Brand awareness

There's a new man at the helm at Arsenal, and he's all the way from the US of A. Ian Plenderleith checks out Ivan Gazidis

Those questioning the appointment of Arsenal’s new chief executive Ivan Gazidis, who comes directly to the club from his post as Major League Soccer’s deputy commissioner, may see it as a risky move from a small-time league on a tight budget into the big-time world of football’s rich elite. Those who have seen Gazidis at work over the past decade will take the more generous view that Arsenal have landed an intelligent and articulate man largely responsible for steering MLS from near-bankruptcy to being an expanding, viable concern. With Arsenal at a crucial juncture both as a football club and a sports business, the steadily radical Gazidis could be the perfect fit.

The only man above Gazidis at MLS has been commissioner Don Garber, who readily admits he knew little about football when he joined the league in 1999 after 16 years in gridiron, and that he relied on Gazidis for guidance from day one. Garber is the league’s corporate front whose lack of feel for the game still comes across in every last hackneyed word of his mind-numbing, soulless interviews. Gazidis, by contrast, truly knows and loves football and has always been ready to engage in a refreshingly honest fashion with fans, critics and journalists on any aspect of how to improve MLS.

On the field, he oversaw the abolition of uniquely American gimmicks such as shootouts, overtime and the stopped clock, encouraged positive play and sought to clamp down on diving and touchline histrionics (something for him to discuss over a glass of wine with Arsène Wenger, no doubt). Off the field, he helped the league recover from a financial low in 2002 when it contracted from 12 to ten clubs, to the point where it will now be an 18-team league by 2011, with the majority of teams playing in their own stadiums.

Under his tenure, the league has massively increased its income from sponsorship, TV deals and start-up fees for new teams. While Gazidis acknowledges there are still a number of areas where MLS is far from perfect, especially in terms of entertainment, luring new fans and appealing to the Hispanic populace, the fact it still exists, and is expanding to boot, is largely down to his vision and know-how.

How will that work at Arsenal? He joins at a time when the club are rife with boardroom uncertainty over their future ownership following the ousting of Lady Nina Bracewell-Smith, the 15.9 per cent shareholder who was reportedly unhappy at Gazidis’s appointment (although no one seems to know why). There is also the matter of paying off the debts accrued from building the Emirates Stadium, with projected income from the Highbury flats falling thanks to the collapsing property market. All this coincides with a slump in form that has seen the team’s fixed qualification spot in the Champions League placed under threat for the first time in years.

“The way that Arsenal develops itself is very similar to MLS,” Gazidis said shortly after his appointment. “The club is run as a self-sustaining business and that’s very attractive to me philosophically.” Except that now, two major sources of income – the Highbury property development and the Champions League – are under threat, just as the team are suffering on the field and the fans are questioning more heavily than ever before Wenger’s policy of emphasising long-term youth development over headline signings.

The bad news for them is that Gazidis has always favoured a similar path for MLS, and is a strong admirer of the financial stability of the Bundesliga, where league rules prevent the rash and excessive spending that blights the Premier League. Although he has publicly defended the move that allowed MLS to sign David Beckham and other highly paid players, it’s one example of the US league reacting to public pressure that has not really succeeded, despite the short-term publicity and global exposure garnered from co-branding with the vacuous clothes-prop from Leytonstone. Overall cash gains from Beckham’s signing are unquantifiable, but the league has lost credibility at home from both his average performances and his preference for gadding off to Milan and the England subs’ bench.

It’s worth recalling that Gazidis turned down a similar job at Manchester City, where he would have overseen the dispensing of cash for big-name signings. It’s more than possible that the whole Beckham circus will have increased his distaste for that way of operating. At Arsenal, he will be working with a limited budget and with owners who at present have the footballing traditions of the team at heart. At the same time, he has proven himself a tough negotiator with the MLS Players’ Union, and has already announced that he will be reviewing Arsenal’s current sponsorship contracts, with a view to either renegotiating them or tearing them up.

He is a man who understands the economics of the game as well as he understands the game itself. If he can use his charisma to navigate the politics of the boardroom, his recruitment could turn out to be as significant for Arsenal as any midfield star signed during the transfer window.

From WSC 264 February 2009