Daniel Ek-Arsenal takeover: Gunners owner Stan Kroenke set for more turmoil as Spotify CEO vies for control
LONDON — If the tale of recent years on the pitch for Arsenal has been one of decline, the corridors of power around north London have been defined by their tumult.
Chief executives, senior football figures and managers of varying lengths of tenure have come and gone while 2018 brought the end to Stan Kroenke’s battle to take sole ownership of the club. Few supporters, particularly those who owned the odd share in Arsenal as something akin to an heirloom, greeted ‘Silent Stan’s’ victory over boardroom outsider Alisher Usmanov with any appetite but it seemed they were going to have to lump it.
Africa’s richest man Aliko Dangote loomed on the long-term horizon but his plans for Arsenal always seemed to be two years away. There seemed to be no serious option until Friday when, as around 2,000 fans protested against Kroenke in north London, Spotify founder Daniel Ek threw his hat into the ring on Twitter. In less than a week, matters have snowballed from an idle tweet to what could be a lengthy battle for one of the jewels in the Premier League crown, one of the most popular clubs around the globe situated in a major metropolitan hub.
Craving even more coverage of the world’s game? Listen below and subscribe to ¡Qué Golazo! A Daily CBS Soccer Podcast where we take you beyond the pitch and around the globe for commentary, previews, recaps and more.
Ek is saying all the right words, vowing to give fans the voice they feel has been taken from them since Kroenke bought out the remaining minor shareholders in 2018. His profession of deep support for the club dating back to the days of Anders Limpar flying down the Highbury wings is the perfect tonic to the current ownership, of whom fans’ greatest critique was crystalized in the protest movement of 2019. We care, do you?
If we are to take Ek at his word, rather than questioning why the CEO of a major corporation might not be tweeting along with the latest events at the Emirates Stadium as others have, then at the very least he cares. “I’ve been an Arsenal fan since I was eight,” he told CNBC on Wednesday. “Arsenal is my team, I love the history, I love the players and of course I love the fans.
“I just see a tremendous opportunity to set a real ambition for the club to bring it back to its glory. I want to establish trust with fans and I want to engage with fans again. I’m very serious. I’ve secured the funds for it and I want to bring what I think is a very compelling offer to the owners. I hope they hear me out.”
It is the prospective owners’ final point that brings a significant question, one that has so far gone unanswered on or off the record.
The Spotify owner says he has secured the funding he needs, though naturally that statement is somewhat nebulous when the prospective vendor refuses to set a price at which he will do business. Where that money comes from is not necessarily clear. Forbes estimate Ek to be worth $4.5 billion, but naturally much of that wealth comes from his eight percent stake in Spotify. In his interview with CNBC, he offered no indication that he was any less committed to the streaming giant than he is to Arsenal. Sources close to other Spotify shareholders are not aware of any indication so far that Ek, who recently invested $600 million in Swedish battery manufacturer Northvolt, might look to sell part of his stake in the company he founded.
There are naturally avenues for Ek to access the funds and it need not be him alone putting up the funds. But what those avenues are have not been explained to Arsenal supporters. If the Swede were to be at the head of a group of buyers, fans would want to know whether the rest of the prospective owners shared such a deep-seated adoration for the Gunners.
Arsenal fans protest against their current owners
Ek has brought three members of the 2004 Invincibles team on board. Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp and Patrick Vieira might just be the three greatest players to ever wear an Arsenal shirt. They understand the values and ethos of the club that supporters felt was so trashed in the Super League debacle. What they do not have is the wealth to make a meaningful contribution to any purchase.
A broader ownership church may not be a problem for Arsenal, but the nature of it is not clear. There are indications that Ek intends to give fans a say or even a golden share that would allow supporters to overrule decisions that could have a detrimental effect on the club’s legacy. Throughout his interview he pushed the message that this would be ownership with the fans at its heart. It is a far cry from the current custodians, infrequent presences at the Emirates Stadium or in meetings with supporters. Indeed, director Josh Kroenke alienated many at last week’s fan forum by saying that the coronavirus pandemic had made it difficult to connect with supporters. The irony that he was doing this over a videoconferencing system that allowed him to speak to them directly from across the Atlantic was not lost on them.
Wherever the funds are coming from and the value they might reach could all be irrelevant if Stan Kroenke is good to his word. He and Josh have said on several occasions that the club is not for sale, going so far as to say in a statement released earlier this week that they “remain 100 percent committed to Arsenal and are not selling any stake in the club. We have not received any offer and we will not entertain any offer.”
As Alisher Usmanov can attest after his own failed bid to buy the club in 2017, setting off a chain of events that ended with his rival the sole shareholder a year later, Kroenke is a hard man to prise Arsenal from.
Kroenke’s insistence that he is not willing to sell at any price is so absolute that it is hard to doubt its sincerity. Three separate statements in the space of four working days — first to fans, then club staff and finally the media — that Arsenal is not for sale were sufficiently absolute that it can hardly be viewed as a negotiating tactic. If one were considering selling a club it is not necessarily the shrewdest thing to tell anyone who asks that you will not make a deal at any price. Meanwhile, even in the unlikely event Joe Biden’s proposed increase in capital gains tax, taking the rate up to 23 percent stands to eat into the sizeable profit Kroenke would make from any sale. It hardly looks like the time to cash in your chips.
Instead, ownership is making plans for the future. In Wednesday’s press conference, Mikel Arteta confirmed talks with the Kroenkes included the transfer budget, as reported by CBS Sports, and there is a willingness from ownership to help finance deals as they did with the $60 million lump sum paid for Thomas Partey last summer.
Meanwhile, Ek will not go away and is prepared for a “long journey.” A club that thought it had escaped its most recent period of off-field turbulence looks set for further upheaval in the months to come.