Gazidis Meeting Reaction

As promised, my reaction to the Ivan Gazidis question and answer session organised by the Arsenal Supporters’ Trust (AST) on Monday night at the ground.
I continue to be impressed by Gazidis. My work brings me into contact with a lot of football’s top administrators. To say the least, they’re of variable quality. Some real excellence but also some real dross. Gazidis is definitely in the former category in my opinion. His time working as deputy commissioner for Major League Soccer in North America has given him a wide-angle view which many top football executives in this country lack. He was responsible for all foreign player negotiations over there (players in MLS are contracted to the league not the individual clubs by and large) so has a lot of contacts around the football world.
It was never realistic to expect him to talk about individual players or the manager’s team selection or tactical decisions in detail. He did however talk as frankly as he could about other areas of the club’s operations off the field. I get the distinct impression that he’s become a real advocate for the best of the club’s history and traditions, which includes a long record of cutting edge innovation.
Of the issues I didn’t cover in detail in my blog on Monday night, Gazidis did all but confirm that the AST analysis of the club’s financial situation was “on the money” (excuse the pun). For understandable reason the club is loath to put a sum on the cash that might be available for new players. He did make the point that whilst transfer fees are what make the headlines it’s the player salary and on-costs (employer’s National Insurance Contributions, agent’s fee and so on) which is usually the larger number compared to the initial transfer fee.
It isn’t hard to see what happens if a club decides to live for the day and worry about tomorrow tomorrow. One word. Portsmouth. I’m at one with Gazidis on this issue. Clubs have to learn to run like grown-up businesses on the income they can generate from ticket sales, broadcasting, sponsorship and commercial activities. Gazidis brings a level of sophistication of approach that I’m convinced will show real hard cash benefits to the club in the coming seasons, way above what’s been invested in additional staff in this area. Whether I or the sceptics who think the increased staff costs will just be a drag on club financially, only time will tell.
One area where I’m not sure I completely agree with Gazidis is on the magnanimity of our current shareholders. Of the four current major shareholders, Danny Fiszman has already taken a huge capital gain on share sales to Stan Kroenke, Lady Nina Bracewell-Smith is anxious to cash out her holding in the club for the largest sum she can lay her hands on, Alisher Usmanov has invested something like £150 million in buying his near 27% stake in the club and Stan Kroenke himself has invested around £180 million in buying his near 30% stake and half of Arsenal Broadband Ltd.
Gazidis is right in saying none of the shareholders (of which I’m one) receive dividend payments. The club hasn’t paid a dividend since the early 1970s, nearly forty years now. Kroenke however is a businessman. He has no previous attachment or connection to Arsenal. Neither has Alisher Usmanov, also a billionaire businessman. Lady Nina Bracewell-Smith doesn’t appear to value her family’s three generation involvement with the club. If she did she wouldn’t be trying to cash out, surely? Danny Fiszman is as ever an enigma, but has demonstrated he’s not all averse to making a huge personal capital gain from his involvement with the club.
It is true that none of the senior shareholders has attempted to gain a return on their investment in the club’s shares by re-instituting an annual or occasional dividend payment (which was very modest in the case of Danny Fiszman, compared to huge profits he’s already taken from his two sales to Stan Kroenke) and non-existent in the case of Lady Nina Bracewell-Smith, who inherited her shares via her husband who in turn was left them in the will of Sir Bracewell Smith who left his Arsenal stake to his grandchildren.
In the case of three of the four senior shareholders however, two of them had no Arsenal connection whatsoever prior to buying into the club (Kroenke and Usmanov), and Lady Nina’s interest was that of the Bracewell-Smith family into which she married. It’s also worth noting that the balance of the Bracewell-Smith family, Richard and Clive Carr and Lady Sarah Phipps-Bagge had no difficulty in selling out their Arsenal shareholdings for a huge profit (they inherited their shares from Sir Bracewell-Smith).
I am concerned that all of the four senior shareholders are likely to do what’s in their narrow personal interest rather than the long-term interest of Arsenal.
The good news that Ivan Gazidis confirmed is that the club is backing the launch by AST of a supporter sharesave scheme. This will allow Gooners to invest sums as little as £20 a month in units of Arsenal shares. I think this is excellent news. Further details on exactly how this will work and how you can join will follow. I think there are no more secure hands for Arsenal ownership than us, the supporters.
Changing the subject, one poster to my blog on Monday night said that fans were now treated as sources of income to be milked rather than supporters, participants in a joint enterprise. I have a lot of sympathy with this view. The poster cited the ban on standing. Again I agree. If you do too, the Football Supporters’ Federation (FSF) campaigns on this and many other issues of concern to supporters.
That said, I don’t think any of the things that Gazidis said about continuing the Arsenalisation process at the ground and improving the level of service and involvement of supporters can be anything but good news.
We were made all kinds of promises when we moved from Highbury about a new era of quality and service in terms of food and drink at the ground. Tastings were even organised for supporter group representatives and fanzine people. The quality did improve a bit – from often awful to mediocre with a lot of marketing speak about “hand-crafted” pies and so on (hand-crafted, my rear end!). As far as the “choice” of beer, don’t make me laugh! John Smith’s bitter and Foster’s lager? Two bilious swills I wouldn’t try and foist on Spurs supporters.
I’m not a retail expert but the ability of the staff to serve supporters efficiently seems to be inhibited from my observation by the design of the kiosks. There isn’t room to swing a cat with staff having to squeeze past each other. The design appears to me to be a model of ergonomic inefficiency. The staff is often, how shall be say, less than motivated. I don’t blame them. I don’t imagine that their pay structure motivates them to extract their collective digit and get fans served quickly and efficiently.
We have a long term catering concession contract with American transnational venue caterer Delaware North. I can’t say that they’re providing any better service than our old caterers at Highbury, Letherby & Christopher (a subsidiary of the Compass Group). The quality has gone down as has the size of portions. The prices are astronomical. The service is miserable. We should look to how they do it in the big grounds in Germany. I’d say the Veltins Arena in Gelsenkirchen (home of Schalke 04) is a model in terms of price, service and quality.
Catering might be a minor point. I can’t comment on the catering in the Club zone as I’ve never experienced it. The catering in the upper and lower tiers leaves a LOT to be desired. An area we clearly where we’d all benefit from radical improvements. I simply won’t use the catering at the moment, other than for the odd Bovril.
Gazidis also referred to the current Ticket Exchange system. He said he was often embarrassed announcing a “crowd” of sixty thousand when there were clearly thousands of empty seats. There are lots and lots of ways that I think more supporters can be encouraged to use Ticket Exchange. One solution I DON’T want is to put this service in the hands of an agent like Viagogo. Such agencies are legalised ticket touts as far as I’m concerned. I hope that Gazidis will ask for constructive supporter input in this area.
The best way to fill all the seats is to be successful on the field though. That’s the big issue, along with upping the club’s commercial income to allow us to better compete. Chelsea and Manchester City will soon find their free-spending ways curbed somewhat by the new UEFA financial fair play regulations which will come into full effect in 2015. Manchester United and Liverpool are groaning under the weight of their debts and the money being extracted from those clubs by their owners. We’re also best placed of all the bigger clubs to comply with the new Premier League squad regulations coming in next season.
Gazidis is a gifted administrator and an articulate advocate of the Arsenal cause. So far so good for his reign as chief executive I’d say.
Keep the faith!
 

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