By Tony Attwood
In case you don’t know the blog, The Swiss Ramble is a King among blogs. Blogger of the year, praised by the media, written by a British guy who has lived overseas for many years, everyone loves it and admires the erudition and research to be found therein.
So, first rule of blogging, you don’t criticise the Swiss Ramble, because this guy knows what he’s talking about. OK, I’d like to think Untold has done odds and ends he hasn’t (we created and expanded the ref previews and reviews for example, and I think we were on top economic form with our submission to the Commons Enquiry into football, oh and there was that analysis which proved exactly why England’s national team never wins anything), but generally you hand it to the guy.
And thus it was that when he does a massive analysis of Arsenal’s accounts one stops and takes notice. Indeed I got about 30 emails from different sources saying, “Tony have you seen this?” the moment his review was up. It was even circulating on the AISA Committee news group yesterday. This guy has an impact. Hell, I’m jealous.
But, as I read, I also pondered. The Swiss Ramble knows his economics, no doubt. He is thorough, and his reputation 100% deserved. But… could it be possible. Did he just make a mistake?
Could it be that while the Arsenal History Society was doing a communal dance in the streets of north London to celebrate the issue that the Arsenal FC accounts actually quoted one of our discoveries the Swiss Ramble had actually gone a little off beam?
Well, not exactly, but there is something that might be added to the inevitably excellent account.
Much of the Swiss Ramble on Arsenal accounts is a detailed look at the past year (naturally) and the question of why the financial figures are not so good as last year (plus an acknowledgement that next year will be fabulous in terms of accounts).
And there’s also some other looking into the future stuff too.
Now looking into the future is a mug’s game, as everyone who writes knows. It was fine in the old days before digital because you had to go to Colindale and study old newspapers if you wanted to point out that the journalist who said x is a plonker because y happened. Now everyone can catch you out by searching on Google.
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So if you do want to predict the future, you have to get your basics right. Imagine you had the job of improving traffic flow in your town centre. You could analyse the traffic flow as it stands and recommend two new roundabouts and a set of traffic lights, plus a one way street. Fine – but if you are good at your job you will then model what effect that will have on traffic flow elsewhere, to make sure that solving problem A doesn’t create problem B. Plus you will be taking into account the change in road usage in the area because of other factors (rise in car numbers, industrial decline etc).
And this is where I started to question Mr Ramble.
One issue that comes up here (as it does in many places) is that Arsenal’s marketing seems to be standing still while Man U are now selling the naming rights to their reserve stadium on the dark side of the moon. Not only is there a gap between the two, but it gets bigger every year.
Yes, the article says that Arsenal will start moving again, once they come out of the long term deals set up to help fund the Emirates Stadium, but that’s about it and the analysis makes two assumptions. One is that Man U’s growth with continue as before – which implies that the marketing opportunities for the side are infinite, or at least still have a huge distance to go. The other is that Arsenal’s growth will be small, because it has been small in the past.
I am not sure this is so. There is no real evidence that the Man U brand will grow forever, nor even for one more year. Nor that just because Arsenal have done little so far, they will continue so to do. More likely I would argue (if we are going to speculate) is that the Arsenal marketing team have appeared to be doing nothing because they have been setting up some fairly impressive deals which swing into force as the old deals come to an end – and no one has announced them yet.
There’s another point: Man U’s future. No club sits at the top forever, and although it seems odd now, Man U have, in my lifetime, explored the exciting domain of division 2. Rather like housing booms where one looks back five years on and says, “They paid £1m for that!?!?!” so I wonder if in five years we will be laughing ourselves silly at any company sponsoring the training kit. More likely than not, I would say.
So that’s my first concern – that the way the market in football marketing has gone in the past is not a model for how it will go in the future – but I have some other little issues too.
Mr Ramble does suggest at one point that Arsenal might “Offload under-achieving players, even if they are sold cheaply or given away, in order to have some room to manoeuvre in the wage bill.”
True, its an option. But so is Bentalisation. That word came from the situation in which Tottenham signed ex-Arsenal player David Bentley at the age of 23, from Blackburn Rovers for £15m plus extras. Quite a chunk of that found its way to Arsenal due to an earlier sell-on clause.
Yes, when some players just fail to make the grade and walk away to the lower leagues, Arsenal get nothing and their investment is lost. But when the player is good, but not willing to wait, or not quite good enough, then there is good money to be had in sell on fees. All that stuff that Mr Wenger does in which he looks like he is desperate to keep the player is often an act. He’s upping the price, and most importantly upping the sell-on clause. “I believe in this player and don’t want him to leave” is in fact “OK you can have him, but Arsenal get 35% of his sell on”. It is a lucrative market in itself, and although I don’t have the figures (Arsenal don’t reveal them) I think it is a significant part of the money rolling in.
In fact, it could be possible to make the youth development programme self-funding, so that Arsenal pick the very best (Jack and Frimpong are the obvious most recent example) and get sell-on money from the others, all for a much lower investment that one might imagine.
Which is why I wonder about Mr Ramble’s comment “Rebuild the famous scouting network. It seems like ages since they beat other clubs to the best talent worldwide.”
Well, there’s one or two around – like Campbell this summer (getting superb reviews with Lorient and only on loan because of the passport), like Ryo who had great fun in the summer games and is having a jolly time in the reserves getting ready to appear (and who did get his work permit), The Ox, who I believe scored 3 for the under 21s last night (although curiously the Guardian carries no mention of the game – so maybe I invented that one), Ignasi Miquel, Francis Coquelin who we have had since the age of 15 or so, Gibbs, Frimpong (yes what about Frimpong) and that regular stream of 16 year olds we rather wonderfully nick from Barca. And I mean what about Alex “He’s not fit to wear the shirt” (as the AAA sang a few years back) Song. Doesn’t he count?
There’s one final point that I think might have been missed, and that is digital. It is an area which I am not an expert on, in any regard. But I try and stay up, and as I do I keep reading things about Mr Kronke and the Arsenal investment in digital. Again it might look as if we are way behind, not having our own channel on the BSB system. And yet, I wonder if these various deals I see going through are not part of a scheme… Even on the day when I got my interview with Mr Gazidis to talk about the Arsenal History Project (which you’ll recall finally got recognised in the accounts) Mr G. moved on from talking to me for an hour to yet another digital deal signed.
And I believe in our future, you see, because for all the bumbling and seeming failure of our marketing department, for all the non-development of our digital platform, and for the fact that we are currently in the lower portions of the league, there is still one little factor.
Arsenal built the Emirates. It is a fabulous stadium (just ask anyone who does away games). Compare it to Man U (bigger but with vertigo, and far less leg room, and awful catering), Chelsea, Man City (smaller and just far less comfortable or grand), Tottenham (allegations of bribes from Boris, legal cases, funding issues, still no development), Liverpool (oh God), Everton (endless attacks on the council – no wonder they can’t get planning permission)…
The Emirates was built on time and to budget in an era when that never happens, it is a huge success, it kept us at our spiritual home, and it is fully sold out for most games. Now the one and only club able to do that in the modern era can’t have lost all that ability in one go, can it?
Which is where I came in. In looking at the future, one must look at all sorts of things, not just having more of the same in the past. But yes, looking at the past is also an indicator. Mr Dein was opposed to building the Emirates, and so he left – and others did it, and did it brilliantly. That team has in part moved on, but the club is still there, and the club that undertook the most brilliant football building project of modern time is still there. You can argue that Arsenal have lost that ability to develop, but I think the argument itself has to be more explicit. No, for me, the future is not one of stagnation, either in terms of the youth development scheme or the business model.
For once, and I say this with the utmost caution, and with a huge amount of respect for the blogger (how I wish I could write like him!) I think Swiss Ramble has got it slightly wrong.
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