The Importance of Being Right

Arsenal is the most financially responsible, intelligently run team in the English Premier League. Does this mean they can't win, too?
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There was a time, in sports, when winning was everything and Vince Lombardi would throw his hat Oddjob-style at anyone who argued otherwise. This is still pretty much that time, give or take changing trends in hat fashion.

But because we understand more about how sports work, as a business and a reflection of other non-sports aspects of the culture and a thing that causes head trauma and so on, we have gradually come to recognize that some things matter besides winning. We are, for instance, increasingly somewhat concerned about our athletes not dying shortly after retiring. And some parents and coaches—we can call them “the good ones” for short—stress to the youth that sports should be fun, and if you’re not having fun, then you’re not really “winning” in the most virtuous and valuable sense.

Most sports owners don’t care about their players having fun, or are mostly concerned with them not having too much of it. But they aren’t solely concerned about winning the game either. Every NFL owner wins thanks to the league’s insanely profitable television deal and (not at all socialistic) revenue sharing system. The Pirates have been winning for a decade without ever going above .500. This is to say that, for owners, if you’re not making money, then you’re not really winning; by the same token, winning games and losing money isn’t the sort of victory contemporary owners are pursuing. The exception to that philosophy, though, is vast and expensive and very popular all over the world. It’s European soccer, where perception matters more than consequences, and where almost no team makes money in its quest to win. Some of the best of these teams are losing such vast amounts of money as to make American Airlines look like Apple by comparison.

There is no citizen uprising on this front, unsurprisingly. There is nothing easier to ignore, from the perspective of a glorious present, than the speculative menace of an uncertain future. Manchester United is some $682 million in debt and recovering from an atrocious opening on the New York Stock Exchange, but still was able to scrape together $38 million to send to Arsenal in exchange for top striker Robin Van Persie. There’s no question that they’ll do it again when they next need a superstar—or want one for some vague but mostly acceptable reason—whatever their bank balance at the time. Irresponsible though that may seem, Manchester United isn’t the outlier, here. Arsenal, the team that just sold a major rival someone who is arguably the best player in the English Premier League, is.

Arsenal is the outlier because it has made a habit of being on the profitable end of these transactions; so much so that one has to wonder how much they really care about winning. Nothing is impeding Arsenal from being just like the rest, after all: spending, leveraging, running up debt and taking out mortgages like an Icelandic bank, in hopes of putting together a team whose brilliance almost justifies that irresponsibility. Yet Arsenal is not extravagant. The opposite of that, actually: you could say that they are devoted to a self-sustaining existence of Aristotelian dedication. You could also say, if you wanted to be more clear about it, that this rich, swaggering team that keeps on selling off its best players just has a different definition of “winning” than its peers.

***

Thanks in large part to their Frenchman “manager”—a manager in the way that Bill Belichick is just the Patriots “coach”—and former economist Arsene Wenger, Arsenal have a comparatively brief but well-documented history of selling their top talent with the cold acumen that’s to be expected from an economist, and which is simultaneously the opposite of fan-pleasing reasoning. Wenger sells when the profit margin on a deal looks largest. More importantly, though, he sells whenever the profit looks that way. Wenger is more Hayek than Keynes, with his vicious rationalism standing in contrast to the Keynesian emphasis on the importance of the near-term/now. That outlook, exemplified by Keynes’ infamous, if out-of-context, quip “in the long run, we’re all dead”, is an outlook more accurately attributed to buy-now-think-later clubs like Chelsea and Manchester City. Wenger, for his part, does his best to temper expectations, stressing the “ultimate prizes” of class, skill and beauty.

Which all sounds well and good and smart enough, if a bit abstract. It’s not a particularly fan-friendly abstraction, either: Arsenal loyalists don’t share in Arsenal’s continued strong financial profits; they do, however, share in the happiness that follows wins, and would quite understandably like more of that. Arsenal, after all, won three league championships in a six-year span under Wenger (1998-2004); fans, unsurprisingly, rather enjoyed it. Winning is something you can hurl in the face of Spurs supporters while hiding behind a shield of invincibility. If it isn’t everything, or The Only Thing, it is surely something.

This might not be cool, exactly, but it’s something. To the lowly hotel employee taking a hotel-sized check from Bruce Wayne so Batman’s bro-y alter ego can swim in the lobby fountain with his token supermodels, fiscal responsibility may not seem all that admirable or fun. When your fiercest rivals are purchasing your best players, fiscal responsibility looks even more feeble and less appealing. You want to be the one in the fountain, especially if you know how enjoyable it is to splash around in there. At that moment, it doesn’t seem to matter who will be wet and who cashes the check. Not having to worry about this is one of the great luxuries of being a fan.

Wenger doesn’t have this luxury, but he didn’t always need it. In his glory days, Wenger didn’t have to choose between profits and victories. In 1997, he bought Nicolas Anelka for ₤500,000 and two years later traded him to Real Madrid for a new ₤22.5 million training facility. In 2007, Wenger was named the most financially savvy manager in the Premier League, the only one to make a profit on player transfers over a four year span. “Le Professeur” has been valuing profits, soccer purism, and winning in equal measure as long as he’s been in North London; he has been the constant while others have adapted. All that success, naturally, did not make him popular.

Other clubs wanted to stop paying Wenger to be a glorified recruiter who could beat them in the process. As any good economist knows, comparative advantages never hold for very long. In the past few years, Wenger has been forced to choose between winning and selling. His choice was obvious in 2008 when he boasted (in what we can only assume was a gravelly, Bale-as-Batman voice) “I make success, I won’t buy it.” The integrity fairly jumps off the statement, at least until further examination. At which point something else resonates: is this really so irreducibly stark a binary? Is it even necessarily a choice?

***

There may or may not be an inherent tension in the separate goals of consistently profiting from player development and winning trophies. But considering Arsenal’s recent trophy draught and the league’s winners over that decade or so of soccer—an unbroken string of exuberant spending by oil-rich owner, extreme debt, exuberant spending by oil-rich owner, extreme debt and so on—it’s clear that something isn’t cooking right in the League. Irresponsibility can work well, for a while and in some cases, if it comes backstopped by the impunity of untouchable wealth, for a somewhat longer while. But in the long term that sort of ultra-leveraged approach simply doesn’t work, and can’t work. Consider the dismal fiscal state of other European leagues, or consider non-German European economies in general. The general impression is of a mountain of bricks suspended, implausibly, in the sky; it will tumble, it must tumble, and it will probably happen soon, but there those sky-bricks are, aloft, now.

Wenger hopes he has perched his club on a sturdy surface, and in a good spot; that is, that when those bricks fall, as they must, Arsenal will be safely out of the landing area, in a reinforced and tastefully designed bunker of its own design. This is thrift with a purpose, in other words, but also thrift dictated by a certain values-based approach and marked with a streak of puritanical belief: when these other teams crash out, crippled by debt, Arsenal will not only be the fiscal champion, but the moral champion; Wenger will not only be able to say that he won, but that he won the responsible way. He won with class, skill and beauty, the prizes above the prize itself. This is team management as practical theology.

But in Wenger’s quest to avoid the consequences of debt, he has discovered unexpected consequences of responsibility. A new identity is borne by and born into the players who are supposed to uphold an identity forged over decades. After seeing former-teammates depart for massive paydays, players refuse to sign lucrative contracts with Arsenal, knowing that a ludicrously large contract from another owner will invariably follow. Both sides get what they want: the player gets his extra $25,000 a week and Arsenal its large transfer fee, further supporting the development of 10 promising youth stars they can hope to flip—and, moreover, will have to flip—in a decade. The system works, to a point.

But only to a point, because the ones who don’t get what they want are the fans still clinging to their identity as winners, and left wondering when Wenger will make good on his promises of restored glory. If you can’t or won’t accept Wenger’s wager on the long-term, or simply value the pleasure of winning over the logic of profit, then you’re not winning with Arsenal. With the reliability of gravity, Arsenal fans wait for those other bricks to fall. They might get to win again, someday. Until then, winning can’t be everything. They have to settle for the cold comfort of being right.


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