My first impression of Tom Fox, Arsenal’s head honcho for commercial revenue, was that he’s a pretty affable kind of chap. Upon meeting him at AISA’s Q&A session on Monday night, it was apparent that there’s very little pretence about the man – a somewhat refreshing trait in modern football. Fox is American (very American) and, rightly, makes no effort to hide it. He’s a US businessman brought in to help Arsenal earn more dough from commercial deals. He never stood on the Clock End in the pissing rain, avoiding missiles from the away end. He probably thinks “EIE” is a line from Rawhide. And why shouldn’t he? While the senior echelons of the club need some football people (more than at present, in my opinion) the executive team doesn’t exclusively need to consist of European football fanatics and/or long-term Arsenal fans.
In response to an early question from the floor, he apologises for referring to the club as a “franchise” soon after he joined, joking that his colleagues had to force him to stop using American-isms like “field” and “locker room”. Re-adopting an earnest tone, he says “You’ll never hear me say it ['franchise'] again”, adding that he understands that “football is about so much more than business”. He sounds genuine and likeable, but one cannot help but think that this line of questioning is pointless. Essentially, the issue isn’t how much he loves the Arsenal and “gets” English football culture. The test of Tom Fox is not whether he can name the starting XI from the 1993 Coca-Cola Cup Final, but whether he can funnel more cash from the strange global world of marketing into the club.
And boy, does he have a tough task on his hands? This chart, stolen from Swiss Ramble, shows the extent to which Arsenal’s commercial revenue lagged behind other clubs in financial year 2010/11:
So how did Arsenal get into this weak position?
Well, Fox is quite open about the fact that Arsenal were extremely slow off the blocks when it came to recognising the astronomical amount of cash to be earned from an array of sponsorship deals.
The football club [Arsenal] was focused for many years on building this stadium, and if you remember – this stadium was supposed to be the game-changer that closed that gap [between Arsenal's revenue and other big clubs']. And this was a fairly significant undertaking to move 400 yards from the old stadium to this stadium. Three years ago we started the journey to begin to invest in people that could capitalise on the opportunity that I spoke about earlier [from commercial revenue] around this club that exists everywhere else in the world. Man Utd, and other clubs, weren’t focused on building a new stadium so they may have invested in different ways against their commercial operation.
The message is clear: while focusing on the stadium move, the club took its eye off at least one other ball that it should have been attempting to juggle. While in no way to blame himself, having only joined Arsenal in August 2009, Tom also argues that the club itself is not at fault for the current gap in commercial revenue:
The way I look at it is this: we have been successful as a football club in some of the craziest economic times ever in the history of the sport; we have the sovereign wealth of Abu Dhabi, we have money coming in from very wealthy billionaires, we have teams with unlimited spending and we have two teams in Spain that are taking much more of the collective television revenue generated by their league and spending that [money]. We’ve been competing on a very uneven playing field and actually with many commercial deals that have lagged, and yet we have been able to compete and been able to be successful and qualify for Champions League.
Ignoring inevitable complaints over the last seven silverware-less seasons being seen as a success, his argument sounded convincing last night and was well delivered. But for me questions still remain. For a start, Arsenal played their first game at the new stadium over six years ago, in the summer of 2006. Tom Fox joined over three years later, and says that their commercial plan was kick-started then. So what happened in the three years in between?
Was the new stadium, already operational, still so much of a burden on the board’s time to excuse the failure to implement a commercial plan to match, let alone beat, our rivals’?
There are, of course, mitigating factors. We are told that the Nike and Emirates shirt deals, which expire in 2014, were vital for funding the stadium, despite their relative loss of value in recent years. Yet even if this is true, the tale – told by senior Arsenal executives themselves – that clubs like Man Utd were allowed a four or five year head-start on their wider commercial operations is difficult to excuse.
Top level football is complex and demanding, without a doubt. Could I run the club myself? Almost certainly not. And the football landscape has proved to be a rough and unpredictable ride. But top management, across all areas of business, are supposed to be able to see the wider picture and be competent and intelligent enough to steer massive businesses through choppy, ever-changing markets. They are supposed to make bold decisions across all sectors of their business, which improve the delivery of the goods or services and reap shareholder value. This is the justification for the mega-wages that top bosses receive.
Would Barclays shareholders, for example, be happy with a board that neglected their investment banking wing just because they were focusing on an ambitious plan to improve their retail banking services? Not a chance. The top dogs are paid handsomely to deliver on all sides – and if they fail to do so, they can be booted out (as this year’s “Shareholder Spring” has demonstrated).
So while it is entirely understandable that people such as Ken Friar and the late Danny Fiszman were 100% focused on the new stadium (and both, from what I can tell, did a remarkable job), why weren’t other board members capable of seeing that the club was in danger of falling behind the pack when it came to commercial revenue?
I was at a separate AISA or AST (I forget which) meeting with then-CEO Keith Edelman at some point between 2006 and 2008, where he admitted that the club had neglected “merchandise” in recent years. It was largely brushed off as a minor issue at the time, with Edelman visibly indifferent, but looking back I can’t help but wonder if it reflected a wider ignorance of the competitive importance of targeting commercial revenue streams.
Somewhat startlingly, Fox explains the extent of the gap between Man Utd and Arsenal when it comes to maximising income from commercial sources:
Three years ago we [at Arsenal] would have had one person full time employee out speaking to companies on behalf of the club, and two people that worked for an agency, consulting; and they would have conversations with various businesses and brands around the world about signing on as a sponsor at Arsenal. We also had about one and a half people – one part time one full time – servicing the partners the club already had… [so that's] two and a half people and two consultants. We now have 13 full time people. Man Utd have 80. So when I say they started 8 years ago investing behind this, they started 8 years ago and they’ve been investing non-stop behind this area.
To clarify: three years after moving to the new stadium, Arsenal had only one full time employee working on new sponsorship deals. Eyebrow-raising, to say the least.
Nonetheless, Tom Fox remains confident:
I think the opportunity [for growing commercial revenue]…this is what we’re excited about now. We have the ability now in the course of the year and next two years to close that gap significantly. And if we’ve already been competing at a very high level at a disadvantage commercially, thank goodness we began that investment three years ago – because two years from now, actually a year from now that gap will be closed significantly, not only on the back of the new television deal that’s been struck but on the back of the commercial deals that we’re going to be striking in the next 12-18 months on shirt and kit.
That sounds like a pledge, to me – “the gap will be closed significantly”. He also adds: “We have people out in Japan, in SE Asia, in India, in America, having conversations with big brands about our shirt [sponsorship].” So let’s see where the club’s at in two years from now. While a fan’s interest in their club’s commercial revenue at times seems more than a little strange, the fact is that without plugging this income gap it will be extremely difficult for the team to compete at the very top level.
Furthermore, a better flow of income from commercial revenue may, in theory, mean less need to scrape every last penny out of us poor fans who pay thousands of pounds of our hard-earned to attend home games. Fox suggests that the club isn’t hoping to pinch much more from match-attending fans’ pockets:
95% of the [extra] revenue we will generate over the course of the five year plan will come from our partnerships business, retail business, international business – from connecting with new supporters. It won’t come from taking [from] the group of people who support the club and come to the matches, it won’t come from that group of people to the extent that it probably did when we moved from Highbury to this stadium.
However, a warning. Later in the Q&A, the AISA faithful are told that it is “difficult” to have cheaper home tickets if demand is high. “The waiting list for season tickets is still very high…the waiting list is strong,” Mark Gonnella insists. High season ticket prices are here to stay, methinks.
Financial Fair Play
A further way in which Tom Fox was firmly on message last night was with regards to Financial Fair Play and the prospect of the regulations making it easier for Arsenal to get back to winning ways.
I actually think the club’s done an excellent job of positioning itself and hanging in there at some of the strangest economic times in football; and … with FFP beginning to create a drag at some of the big spending clubs the next few years will be and potentially could be the years to close that gap – and those could be our years.
The sentiment is near-identical to that issued by chief executive Ivan Gazidis. The business plan is:
- Narrow the commercial revenue gap
- Lobby for FFP rules that drag Arsenal’s competitors closer to our own spending levels
Fox explained that, as recently as last week, the club has been pushing for FFP-style red tape to be introduced in the Premier League. Asked if he was in favour of a salary cap, he said that he was, but that it was too difficult to implement – and instead threw his weight behind FFP.
In his own words:
…we just had this conversation at the shareholder meeting last Thursday where all of the [PL] clubs have been talking about FFP at the European level and whether or not we want to bring FFP into our league; it’s really difficult to do because if we decide in the English game that we’re going to have salary cap and none of the other leagues do then it becomes very difficult for us to compete with those other clubs for talent. And because our league operates in at least a pan-European but almost even a global football economy, it’s really difficult to come up with a set of rules that everyone adheres to.
I think the mechanism unfortunately around [a salary cap] is really difficult, which is why you’ve seen Michel Platini and UEFA hire a staff of 80 accountants and lawyers to try and craft something that will allow the game to control the amount of money that flows through into the players and out of our league back into the players and agents.
So the cap probably isn’t the answer, [but] we have great hopes for UEFA FFP and we have great hopes some of the financial controls that were discussed shareholder meeting at the PL last Thursday – and really the potential for the PL to begin to put rules in place that ensures that the money that comes into our game doesn’t flow back out again in player wages but gets reinvested in other things in our football clubs like infrastructure and assets that can build long term value.
A cynic would note that it is of course in Arsenal’s majority owner’s interest to have football-wide limits on player expenditure so as to “build the long term value” of his “asset” – so perhaps it’s not surprising the Stanley Kroenke’s senior employees peddle this line. Yet this is a discussion for another day and another blog post. The point here is that Fox joins the rest of his fellow executives in being firmly pro-regulation of football clubs’ spending, repeatedly describing wage expenditure as “irrational”. (As a side note, I expect that Arsenal’s latest accounts, released in a couple of weeks’ time, will show the wage bill at around £140m per annum – probably the fourth highest in the league).
Bacary Sagna – and players speaking out of turn
At this point it’s worth noting a tangent in the meeting, which concerned Bacary Sagna’s comments last week.
Mark Gonnella, Arsenal’s chief PR, revealed that Sagna’s comments were not misrepresented in the press, as is often claimed by clubs and back-tracking (no pun intended) players:
We have a situation like last week when a player comes out – and it always happens in international week, doesn’t it? And the first thing for me is: ‘has he said this in the way it’s been portrayed?’ So we made checks and on this occasion Bac told us that it was a fair reflection of the comments he’d made.
Again – refreshingly honest, I think.
As a wider point, Gonnella says that it is often difficult for Arsenal to react to such quotations because they are loath to speak publicly about an employee’s personal contract situation. “We end up in a place where we can’t say everything and rightly so – you wouldn’t want your employers to talk about your own personal working arrangements,” he says. Arsene may comment on the Sagna situation himself, Gonnella adds, but even then he’ll have to be careful with his words.
Summarising, he says:
What I can say is that we work really hard with the players in terms of coaching them on what and how to manage the media. And actually, although our players have moments, I think if you look at the majority of our players and compare them with other clubs we do a reasonable job and the players are fantastic ambassadors for us 90% of the time.
Back to business
Returning to the questions asked of Tom Fox, the commercial director had a lot to say about the club’s recent tours of the Far East. He explains how, in his view, the club convinced Arsene Wenger to acquiesce with an Asian tour:
Our manager is a very smart man and I had a theory when I came in that the reason Arsene wasn’t that receptive to touring was that it was a very disruptive thing to do and when he looked at the commercial operation that existed within the club he didn’t see a robust team of people that could execute that at a higher level and extract as much value as possible. And I think what he’s seen are the investments we’ve made in people over the last two and a half years, and he’s seen the capability we now have as a club and he realises – because Ivan [Gazidis] has done an excellent job talking to him about where the growth in revenue is coming from in football – he’s been able to show him that other clubs have a big advantage over us when it comes to selling their shirt … because they have fan bases all around the world [who’ve] seen their teams playing live. And I think Arsene now understands that is part of Arsenal to be a global club; you cannot stay in Europe and reach the fans [elsewhere] the way you need to reach them to engage them in a way that makes them feel part of the club. If you can’t do that you have very little to offer these big international companies that want to put their logo on the front of your shirt.
It is interesting how much Fox associates the summer tour with expanding sponsorship revenue. People often assume that expanding to Asia is all about selling shirts and directly accruing cash from football-mad Asians in emerging economies such as China. Yet Fox appears to be saying that more financial benefit comes not directly from those fans’ pockets, but rather from companies who want to advertise to millions of new, increasingly affluent consumers in non-Western places. It can be very difficult for a brand to become widely known and accepted in an alien culture such as China, he explains – so being able to latch onto Arsenal’s popularity is a unique way for a company to grow into these areas. This, he says, is how Arsenal can make millions and millions in extra cash in the coming years – and is therefore why doing an Asian tour every summer is so important.
In his own words again:
When we think about where we need to get to to fund success, when we think about clubs that are spending more money on players than we are, when we think about where we need to get to, and we look at that revenue growth – 95% of all of that revenue growth that’s going to come into the club is going to come from our international business. It’ll come from big global partners realising that Arsenal is a big global brand – and I realise that’s a term that some people don’t like – but Arsenal has incredible value. The things this club stands for and represents, the things that Arsenal mean to all of you, these are the elements we take to the international market.
If we go into those markets and convince people we are a football club they can support and get behind, that engagement with that fanbase is what’s attracting partners to Arsenal.
If we sat in Austria and didn’t go out into the marketplace and try to connect with those fans and make those fans feel as much a part of the football club as fans sitting in this room and people who come to the match on Saturday, if we didn’t do that we’d be missing an opportunity to grow that fanbase and create that level of engagement and show those big brands that signing with Arsenal gives you much more than just visibility of logo on the shirt when we play, we give you access to those fans and compassion in each of those markets – that’s what we’re building.
Regarding the football side of things, Fox says that Arsene Wenger is happy with current arrangements:
He was asked at the end of this tour and said “it was incredibly well organised” – and I took that as a source of pride because we put a lot of people and a lot of time and effort to make sure that if we convinced Arsene to tour then everything would be handled and organised and he would go and come back and feel that even though that’s an intrusive thing to do with his pre-season preparation then at least we made it as painless as possible. His only complaint was that the seats on the plane didn’t go flat (*cue laughter in the hall*)… and I promised him that would never happen again – when we fly players to Asia they need to be able to lie down.
So there we go. Well done on getting this far, by the way. Three more quick points and then we’re done. (No one ever said that being an Arsenal fanatic was easy…)
The Shirt Designs
With age, I care less and less about the design of Arsenal’s shirts. I used to care a lot. Now I don’t. Generally I’d rather have a nice glistening red and white home shirt and yellow and blue away shirt, but I admit that I have liked some Nike innovations. I liked the “redcurrant” home shirt for the last season at Highbury. And I like the new home shirt. Anyway, here’s what Fox had to say about the shirt designs. Responding to a traditionalist who complained about the blue trim on the home shirt and “purple reign” away kit, Fox said:
There have been numerous examples in the club’s history where blue has been part of the home shirt…I know that because I’ve looked at every single photo of every shirt the club has ever made, and there were five or six years where there was blue trim on the shirt.
If the shirt looks the same every single year, you won’t sell a great many of them.
The current shirt that’s on sale today is a two year home shirt; there isn’t another football club in the world that does a two year home shirt. We do that because we listen to our supporters.
I understand the yellow shirt with blue trim has very special connotation, and there will be times when a yellow shirt with blue trim comes back…but the away shirt this year is appealing to a very different audience…you want a yellow shirt with blue trim, I get it, there are fans in China that don’t want that, there are children in N5 that want something that’s far more fashionable that goes with clothes they’re wearing today and that’s why that black and purple which some people don’t like is selling quite well… If we did the same thing every year we’d be at a competitive disadvantage to all of the other clubs who are changing their shirt every year and coming up with crazy designs to sell as many as possible.
Fair enough, no?
Food and drink in the stadium
Personally I don’t get why people eat in the stadium. The game’s only two hours. As a human, you can comfortably go 5 or 6 hours without eating, and barely feel a pang of hunger. The food just soaks up the beer, anyway.
But I can tell that, for those who want it, the food seems pretty over-priced and shoddy, and the one thing I do care about – getting a beer at half time – is often near impossible. By and large the beer is crap, over-priced and requires 10 minutes of queuing to acquire.
There’s only so much the club can do about this, as the catering is outsourced to a company named Delaware. But Fox did say that the club is working with the caterers to improve the value of food and drink in the stadium, and admits they’ve struggled to improve value in past. He adds that catering generates very little cash for the club, relative to other sources. Their main incentive is to get the food and drink right so that people enjoy coming to the ground and thus demand for tickets is kept high.
No meeting with fans would be complete without someone getting angry about the state of the team. The final question of the evening saw a gentleman named Len tell Messrs Gonnella and Fox that he’s “sick of the bullshit” of hearing every summer that Wenger has money to spend, when the club continually makes a profit from transfers.
He didn’t really get the response he was looking for. Predictably, comms director Gonnella said:
There is money, that’s the bottom line. What Arsene Wenger will never do is just spend money for the sake of it to get a headline to get some good PR – it’d make my life a lot easier, but he won’t do it. And all you have to do is back his judgement. And he said this just before the window closed: if I see the quality there, I’ll do it.
I understand there’s a sentiment out there that the club focuses on profits and does that to a distraction – [but] every pound that comes into the club that is declared a profit is available for the football side of the club. There are no dividends paid to any of our owners, there’s no money leaving the club, everything we have we are reinvesting.
Asked where all the money from sold players is going, the pair responded in unison: “It’s still there.”
And thus ended the meeting. Thanks for reading my report of it.
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