The Directors Box in London's Emirates Stadium gives new zest to the phrase luxury suite. Arriving on a private elevator, guests are greeted by an attractive hostess, shown to tables with floral centerpieces in the opposing team's colors, and seated in chairs upholstered in leather that has been dyed Arsenal red and embossed with the club's logo. They eat smoked fish imported from Scandinavia, burrata cheese from Italy and lamb from the British countryside, all washed down with champagne from France. As the Gunners' players and 60,000-plus fans, most swaddled in red scarves, brave a cold, rainy, heartlessly gray afternoon, the denizens of the Directors Box bask in warmth, comfort and conviviality.
This is an article from the Nov. 19, 2012 issue
The received wisdom that soccer truly is the world's sport is confirmed by the cast of characters in the box. British dignitaries mingle with soccer royalty. Sir Alex Ferguson, the manager of Manchester United, sits at a back table. A mere half hour before the English Premier League match between Arsenal and Queens Park Rangers kicks off, the Gunners' own manager, Ars√®ne Wenger, a mystical Frenchman, makes an appearance, shaking hands with other guests, who include a marketing executive from Dubai, a knot of Russian businessmen and, improbably, DeMaurice Smith, head of the NFL Players Association. As if the theme of globalization and multinationalism needed further reinforcement, LED screens ringing the perimeter of the pitch flash a team diversity initiative, ARSENAL FOR EVERYONE, translated into various languages—Hebrew, Arabic and Korean among them.
As the game is about to start, the most important figure in this international barony walks through the suite doors: a lean man wearing a gray pinstripe suit that looks to be flannel, a white shirt, a solid black tie and cowboy boots, his ruddy face set off by a caterpillar of a mustache. His entrance could scarcely be less conspicuous—he's talking quietly to another man, who turns out to be his son—yet it causes an immediate drop in ambient volume. Enos Stanley Kroenke, a 65-year-old son of Mora, Mo. (pop. 491)—"The Ozark/Osage region," according to him; "about 16 miles south of Sedalia," according to Wikipedia—has arrived, bearing a complement of toothpicks in his breast pocket.
Kroenke soon grabs a black Nike ski parka and ventures onto the exposed terrace, where he can better concentrate on the game. His hands forming a tepee on his lips, he surveys the field. As he genially explains the sport's subtle charms to a soccer neophyte seated to his right, his green eyes remain fixed on the pitch. When Arsenal misses a scoring opportunity he recoils, smacks his palms together and arches his back. When the Gunners intercept a pass and transition deftly from defense to offense, he nods approvingly. When the officials miss an obvious QPR foul, he mutters, "My, oh my, oh my." When, an hour into the game, the score remains nil-nil, he says firmly, if to no one in particular, "Time to score some goals, guys."
The crowd has been expressing that sentiment with significantly more gusto, standing, groaning, imploring, imprecating, belting out full-throated cheers. These, after all, are some of Britain's—and the world's—most demanding supporters, fanatically devoted to a club whose London roots go back to 1886. Yet Kroenke is singularly entitled to make the request. Last year he added another $370 million to an initial investment in the club of $80 million to obtain a majority interest that now stands at more than two thirds.
Kroenke, in fact, already had more skin in the sports game—more assets invested, more holdings, more major franchises—than anyone else on the planet. This unassuming, private man from the guts of America, with a Midwestern drawl, also owns the NFL's St. Louis Rams; the NBA's Denver Nuggets; the NHL's Colorado Avalanche; the Pepsi Center, where the Nuggets and the Avalanche play; the Colorado Rapids of MLS, as well as their stadium; the National Lacrosse League's Colorado Mammoth; and Altitude Sports and Entertainment, a regional sports network. (To comply with NFL cross-ownership rules, after purchasing the Rams, Kroenke handed day-to-day control of the Nuggets to his 32-year-old son, Josh.)
Inasmuch as money is power, Kroenke is sport's ultimate kingpin, with holdings approaching $4 billion. But with Arsenal, the quintessentially American owner has inherited a legion of hard-to-please, quintessentially English subjects whose affection for him depends on how willing he is to spread around his spectacular wealth.
Today more than ever, the owners of sports franchises are an assortment of oddballs worthy of the Star Wars bar scene. There are Russian oligarchs and oil-rich sheikhs and hedge-fund arrivistes. (And that's just in the Premier League.) There are Jerry Jones, Mark Cuban and Nolan Ryan. (And that's just in Dallas--Fort Worth.) Their motivations vary with their personalities. To some, owning a team is a way of carrying out a civic good; to others, it's a way to gain entrée into the jock clique they couldn't penetrate in high school. To some, it's overseeing a public trust; to others it's owning the ultimate fantasy team. A recent TIME magazine article noted that among the inaugural Forbes 400 list in 1982, nine members owned pro sports teams; this year there were 32.
Kroenke is not only on the Forbes list but also in the highest quartile—No. 92, with an estimated net worth of $4 billion. Never heard of him? He's not bothered. Wouldn't recognize him on the street? So much the better. Haven't seen him quoted? That's because he seldom does interviews. Nor does he tweet. Someone once remarked that celebrities are as famous as they want to be. Same holds for owners of sports franchises. "I'm definitely not in this for recognition," Kroenke says, smiling.
Why is he in it? In a slow, rolling cadence, he says, "Sports are about these qualities of character: teamwork, perseverance, work ethic. These are universal values, and sports, at their best, promote these. [Sports] break barriers, they're embraced around the world, they bring communities together.... I can keep going if you want."
The son of a lumberyard owner, Kroenke grew up in what was less a town than a village, two hours southeast of Kansas City. "I know this will sound corny," he says, smiling at a memory and causing that formidable mustache to curl up, "but I really walked to a one-room schoolhouse, two and a half miles each way." He played most sports as a kid, once putting up a record 33 points in a Cole Camp High basketball game. Attending Missouri on an academic scholarship, he spent much of his time running a clothing business that he describes as a precursor to The Gap. ("Sold it for a pretty good profit too," he says.) Kroenke stayed in Columbia to get his MBA and fell hard for a class in international business: establishing trade partners beyond borders; finding new market opportunities; hedging against currency fluctuations. There was one problem. "It was the only international business course they offered," he says. "Isn't that something?"
Around that time Kroenke took a ski trip to Aspen and met another Missourian, Ann Walton. They began dating, and on breaks from school he would visit her family, often hunting with her father, Bud, and her uncle Sam. Kroenke would ask them about their business, a chain of large retail stores they called Walmart.
Stan married Ann in 1974 and began a career in real estate development. He and his partners bought and cleared land for apartment complexes and strip malls and gas stations. Though Kroenke's associates stress that his success was independent of his wife's family, his company also developed malls anchored by Walmart. In 1991, Kroenke founded THF Realty in St. Louis. The acronym stood for To Have Fun, but it also made money; according to THF's website, it's a $2 billion company with properties in 18 states.
Make no mistake: Kroenke enjoys the trappings of wealth. He and Ann own a yacht and a jet. His Napa vineyard, Screaming Eagle, sells mostly cabernet sauvignon, some of which retails for more than $1,000 a bottle. He owns the largest working ranch in Canada, in British Columbia, as well as a 540,000-acre spread in Wyoming. Both properties turn a profit. Last year he and Ann bought one of the most expensive homes ever sold in Aspen. In Denver, Stan usually stays in a deluxe penthouse attached to the Pepsi Center. There's also a seven-bedroom Tuscan-style villa in Malibu that he bought from the estate of Dodi Fayed, the gentleman friend of Princess Diana.
That said, Kroenke takes pains to conceal his fortune. Pointedly, Stan and Ann are listed separately on the Forbes list. (She's worth $4.5 billion in her own right.) Their children—Whitney, 35, and Josh—went to public school in Columbia. When Josh played basketball at Missouri, he lived in modest housing with a teammate, Kareem Rush.
Those in his orbit invariably have a story about how Stan—always Stan, never Mr. Kroenke—lacks arrogance or ego or look-at-me sensibilities. Talk about him with anyone in his circle and the words grounded and humble and normal are in heavy rotation. "Stan's just this modest Midwest guy," says his friend Jon Sundvold, a former Missouri and NBA player. "He'll meet people and only later will they learn that he owns all these sports teams." Two years ago, when The New York Times published a front-page article about Kroenke, he and Ann were vacationing at the Canyon Ranch resort in Arizona with friends: sportscaster Al Michaels, former Rams executive John Shaw and their wives. "I'm at breakfast reading this story about the guy sitting across the table from me," Michaels recalls. "No big deal. Stan was more interested in where we were going to go hiking that day."
Kroenke still shoots the J, hikes mountains and squeezes in frequent early-morning workouts with Nuggets strength coach Steve Hess; he can bench-press 225 pounds 12 times. A few years ago, as the NBA team was evaluating draft prospects, a rumor rocketed around the Pepsi Center that the owner's percentage of body fat was lower than that of most of the players under consideration. Kroenke prefers buffalo meat to steak, eats a lot of fish and claims that the last time he got sick was in 2001. "And I could swear," he says, "that it came from drinking out of the Stanley Cup."
Earlier this year Jeff Fisher flew to Denver to interview for the St. Louis coaching job with Kroenke and the Rams' chief operating officer, Kevin Demoff. At one point Kroenke suggested that they take a lunch break—at Denver's oldest bar. "I'm thinking, We're selling Jeff Fisher on this global sports empire, and we're eating bison burgers and fries off paper towels?" recalls Demoff.
Fisher's take: "I'm thinking, That's the kind of guy I want to work for."
Kroenke's friends had long suggested that he buy a sports team. Lord knows, he had the wealth, and Lord knows, he liked the core product, but he wasn't going to own a franchise just for the sake of it. For all the great values Kroenke finds in sports, he's not drawn to money-losing propositions. In 1993 he looked into bringing an NFL expansion team to St. Louis, which was still smarting from the Cardinals' decamping to Arizona in '88. Though the new organization was awarded to Jacksonville instead, two years later Kroenke helped grease the skids for the Rams' relocation from Los Angeles, buying 40% of the team for a reported $80 million on the express condition the team move to Missouri. Within five seasons the Rams were Super Bowl champions. (In 2010, Kroenke bought the remaining 60% from the heirs of Georgia Frontiere for $450 million.)
Kroenke's next foray into sports ownership came in 2000. After a number of offers fell through—including one launched by his brother-in-law Bill Laurie, husband of Ann's sister, Nancy—he bought the Nuggets, the Avalanche and their arena for $404 million, using only private funds. A year later the Avalanche won the Stanley Cup.
Never, though, did Kroenke interfere in matters of team strategy or personnel. In both the NBA and the NFL offices, he is regarded as a solid and conscientious partner, a good corporate citizen, easy to work with and easy to find. At league board meetings he does not seek an active role in shaping policy. Though he still considers himself principally a real estate developer, he is a regular (if inconspicuous) presence at the games of his teams, the Nuggets and the Rams in particular. Tellingly, his clubs tend to operate safely under the salary cap—the Avalanche have one of the NHL's lowest payrolls—but Fisher and the Nuggets' George Karl are among the best-paid coaches in their leagues.
"He's not a guy telling the coach whom to play," says Arsenal chief executive Ivan Gazidis. "He's not a self-promoter." Players say he's not often in the locker room. When they see him, the conversations often have little to do with the game. "He had a great personality, he was very versatile, he could talk to you about anything," says former Nuggets center Marcus Camby.
After basketball and hockey, Kroenke turned his attention to soccer, one of the few sports he didn't play as a kid. "We just didn't have it," he says. But Josh was a serious winger until his mid-teens, traveling all over the Midwest for soccer tournaments before committing himself full-time to basketball. In 2004, Kroenke bought the Rapids from Philip Anschutz, the reclusive Denver-based billionaire who had almost single-handedly propped up MLS in its early years.
One of Kroenke's first decisions as owner of the Rapids was to buy land and build a soccer-specific stadium, Dick's Sporting Goods Park. This is one of his signature business moves. Kroenke prefers to own the venues where his teams play. "The real estate—we call it the dirt—is what makes it all possible," says an employee of Kroenke Sports & Entertainment (KSE), the company that officially owns the Denver sports properties. "If the NBA stopped operating tomorrow, [Kroenke] would still own a big piece of real estate in downtown Denver."
Kroenke also runs his franchises, like, well, self-sustaining businesses. His teams carry little or no debt, while he withdraws virtually no money from them. Shortly after buying the Colorado teams, Kroenke wondered, Why stop at just owning the venue? So he launched Tickethorse, which would become the ticket vendor for all the Kroenke-owned teams and venues. And why cut a broadcast deal with a local media company when he could simply start his own? So he launched Altitude, then Altitude Authentics, which sells branded jerseys and team gear. "A lot of people in sports have watched his business models," says one NBA executive. "If Stan were in New York or L.A., everyone would know him as this sports visionary."
Kroenke also looked at how his teams and properties could work together. So it was that Altitude began producing the Rams' preseason games; the Rapids' staff makes an annual trip to visit the Arsenal coaches; Avalanche tickets are available for purchase at Nuggets games; trainers and facility managers from his various teams discuss best practices; and back-office staff works with multiple teams. When, for instance, a labor dispute threatens the season of the hockey team, the ticket office can sell seats to the NBA and lacrosse games.
This kind of sensible, efficient use of resources—vertical and horizontal integration, the MBA crowd would call it—doesn't get you notoriety the way calling plays and incessant tweeting do. But it makes for good business. Kroenke points out that he's never sold a team, a polite way of saying that it's a fool's errand to try to put a valuation on his sports properties. But suffice it to say that his investments have done well. If there's social value in sports for Kroenke, so too is there economic value. His share of Arsenal is worth more than $1 billion, as is the package of the Nuggets, the Avalanche and the Pepsi Center. The Rams could be worth close to $1 billion. Then there's the MLS team and its facility, together worth about $150 million; the sports network, as much as $300 million; the lacrosse club and the ticketing company. "Put it this way," says Demoff. "When you own an NFL team and it's not even the crown jewel, fiscally, of your sports empire, that's saying something."
"[Kroenke is] certainly not owning for the consumption value—ego and psychological benefits," says Scott Rosner, assistant professor of sports business at Wharton. "I think of [him] as someone who owns for the financial benefits—operating profits and capital appreciation of the various assets—and there's absolutely nothing wrong with it."
Or is there? The former MBA student drawn to international business saw the Premier League as precisely the kind of enterprise that would benefit from the dual revolutions of technology and globalization. He claims the light bulb was illuminated during a trip to Hong Kong about 10 years ago. "I walk up to a newsstand on the waterfront, pick up a magazine, and it's all about the English Premier League," he says. "Maybe we have something here."
In 2007, Kroenke began buying shares in Arsenal, a publicly held team sometimes compared, albeit imperfectly, to the Green Bay Packers. There was a lot about it to recommend. The London club had a wealth of tradition and loyal supporters but hadn't come close to tapping international revenue streams. Kroenke could keep his customary low profile and gradually build up his holding. Naturally the club owned its venue—its old stadium, Highbury, had been converted into flats to help pay for the new one.
In part because of reflexive jingoism and in part because other U.S. owners had recently mismanaged Premier League teams, Kroenke got a chilly reception at first. As Arsenal's chairman, Peter Hill-Wood, memorably said at the time, "Call me old-fashioned, but we don't need his money and we don't want his sort." But Kroenke upped his stake, making no attempt to change the board's composition and issuing few public statements.
In the U.S., most fans can abide the notion of owners making a profit, so long as they field competitive teams. Which isn't hard, given the mechanisms that promote parity. Revenue sharing bridges the divide between haves and have-nots. The draft operates as a sort of defibrillator paddle on despair, enabling the worst teams to upgrade talent and restore fan optimism. A salary cap and a punitive luxury tax exist to put a ceiling on labor costs. "The NFL has a salary cap, and look [how] it's flourished more than any league," Kroenke says. "There's a consistent quality product that people view in their communities as having a chance to compete and win every year. That's valuable."
In foreign markets it's different. One of the great ironies of sports: In Europe—home to abundant social programs, universal health care and protective tariffs—professional sports can be expressions of ruthless capitalism. In the Premiership, teams at the bottom of the league aren't rescued; they're relegated to lower leagues, testing fans' loyalty and sometimes devastating club values. There's no draft; each team is on its own to scout, identify and sign talent.
Most important, there's no limit on spending. A tycoon willing to pay players salaries that mock the market rates is free to do so. Abu Dhabi's Sheikh Mansour Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the owner of Manchester City, was willing to take a $300 million loss in 2011—loose change to a man worth tens of billions—and there was nothing to stop him.
What does Kroenke, the value investor who picked up some of his business acumen at the knees of the Walmart founders, think of treating a team as an expensive toy? He chooses his words with caution. "That's not a viable long-term kind of thing," he says. "It's bad for the fans. You want to win, and that's most important, but I wouldn't do it just for a social hobby."
Gazidis is more forceful. Kroenke's right-hand man at Arsenal has been an outspoken supporter of UEFA's proposed Financial Fair Play regulations, which would curb salaries and might go as far as to disqualify teams from competition for reckless spending. Just last week representatives from the 20 Premier League clubs discussed "wage restraint" under which payrolls wouldn't be allowed climb more than 5% annually. Says Gazidis, "An endless cycle of spending is not the solution. It doesn't answer anything, because there is always somebody else prepared to lose more money than you, and that can't be what football is about."
For some Arsenal fans, though, the line between value conscious and cheap begins to blur. They are impatient more than seven years after their last trophy, the 2005 FA Cup. They are upset that the club has the highest average season-ticket price in the league. They see the flamboyant, free-spending owners of other teams. They see Arsenal selling three of its stars—two to Premier League rivals—in the last two years and falling so far in the standings that at week's end they were in eighth place. They see Kroenke's understated and measured approach. And the comparison isn't always flattering.
Novelist Nick Hornby is perhaps the Gunners' most prominent supporter. Fever Pitch, his lyrical book about his relationship with the team, is selling strong 20 years after its release. He seldom misses games, but he is unsure what to make of the majority owner. "The weird thing about Kroenke is that no Arsenal fan has formed any impression of him whatsoever," Hornby says. "He doesn't say anything, and he apparently doesn't do anything. My kids, aged nine and eight, are huge Arsenal fans, but they wouldn't recognize Kroenke or understand what he had to do with them. They would, however, be able to recognize and name Roman Abramovich, the Chelsea owner. But then he never misses a game."
Discontent with Arsenal's low-profile U.S. owner hasn't reached the level that Manchester United fans recently felt with the Florida-based Glazer family. Several years ago fans were so incensed by the debt the Glazers took on to purchase the club that they organized regular protests, turning up late for games and wearing scarves of green-and-gold, the club's colors long before it was "tainted by irresponsible overseas owners," as one radio commentator put it.
Still, concern over frugal spending erupted last month at Arsenal's AGM (annual general meeting), a cross between a shareholders' meeting and a team message board come to life. Fans gathered in a conference room at Emirates Stadium to air their grievances. The team executives, including Gazidis, Wenger and Kroenke, sat up front and were peppered with complaints about everything from Arsenal's failure to retain Dutch star Robin Van Persie to the price of fish and chips at concession stands (roughly $22).
Finally Kroenke spoke. "I have never put debt on the club, I have never said that any money wasn't available," he said. "My one regret with Arsenal was that I didn't get involved earlier.... I am ambitious for the club. We have an exciting future, and our goal is to win trophies." Awkward doesn't begin to express the depth of unease in the room.
Owning a Premier League team means often coming in for more criticism and public scrutiny than one does as an owner in the U.S. On the other hand the Premiership's unfettered economic model offers opportunities that don't yet exist for U.S. franchises. Teams can sell corporate logos on their jerseys. (FLY EMIRATES is splayed on the front of Arsenal's kit.) Teams can tour internationally in the off-season. For $2.50, fans can buy a one-day pass from the team's website to watch premium highlights. On the same website, the Gunnersgaming tab enables fans to place bets on a game. "You don't invest in businesses you think are moving backward," Kroenke says unapologetically. "I believe in the future of sports, and I believe in the future of this sport."
On Oct. 27 NBC Universal announced that it was paying $250 million to air Premier League games in the U.S. over the next three seasons, more than triple the value of the previous U.S. television rights deal.
Arsenal beats QPR 1--0, and 24 hours later Kroenke is in another luxury suite watching another of his teams. The Rams have come to London to play the Patriots at Wembley Stadium. Before kickoff Kroenke makes his way past the hors d'oeuvres table and through the sliding doors and finds a seat on the aisle, next to Josh.
When St. Louis scores on its first possession, Stan high-fives a dozen or so team execs and personal friends who have joined him on the trip. When the Rams are then outscored 45--0, Kroenke is disappointed but not despondent, looking solemn but not exactly hurling crockery. At one point the Rams are flagged for pass interference, and Kroenke dashes into the suite to watch the replay on a large TV. "Good call, fair call," he mutters as he returns. He steps in again to have dinner with Josh.
In the third quarter Stan is asked about this irony: Sports' ultimate mogul is named for Enos Slaughter and Stan Musial and grew up listening to Cardinals games on the radio with his grandfather, but he owns no baseball team. There have been consistent pleas for him to buy the Rockies, but Kroenke has demurred. Earlier this year he tendered a bid to buy the Dodgers but lost out to Guggenheim Partners, which paid $2.15 billion, not only a sports-franchise record but nearly double the previous high mark, the $1.1 billion Steve Ross paid for the Dolphins in 2009. (A cynic might point out that the bidding war for the Dodgers did nothing to hurt the valuations of Kroenke's existing properties.) When is he buying a baseball team and hitting for the ownership cycle, as it were? Kroenke isn't biting. "Sometimes opportunities present themselves," he says. "If there are things we think we can do, we do them. But it has to make sense."
Kroenke's bid for the Dodgers did not go unnoticed in St. Louis, where the Rams are locked in a dispute with the St. Louis Convention and Visitors Commission over the state and lease of the team's stadium, the Edward Jones Dome. Under the lease's "first-tier standards," if the stadium is not among the NFL's top eight venues—and, incontestably, it is not—the Rams can relocate after the 2014 season. The Rams made a renovation proposal that would cost an estimated $700 million. The CVC's proposal comes to less than $200 million. An arbitrator will hear the matter in January, but if the Rams are free to leave, a return to their old home in L.A. is the obvious move.
Both sides have agreed not to speak publicly about the matter. Two years ago Kroenke put it this way to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch: "I'm born and raised in Missouri. I've been a Missourian for 60 years. People in our state know me. People know I can be trusted. People know I am an honorable guy." Multiple friends expressed doubt that he would move the team—especially if he didn't own its stadium in a new city.
Kroenke's friends, employees and confidants had warned that the man is relentlessly optimistic and doesn't "go negative." Don't look for him to speak ill of anyone, including former players, they said. Don't expect him to complain about luxury taxes or commissioners or the players' union—or Arsenal's insatiable fans. "You'll like him," said one friend. "But if you're expecting anything controversial, you got the wrong guy."
Sure enough, Kroenke deflects even the most remotely tendentious question and steers the conversation to a happier place. Which usually has something to do with all that is righteous and promising about sports. Arsenal has more than 11 million Facebook likes. Sports-themed video games give kids all over the world a chance to identify with players. It's never been easier to be an engaged fan, certainly more so than when Josh was growing up in the 1980s and '90s, and even more than during the childhood of the paterfamilias in the '50s.
Finally, the question is posed: Where, ultimately, is the industry going?
The world's leading investor in sports thinks about it, starts an answer and then restarts. He is reading Robert D. Kaplan's book The Revenge of Geography. Standing in a suite in London, 4,332 miles from Mora, Mo., Kroenke stares macroscopically at 84,000 fans, most of them Europeans, watching an NFL game. And he settles on this: "You know how they say, It's a small world? Well, the world is a big place too."