The Premier League, the highest echelon of English soccer, has never been bigger in the United States than it is right now. After this summer’s World Cup mania finally overtook native-born America, Manchester United, Chelsea, Tottenham, and Manchester City each went on sellout North American tours. It’s a cultural shift that’s all over Brooklyn, with its crowded soccer bars (Woodwork just opened in Prospect Heights) and weekend games in Prospect Park. Americans tend to see rooting for the U.K. Premier League as authentic; they like it for its parochialism, people caring so much about small towns in England. In actuality, they’re cheering on global brands. When the league was started in 1992, buoyed by Rupert Murdoch’s Sky TV premium channel, the plan was to sell it in untapped markets: the U.S., China, and much of the Far East. The plan has worked: Shirt sales in Singapore and Secaucus have gone through the roof.
Meanwhile, football in the U.K. is in crisis. Clubs used to be owned by local businessmen, owners of sporting-goods stores who wanted to give something back to their hometowns and, at the same time, swank around being a chairman. Now many of the oldest clubs in England are foreign owned. (There is only one sports team in America owned by a foreigner; Mikhail Prokhorov bought control of the New Jersey Nets. If the uproar over the ground-zero mosque shocked you, imagine if a sheikh bought the Yankees.) Russian and Arab billionaires own Chelsea and Manchester City, respectively. There have been rumors that Jay-Z himself is interested in buying into Arsenal. Premier League ownership is attractive because, unlike in the NFL, where there is a socialistic insistence on parity and revenue sharing, the teams are unregulated. If you turn a profit, you keep it.
In England’s North West, two of the country’s most famous clubs were bought by American sports businessmen. The Glazer family, owners of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, also own Manchester United, and Tom Hicks, former owner of the Texas Rangers, bought Liverpool Football Club with George Gillett, who owned the Montreal Canadiens until last year.
Both clubs were purchased via the leveraged buyout. (A quick explanation: Borrow the money to buy the thing against the value of the thing being bought, then load the debt incurred onto the thing itself.) The once-profitable Manchester United is now saddled with an estimated Ł800 million debt. Manchester United is valuable enough and profitable enough to, at least for now, keep servicing that debt. Liverpool, on the other hand, is not.
Last week, the sports pages in England were filled with a battle being waged in the high courts for ownership of Liverpool. On one side were Hicks and Gillett. On the other, John Henry, owner of the Boston Red Sox. Despite the fact that away fans at Anfield, Liverpool’s home ground, like to chant “USA, USA, USA” mockingly, there were no English bids. But for Americans who favor the Premier League for the same reasons they favor Carroll Gardens, who wear their replica shirts, eat their full English breakfasts, have a pint early on a Saturday morning, and are full of contempt for the casual fan who only knows Cristiano Ronaldo and calls the Champions League the Euro Cup, that irony is lost.