sporting director and manager, Villa has emerged as a winner. With four games left in the season, it sat in fourth place, a position that would put it into next season’s Champions League with Europe’s best teams. “We were facing extinction, one of the biggest clubs in English football history,” says John McGinn, a starting midfielder for Villa. “And we’ve had an owner come in and completely transform it. So I don’t know why anyone would be against that. No matter what happens, we should always be grateful to Wes.”

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Aston Villa was founded in 1874 by four members of a Bible class. Now it’s owned by two billionaires; one of them is also an owner of the Milwaukee Bucks.Credit…Alexander Coggin for The New York Times

And yet, some of Villa’s fans remain contemptuous of him. In September an all-you-can-eat dining area opened at Villa Park; its offerings before and after games include hot dogs, nachos, ice cream and candy, beer and wine. When I spoke with fans around Birmingham, I was surprised to hear nearly everyone mention that as a misstep. “Listen when it gets advertised during the game,” said Charlie Nash, a 22-year-old who has attended games with his father, Paul, all his life. “You’ll hear a lot of people booing.” Nash also seemed resentful that his area of the stands, Villa Park’s equivalent of baseball’s bleachers, had gone corporate. These days, he said, when someone launches into a witty adaptation of a popular melody to celebrate their team or belittle the opposition, as English fans tend to do, those in the adjacent, newly upgraded section stay silent. “Maybe they don’t know the songs,” Nash said. “That’s a worry going forward. You start to lose the DNA.”

Like Boehly, Edens made his fortune running funds and investing in companies. On his first day as a Wall Street trader, he had an epiphany: This is what he was meant to do. “I liked the pace of it,” he says. “I liked the math of it. And honestly, I liked the risk.” In 1996, while working for the investment firm BlackRock, he purchased a portfolio of houses from the British government. Before that, he’d had little exposure to soccer. “I grew up in Montana, where there was probably not one soccer pitch in the entire state,” he says. “Now, all of a sudden, I was in England week after week. And every weekend, there were games. And I went to them.”

In 2014, having founded his own investment firm and become a billionaire, Edens bought the Bucks with a partner. (He also started an energy company and began developing Brightline, a high-speed railroad.) When Aston Villa came on the market in 2018, he consulted with David Blitzer, who owns parts of teams in all five major North American leagues, as well as Crystal Palace in the Premier League. Blitzer was encouraging, but he cautioned Edens that the habits of English fans were ingrained. That doesn’t mean you can’t win them over, Blitzer says. “But it takes longer.”

At the time when Edens and Sawiris were considering buying Aston Villa, the club was in English soccer’s equivalent of a minor league, playing teams like Barnsley and Preston North End rather than Chelsea and Arsenal. The situation reminded Edens of all the subprime loans and distressed companies he had acquired for below market value. Late in his first season, Villa won 10 consecutive games — a rare feat — and ended up being promoted back to the Premier League. After three seasons in the bottom half of the standings, it improved to seventh last year.

The next jump, becoming a regular presence in the Champions League, will be formidable, especially because soccer has strict limitations on how much owners can spend without generating offsetting revenues. In 2021, the club sold the attacking midfielder Jack Grealish, who entered Villa’s youth program when he was 6, to Manchester City. The $121 million it received enabled it to sign several significant players who form the core of the current team. But Aston Villa also lost close to $150 million in 2023, and the club has no more Grealishes to sell.

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When it was purchased, Aston Villa was on the verge of bankruptcy. After some deft hires, it’s now in position to qualify for next season’s Champions League.Credit…Alexander Coggin for The New York Times

To increase its revenue, and to keep as much of his winning team intact as possible, Edens is planning to develop the neighborhood around Villa Park. In Milwaukee, he and his partners transformed 30 acres of vacant urban land into a thriving arena district, anchored by a sports bar and a boutique hotel. The neighborhood in Birmingham where the club plays, called Aston, isn’t quite as desolate, but when I drove through its streets with Edens one afternoon, its poverty was evident. Eventually, Edens told me, he hopes to build hundreds of apartment units there, as Blitzer and his partners are proposing to do in Philadelphia, where they own the N.B.A.’s 76ers. “Real estate is a big part of this because of the incremental revenue you can generate,” Blitzer says.

As a first step, an abandoned indoor cricket center near Aston Villa’s stadium will be converted into the Warehouse at Villa Park: dining for 3,000 people, a museum, a supersize team shop and a venue for private events. That plan has met with resistance from nearby residents who insist that weekends are loud and chaotic enough, and also from longtime supporters who are concerned that it will alter the match-going experience. “But the feeling is that the owners have their own thoughts on what to do,” Paul Nash says, “and will just do what they want.”

Edens isn’t daunted. Over dinner one night, he told me about a hotel that he recently built in Jackson Hole, Wyo. The project included a club where members could store skis and have their cars parked by valets. Everyone, including partners, told him it wouldn’t work. “A lot of the locals said, ‘That’s not Jackson Hole, that’s not true to our heritage,’” Edens said. “ ‘We’re not Vail. We carry our own stuff.’” He disagreed. “Who thinks carrying your three young kids’ ski stuff through a parking lot is a good idea?”

Edens proceeded with the ski club. “And people love it,” he said. “It’s completely sold out. And that’s how I feel about some of the other things that we’re doing now.” While he said that he is respectful of the club’s long history, he added that it’s “OK to change things a little bit. The Kiss Cam may not be the right way to do it. But other ways might be.”

At the end of April, Chelsea played Aston Villa in Birmingham. What was once a novelty, a match between teams with American owners, has grown commonplace; there will be 72 such games this season. That number, the most ever, could increase significantly if certain results fall into place. Three teams move into the Premier League from the level below each year: the top two finishers and the winner of a tournament involving the next four. (To make room for them, three teams also drop out.) Going into the last weekend of April, Leeds United, which belongs to the San Francisco 49ers’ owner Jed York and his partners, was in second place. Ipswich Town, owned by an American investment firm, was third. And Shilen Patel, a Tampa entrepreneur, recently completed the purchase of fifth-place West Bromwich Albion.

If a proposed sale of Everton to a Miami-based firm is approved, as many as 13 of the 20 clubs could be owned by Americans next season. That’s one short of the two-thirds supermajority that would have the power to remake the Premier League along the contours of, say, the N.F.L. A cap on player wages could be imposed, which would greatly benefit the competitive prospects of midsize clubs like Aston Villa. Gate receipts and the income from merchandise like shirt sales could be shared. Even the promotion-and-relegation system that has formed the basis of English soccer’s organizational system for more than a century could be eliminated. Gary Neville, a former Manchester United player and now a commentator on Sky Sports, has called American owners “a clear and present danger” to the game’s “fabric.”

And yet, some degree of evolution toward the American model seems inevitable, whether Americans are involved or not. If clubs are being run these days less like the corner bar and more like complicated international businesses, it’s because that is what they have become. When the Glazers agreed recently to sell 25 percent of Manchester United to Sir Jim Ratcliffe, a lifelong supporter of the club and the chairman of the INEOS chemicals group, for $1.3 billion, he proposed replacing Old Trafford, as close to hallowed grounds as there is in English soccer, with a 90,000-seat stadium. In doing so, Ratcliffe was acting like an American, as one commenter put it, responding to a BBC article.

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Chelsea supporters outside Stamford Bridge before a recent match with Everton.Credit…Alexander Coggin for The New York Times

At Villa Park one afternoon, I went with Edens to visit the Lower Grounds, the all-you-can-eat dining area. Chris Heck, the club’s chief executive who formerly worked for the N.B.A.’s 76ers, suggested the idea for it shortly after he arrived in Birmingham last August. Touring the stadium, he stumbled on a decrepit ballroom-size space where ticket holders were permitted to gather. During the first game that the new venture was open for business, Heck says someone approached him on the concourse and took a swing at him — “because I took away the free space where he used to come and eat his sandwich.”

After hearing how unpopular it was among supporters, I expected a dreary scene of a few people sitting at otherwise empty tables. Instead, the area was filled to capacity with some 800 fans. They were eating and drinking while a game played on several large screens. They certainly appeared to be enjoying themselves. According to Heck, the club would make 80,000 British pounds, or about $100,000, that afternoon. “We fill it up every game, so multiply that by 23,” he says.

Some of that money would doubtless end up being spent on making Aston Villa better: on players; or on importing more of the plyometric machines like the ones that Edens’s Bucks use in Milwaukee into Villa’s training facility; or on the scouting budget, perhaps. Lower Grounds would help defray the cost of trying to compete against some of the wealthiest owners and entities in the world. It would also, in some incremental way, make the business more valuable.

Those were ancillary benefits, but Edens insisted to me that they weren’t quite the point. He was convinced that the all-you-can-eat venue would improve the experience of attending a match, just as he felt confident that relieving the burden of the skiers trying to haul their kids’ stuff across the parking lot would be welcomed by club members at his Jackson Hole hotel. “Our fans are like, ‘We like tradition,’” Edens said. “And I tell them: ‘No, you don’t. You think you do, but you don’t.’ I mean, who doesn’t like a big-screen TV with plenty of food and beer?” Then he spread his arms wide and answered his own question: “Nobody.”

Read by Robert Fass

Narration produced by Anna Diamond

Engineered by David Mason

Roy Walsh

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