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One for the price of 55?

One for the price of 55?

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Arsenal’s chairman Stan Kroenke is known for keeping his business decisions close to his chest. But when 55 staff members were made redundant during the pandemic, only for one player to be bought for £50 million just 12 months later… well, how do you justify that?


Transcript

Hi, I’m Andrew and this is the Playmaker.

One story every day to make sense of the world of football.

Today: the team that laid off 55 staff during the pandemic… and then spent £50 million on a single player.

“We want Kroenke out, say we want Kroenke out…”

Arsenal fans outside the Emirates Stadium

Stan Kroenke isn’t liked among many Arsenal fans, that much is clear. 

Since taking sole ownership of the club in 2018, he has overseen a pretty stagnant period in the club’s history. 

After 19 straight seasons in the Champions League, the Gunners have progressively slipped down the Premier League, finishing eighth in the past two seasons, with a solitary FA Cup triumph to their name in 2020.

And one of the criticisms leveled against Stan Kroenke in the past has been that he doesn’t like to spend huge sums on players.

To the fans, it feels like he’s leaving the club trailing behind the rest of the so-called “Big Six”. 

However, this summer Stan Kroenke did put his hand in his pocket, and this time, he spent big. 

“Arsenal and Brighton have both announced that Ben White, the defender, has moved from Brighton to Arsenal for an undisclosed fee on a long-term deal. The undisclosed fee we understand to be £50million.”

Dharmesh Sheth, Sky Sports News

£50 million. It’s ambitious, a statement of intent for sure, especially since the club isn’t competing in any form of European football for the first time since 1996. 

But such a statement signing also raises questions about something else… something the pandemic has laid bare. 

What’s going on with fairness in football?

You see, 12 months ago Arsenal were seemingly under such financial strain that they made 55 staff members redundant mid-pandemic.

“It does seem very odd that someone can be earning tens of thousands of pounds, hundreds of thousands of pounds a week and then the football club are making, so-called, in inverted commas, ‘ordinary’ people redundant.”

Iain Dale, LBC

One ex-Arsenal employee told me that at the time it was disappointing to see how many people were let go, and frustrating that the club continued to sign players on such big wages. 

But they also acknowledged that it’s part and parcel of working at a football club, and you just have to accept the wage disparities that exist when you work at a Premier League club.

Fast-forward a year, and the money has seemingly come back to Arsenal.

So, in the wild world of football economics, can spending such vast amounts of money when you’ve laid off lower-paid staff ever be justified – and what does it tell us about the ruthlessness of Stan Kroenke?

“They justify it by the fact they need the strongest possible squad to qualify for Europe to bring success on the pitch. And ultimately, all of the jobs at Arsenal are dependent on the club being successful, because that sells more tickets, that sells more merchandise, that brings people into hospitality, so there is a causal link there. And if Arsenal were to keep failing as a football club there’d be even more redundancies.”

Tim Payton, Arsenal Supporters Trust

That’s Tim Payton, a board member of the Arsenal Supporters Trust, and he raises a counterpoint. 

It may seem unfair, seeing a club making low-paid staff redundant, all the while paying out millions of pounds in wages each week to their highest earners.

But Tim Payton’s point is: the only way to guarantee that there wouldn’t be further lay-offs is to spend money to strengthen the team to get on-field success. 

Stan Kroenke is known as “Silent Stan”, for his unwillingness to discuss his business decisions, and lack of public-facing persona. Arsenal are only a portion of his sports portfolio.

He doesn’t really care if he’s popular or not, either. The fans’ criticism of him intensified after Arsenal signed up to being a founding member of the European Super League before its collapse. 

In 2016, he moved the American Football side he owns, the LA Rams, from St. Louis, some 2,000 miles away, causing huge consternation amongst St. Louis locals, who lost a team they’d supported there for two decades.

So staff, and fans for that matter, are rarely at the forefront of Stan Kroenke’s mind when it comes to his business decisions. 

But football isn’t charity. And, for a billionaire like Stan Kroenke, laying off staff and buying a player a year later for 50 million pounds is an entirely rational business decision.

“You have to separate out the football side, which is kind of capitalism gone mad. You know, it’s market forces… the best way for Arsenal to employ more people and keep people in their jobs is by being a successful football club, which means spending lots of money on players. In many ways it stands up to no rational logic, you cannot say: ‘Here is what a doctor earns, here is what Mesut Ozil earns…’ and rationalise it in terms of contribution to society. You just have to accept that that’s what market forces drive.”

Tim Payton, Arsenal Supporters Club

But signing a player for such vast sums still represents a huge gamble for the club. 

Is the signing of Ben White an olive branch to the fans from Stan Kroenke? Or a sign of ambition that’s been lacking in recent years?

Arsenal kick off their Premier League campaign on Friday evening against Brentford… so remember, in football, success on the pitch trumps everything.

Today’s episode was written by Andrew Butler and produced by Imy Harper.