Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Books: "The Club" On The Rapid Growth Of The English Premier League

The Club: How The English Premier League Became The Wildest, Richest, Most Disruptive Force In Sports
By Joshua Robinson and Jonathan Clegg
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; hardcover, 320 pages; $28.00

Soccer has grown rapidly in the United States the past couple of decades, more popular than baseball among 35-54-year-olds, and closing in on basketball, and that has a lot to do with the popularity of the English Premier League.

The Premier League is the most watched sports league on the planet, with NBC's coverage of the 2016-17 season reaching a record 33 million viewers, with a fan base that is still expanding. NBC recently paid $1 billion to extend its deal with the Premier League through the 2021-22 season.

Joshua Robinson and Jonathan Clegg, who write about European soccer for The Wall Street Journal, have written the first deeply researched, tell-all book to chart the meteoric rise of the EPL in The Club.

Joshua Robinson and Jonathan Clegg.

No one is better positioned to tell this story than Robinson and Clegg, who literally lived this story in real time, growing up in England during the 1980s, attending games in the newly formed Premier League as teenagers during the '90s, and gaining unprecedented access to the press rooms, boardrooms and locker rooms of the most storied clubs at reporters.

English soccer in the 1980s was a crumbling institution plagued by unsafe stadiums and fan violence, as Robinson and Clegg write, "What little money there was in English soccer came almost exclusively from gate receipts, though those had been falling steadily since the 1960s. And it wasn't hard to see why. The experience of attending English soccer games was about as comfortable as waiting for a bus. Stadiums were, by and large, crumbling husks. Many had barely been touched since they sprang up in the waning days of the nineteenth century in inner-city districts and blue-collar industrial towns across the country. Conditions inside them were primitive at best and often perilous to fans' personal safety, with leaking roofs and rusting fences. What passed for food and drink was usually worse. The most popular halftime refreshment at most English soccer grounds wasn't a pint of lager or even a soda but a cup of Bovril, a mysterious brown fluid that its manufacturer sees fit to market as 'liquid beef extract' - a more accurate description would be hot beef tea."

It was transformed when Rupert Murdoch and Sky Sports created the Premier League in 1992, and now, 27 years later, players are sold for tens of millions, clubs are valued in the billions, and games are telecast in nearly 200 countries. The international rights account for nearly half of its most recent broadcast deal, worth $11 billion.

Robinson and Clegg's inside stories are sure to captivate legions of passionate English soccer fans, as they draw on 100 interviews with key decision-makers at all the "Big Six" clubs, Manchester City, Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool, and Tottenham. They chat with notoriously inaccessible managers like Sir Alex Ferguson, who won the Premier League 13 times in 20 seasons before he retired in 2013.

They get a never-before-told inside account from Ferguson of the deal that sent Cristiano Ronaldo to Real Madrid, with exclusive details of the negotiations between them at a Manchester United assistant coach's house.

Manchester United is run by the Glazer family, who also owns the NFL's Tampa Bay Buccaneers, as well as publicly listed shares on the New York Stock Exchange. There is an inside look at how this reclusive family conducts its business and transformed the Premier League's billion-dollar sponsorship model in the process.

Other American owners in England include John Henry, the owner of the defending World Champion Boston Red Sox, who owns Liverpool, the current leaders of the Premier League who reached last year's UEFA Champions League Final. Stan Kroenke, who owns Arsenal, also controls the NFL's Los Angeles Rams, the NBA's Denver Nuggets, and the Colorado Avalanche of the NHL.

Perhaps the most transformative owner in English football is Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich, who bought Chelsea in 2003.

As the 2002-03 season was coming to a close, Chelsea had a chance to make the UEFA Champions League if they could win their final game against Liverpool. There was more than that on the line, as Robinson and Clegg write, "Abramovich had had English soccer on his mind ever since attending a Champions League quarterfinal at Old Trafford between Manchester United and Real Madrid in the spring of 2003. As he explored his options, Abramovich had first spoken with Tottenham Hotspur's chairman though he was left unimpressed with the club's location off a down-market thoroughfare in northeast London. While his Mercedes trundled along Tottenham High Road that day, he looked out the window, and said in Rusian to his associate, 'This is worse than Omsk- a reference to the grim Siberian outpost where Sibneft (Abramovich's oil company) had a refinery.
"Abramovich wasn't immediately sold on acquiring Chelsea either. If he had one stipulation before dropping nine figures on a hobby, it was that the club should be playing in the Champions League. If the Blues could do that, then maybe he was interested. The players going at it with Liverpool at Stamford Bridge on that afternoon in May 2003 knew the stakes were huge because (Chelsea Chief Executive Trevor) Birch had told them that. But they  had no idea just how dramatically things would escalate. Behind the scenes, the 20-million-pound game was secretly turning into Chelsea's 7.5-billion-pound game. Except, of course, for that single minute of the match when Chelsea trailed Liverpool 1-0 and it was briefly the bankruptcy game.
"The Blues came back to win 2-1. Which was good enough for Abramovich. In the first week of July, he and his entourage met with Trevor Birch to agree to purchase the club. Birch and the Chelsea camp hadn't been able to do much due diligence on him since Abramovich was effectively invisible in the West. Birch's Google search turned up very little except a mention of the oligarch in Forbes. That Abramovich turned up with what Birch called 'blue-chip advisers and blue-chip banks' plus a lawyer from the New York firm Skadden Arps reassured him despite the oligarch's scruffy appearance and jeans. Abramovich liked to have a Russian translator present, too, even though he clearly understood English - a tactic that had been used by Soviet foreign ministers for decades to buy themselves time in high-level meetings. But for this particular negotiation, in a suite overlooking the field at Stamford Bridge, there was little need for high-level gamesmanship. They struck a 140-million-pound deal in less than thirty minutes.
"'No, it's not about making money,' Abramovich said in a rare interview with the BBC after the takeover. 'I have many much less risky ways of making money than this. I don't want to throw my money away, but it's really about having fun and that means success and trophies.'"

Once Abramovich took over, one thing was clear when he met with Manager Claudio Ranieri, and that was to be one of the best teams in England every year.

"The combination of his cash, ruthlessness, and ambition positioned Chelsea to crash the Manchester United and Arsenal party - the two clubs that had won every league title between 1996 and 2004. Abramovich was going to use the Uncle Jack recipe, stir in some caviar, and use it every season, not just for one year of Premier League folly.
"'I only want you to bring us the best players,' Abramovich told Ranieri in their first meeting.
"'I'll try, but who can sell us their best?' Ranieri replied.
"Abramovich didn't care. He knew that every club had its price for every player. The difference now was that he was someone who was willing to pay whatever the number. 'We had all the money in the world,' Birch said. 'There was disbelief everywhere, because it had literally never happened in football.'
"In his first summer as Chelsea's owner, Abramovich oversaw some $175 million in spending on fourteen new players. The following year, Abramovich fired Ranieri, spent another $145 million on nine players, and hired a cocky young manager who had just won the trophy that  Abramovich coveted most, the Champions League, with the Portuguese club Porto. His name was Jose Mourinho.
"Abramovich never met Uncle Jack, but he'd understood the same basic lesson. Upending the Premier League's established order took financial brute force. In the spring of 2005, Chelsea won its first major title in sixty years. Even Martin Edwards, by now retired from Manchester United, couldn't believe it. He thought he had seen off the last of the clubs bankrolled by wealthy benefactors - Blackburn's Jack Walker and others such as Newcastle's John Hall had come and gone. It turned out they were only the warm-up acts.
"But rather than knocking Arsenal and Manchester United off the mountaintop, Chelsea joined them there. Led by the three most famous managers in Premier League history - Alex Ferguson, Arsene Wenger, and Mourinho - the old guard and new money alike began developing new strategies to give the Premier League an infrastructure that would compound its growing advantage, an aggressive approach to pull the quaint and tribal world of soccer into the twenty-first century.
"And the battles between them - with their warring cults of managerial personality - became the backdrop of the 2000s, a decade of unchecked growth for the Premier League in which its teams could do no wrong. From 2004 on, the three superclubs shared every domestic title for eight years. And salaries climbed so fast that players form around the world grew desperate for English contracts. They didn't even need Arsenal or United or Chelsea to be interested; any move to the Premier League would do."

Robinson and Clegg get unprecedented access to Wegner, who just retired from Arsenal after the longest managerial tenure in Premier League history. He also details Arsenal's "kamikaze" mission to move into a self-financed new stadium while challenging for Premier League titles.

The growth of the Premier League is one of the greatest stories in sports history, and Robinson and Clegg give the defining account with The Club.

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