Arsenal takeover war won't ensure signings

LONDON - Two billionaires are battling for control of Arsenal, pouring money into the Premier League club, but fans hoping some of the cash will be spent on new players are likely to be disappointed, at least in the short term.

The English club's young team have been hit by an injury crisis over the last two months, have won no major honours for five years, and their French coach, Arsene Wenger, has pledged to reinforce his squad with new signings in January.

Just a fraction of the fortune being invested by American real estate and sports entrepreneur Stan Kroenke and Uzbek-born metals oligarch Alisher Usmanov would allow the club to outbid almost all their rivals in the Premier League for new talent.

But the capital locked into north London's football cold war cannot be spent until one party gains a decisive advantage or decides to sell, and there is no sign that either is imminent.

"The battle for control at Arsenal looks like a standoff, with neither side able to land a knockout blow or apparently willing to withdraw," said Keith Harris, head of investment bank Seymour Pierce and former chairman of England's Football League.

"There might well be no resolution for some time to come."

The battle has been under way since August 2007 when former vice-chairman David Dein sold his shares to Usmanov. The Russian has gradually increased his stake and his investment vehicle, Red & White Holdings, said last week it owned over 26 percent of the club worth around 146 million pounds.

Kroenke, known as "Silent Stan", became the biggest shareholder in Arsenal in May and now has 29.9 percent of the 123-year-old club, worth 168 million pounds.


That is just shy of the 30 percent threshold at which Kroenke would be forced to make a mandatory takeover offer.

With his substantial stake, Kroenke is in pole position to make a takeover bid, but bankers and analysts say he is unlikely to launch one for several months and may, in fact, never do so.

"I can't believe a takeover will come within 18 months - and certainly not before May," said Tom Cannon, professor of Strategic Development at Liverpool University Management School.

Whatever his long-term plans for the club, Kroenke is unlikely to want to make any move above 30 percent before May because UK rules say mandatory takeover offers must be at the highest price paid in the previous 12 months.

Kroenke, 62, announced in May he had paid 10,500 pounds each for shares - 1,500 pounds above the current market.

Glyn Taylor, chairman of the Arsenal Supporters Trust, whose members control several dozen small shareholdings totalling 2-3 percent of Arsenal, said Kroenke had little reason to bid.

"We don't see why Kroenke would make a takeover at this juncture because he is quite comfortable where he is already."

When Kroenke first appeared at what has been one of the most traditional and conservative of English clubs, chairman Peter Hill-Wood declared that he "didn't want his sort" in football.

But Hill-Wood changed his tune last year and has since suggested he would favour Kroenke as an owner. With his support, and the backing of diamond trader Danny Fiszman, who owns 16 percent of the club, Kroenke already has huge influence.

Kroenke is on the board as a director, owns 50 percent of Arsenal Broadband and has a strategic partnership with Arsenal through his Colorado Rapids soccer team in his U.S. base.


His Russian rival Usmanov, 56, with a fortune of $1.6 billion in natural gas and steel according to Forbes, might want to launch a takeover bid, but he faces significant obstacles.

Not on the board and opposed by Kroenke and Fiszman, Usmanov would need support from the only other large shareholder - the family of Lady Nina Bracewell-Smith, which owns about 16 percent and has been associated with Arsenal for more than 70 years.

"Usmanov would like to take over, but can't," said Cannon.

In a bid to unlock the stand-off, Usmanov this year proposed a rights issue to reduce the club's 440 million pounds debt taken on to build its Emirates stadium.

The rights proposal, rejected by the board, would almost certainly have squeezed out many of the smaller shareholders and pushed both Kroenke and Usmanov well over 30 percent, but it still would not have given either full control.

"Arsenal are probably the only club with a share price that would allow a rights issue to remove all the debt," said Cannon.

But without a rights issue, or the exit of a shareholder, Usmanov can do little and Kroenke is in the driving seat.

Kroenke's track record suggests he won't shake up Arsenal, at least in the short-term. His changes at his other sporting clubs, which include the St. Louis Rams NFL team and the Denver Nuggets of the NBA, have mostly been modest.

He is also unlikely to follow the example of the U.S. Glazer family who bought Manchester United, or Americans Tom Hicks and George Gillett at Liverpool, and weigh down the club with debt.

Married to Ann Walton, an heir to the Wal-Mart fortune, Kroenke is estimated to be worth up to $3.5 billion and is seen by U.S. bankers as having "an exceptional balance sheet".

"Stan is a person who keeps his cards close to his vest," said Marc Ganis, president of Chicago-based firm SportsCorp, but added he "does not have a reputation for irrational exuberance when it comes to spending money on players".

A U.S. banker who has helped finance other Premier League takeovers said Kroenke was "a long-term investor" who saw opportunities to make money from broadcasting and marketing but would not want to change the fundamental ethos of Arsenal.

Wenger is Arsenal's most successful manager and its most influential figure since Herbert Chapman, manager in the 1930s.

"If you are buying Arsenal today, you are buying into Arsene Wenger. I don't think there would be a lot of changes," the banker said speaking on condition of anonymity.

"If Stan Kroenke controlled Arsenal, any fans expecting him to spend zillions of pounds on players would be disappointed."