Mystery bid designed to test Arsenal owner’s resolve

Julian Harris
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WHEN your wife is a billionaire heiress to the Walmart empire, and your own property business has landed you with an estimated net worth of around £2.7bn, you don’t need to sell any of your prized assets unless you really want to.

It’s a nice position for Stan Kroenke – Arsenal’s majority shareholder – to find himself in. The American sports mogul has seen the value of his stake in London’s biggest football team expand handsomely since he took control of two thirds of the stock almost two years ago, despite ongoing struggles on the pitch.

Ignoring national stereotypes, this is one irony that many of Arsenal’s frustrated fans accuse Kroenke of being acutely aware of. Unhappy supporters feel that the nicknamed Silent Stan is content to allow the club to tread water, safe in the knowledge that ever-expanding revenues flowing into the top of football’s pyramid will keep boosting the value of his stake. Why gamble your cash on improving the team when the manager, Arsene Wenger, can keep things ticking over perfectly nicely on an austere transfer budget?

It is for this reason that rivals to Kroenke, who covet his shareholding, always ensure they echo the discontent of Arsenal fans who have seen their team go eight years without winning a trophy.

Alisher Usmanov, the Russian billionaire who owns nearly 30 per cent of Arsenal, issues regular statements criticising Kroenke’s board’s running of the club. And yesterday’s leak of an allegedly impending £1.5bn takeover bid was notable for its fan-friendly messages. The mysterious Middle Eastern bidders would ensure money was pumped into the team while at the same time lowering ticket prices – or so they claim.

In his first appearance in front of the fans, at 2011’s AGM, Kroenke boasted of having never sold a single share in any of his sports teams. “You had better get used to seeing us, because we will be around,” he pledged. Alas, with his team facing the prospect of finishing outside the top four for the first time since 1996, his promise now appears to some fans as more of a threat.

Kroenke’s refusal to let go of any of his 41,581 shares has even annoyed supporters who want to invest in the club through a scheme called Fanshare (disclaimer: I’m a member). They have asked him to sell some of his shares to the scheme, but despite the club endorsing Fanshare at first, Kroenke has refused to play ball.

Fanshare is thus struggling to find stock that it can purchase.

Kroenke’s obdurate grip on his Arsenal shareholding suggests that any takeover bid would be rebuffed – just as he promised yesterday.

But if the fans become increasingly irate at Kroenke’s reign and the team’s fortunes continue to slide, would a quick profit to the tune of £400m not tempt the American to think twice?

News of a highly priced bid seems designed to flush Kroenke out and test his resolve. Whoever’s behind the move – plus the equally stubborn Usmanov – will know that every man has his price.

Julian Harris is an economics and sport reporter at City A.M. – @hariboconomics