From America with love

Having spent many years avoiding the lure of the beautiful game and failing to notice the enormous profitability by investing in the game, American owners have, in recent years, finally wised up to smell the coffee and with it the sweet success of football, none more so than in the Barclays Premier League. American ownership of English football clubs, first pioneered by the Glazers takeover of Manchester United in May 2005, has become a common occurrence ever since, with Aston Villa under Randy Lerner and, most recently, Liverpool under John W. Henry, having followed suit. Nonetheless, whilst the dollar signs may be glowing in their eyes, American owners have received, especially in the case of Manchester United, a cold reception. Yet in Texan businessman Ellis Short, Sunderland have found themselves an American owner who has very much bucked the trend.

Whilst football or soccer is still an emerging game in America, having some way to go to catch up with America’s three main sports: American Football, Baseball and Basketball, American owners however, have come to take a significant interest in the round ball game. With the Glazers acting as the pacesetters, the chasing pack of American owners following behind have, in recent years, come to view expansion into English football as a potential benefit in two simple ways: firstly, to make money for themselves but secondly, to spread the name of their own franchises around the world – factors which potentially played a role in luring Lerner, Henry and Ellis to these shores. Indeed, with Henry now in charge of Liverpool – one yank following another – it now means that a fifth of the Barclays Premier League clubs are under American ownership.  Lest we forget Stan Kroenke, a major shareholder at Arsenal and owner of Major League Soccer side Colorado Rapids, who is currently involved in a tussle for outright ownership of the club with the Russian billionaire of Uzbek origin Alisher Usmanov. There’s no doubt that given the recent hype of activity by American owners in the game, there’s no reason to doubt that we will come to see the last of them any time soon. Whilst it is still early days for the Henry regime at Liverpool, the Glazers and to a certain extent Lerner, have stained their reputation as owners whether it be through not providing sufficient transfer funds or making reckless decisions at boardroom level. The relatively unknown Ellis Short however, has kept a low-profile since taking control of Sunderland in May 2009 and so far it’s working to his and Sunderland’s advantage.

So, I hear you say, what is there to know about this relatively unknown American. He’s an Irish-Texan businessman who first gained notoriety at Lone Star Funds, a private equity firm based in Dallas. Having developed a successful business acumen, Short’s interest in football gradually developed over time. He was not originally a member of the nine-man Drumaville Consortium, led by the former Sunderland and Republic of Ireland striker now chairman Niall Quinn, who purchased the club from former chairman Bob Murray for a mere £10 million back in 2006. Nonetheless, with the recession and Irish shares being hit particularly hard, Drumaville resorted to looking for new investment – this was to come in the form of Short himself. Having assumed full control of the club in May 2009, Short provided Sunderland with the immediate valuable stability which it so craved for as it attempted to consolidate its position in the Premier League. Since buying the club, Short has invested £100,000,000 into Sunderland – £77,000,000 of which has been invested into paying off the clubs debts. Most significantly for Sunderland fans, that £77,000,000 has been converted into shares – essentially meaning that the club owe their backer absolutely nothing. Nonetheless, away from the financial aspect of things, what Ellis has in common with Kroenke and Lerner, is that he is an intensely private individual not someone clamouring for media attention. When confirmation of his takeover emerged, a Sunderland spokesman stated “This is no Abramovich or Shinawatra [former chairman of Manchester City]. He loves the club and he can see that there is a sustainable plan, but he is happy to stay below the radar”. He has and continues to show his financial hand, without overstretching that hand, but more significantly he has a long term vision for the club – a vision most importantly shared by chairman, Niall Quinn.

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Since arriving at the Stadium of Light, Short has set about meticulously restructuring Sunderland, beginning with a review of the clubs academy; he has patiently worked his way up through the different echelons of the club. At boardroom level, Short has brought together a mix of football and endeavour – demonstrated by his faith in chairman, Niall Quinn. There’s no denying it – Quinn is the heart and soul of Sunderland and someone, who crucially, the fans can associate themselves with. In his critically acclaimed autobiography, Niall Quinn – The Autobiography, Quinn himself says “I learned my trade at Arsenal, became a footballer at Manchester City, but Sunderland got under my skin. I love Sunderland”. Alongside fellow striker Kevin Phillips, they formed one of the most prolific strike partnerships in the Premiership and Quinn went on to become a club legend, winning the North East Sportswriter’s Player of the Year Award in 1999. His association with the club has continued since then – off the pitch and in the boardroom. His successful takeover of the club in 2006 brought a new sense of optimism to the club – something which has continued under the Short regime.  Both men have a very good understanding of one another and recognize that in order to regenerate the club and surrounding area, investment is needed. Furthermore, unlike some chairmen, Quinn is not hamstrung by Short. The Texan does not interfere with any football decisions made, instead preferring to remain behind the scenes and providing the financial ammunition, leaving Quinn in charge of the day-to-day running of the club and calling the football shots. In that sense, he is the perfect owner – something which Sunderland fans can certainly brag about to their North East rivals.

Just like Short’s entrance into English Football, Sunderland’s rebuilding process has been low key but is slowly starting to pay dividends. As previously stated, Short has brought something which all Sunderland and furthermore English football clubs crave: financial and managerial stability. His charity in writing off loan repayments has put Sunderland on solid financial footing. Moreover, this has meant that the club have had the ability, within reason, to overspend and yet still not be in debt, that is unless Short walked away from the club – a highly unlikely scenario at this moment in time. Indeed, you only need to go back to the financial year to 31st July 2009 to realize just what a precarious situation Sunderland found themselves in. In that year, the club made a loss of £126,000,000 – 78% of their £64,400,000 turnover accounted for by the club’s wages. It was a financial situation akin to that which Portsmouth found themselves in and we all know what happened there. With the club’s financial stability secured, Short gave his full financial backing to Quinn, in the hope that Sunderland would achieve their goal of becoming a top ten Premier League Club. Since his time as a minority shareholder, he hasn’t been afraid to show his financial muscle. Under the Roy Keane era, Short invested more than £30,000,000 on transfers, bringing in the likes of Pascal Chimbonda, Anton Ferdinand and Steed Malbranque – only the latter has so far come close to repaying the transfer fee paid for him. Nonetheless, the very fact that Sunderland are debt-free has meant that the club has been allowed to money pay up front rather than in instalments for players like midfielder Lee Cattermole and defender Michael Turner. He acknowledges that Sunderland is a massive club and he will stop at nothing to ensure that the club gets to where it has to go, and in English manager and Geordie Steve Bruce, a man who knows all about Northern pride, the Black Cats posses a personality who is big enough to handle the pressure of taking the club forward.

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As things stand, the club lie in a healthy seventh position in the Barclays Premier League and the prospect of European football looms just around the corner for a club who were, a mere two years ago, staving off relegation. The club has seen a huge turnover of players in recent seasons, however Bruce has moulded a team together which reflects, to a certain extent, his own personality: one with grit, flair and determination. He has had to cope with losses, most recently with Darren Bent’s departure, albeit it for a club record fee of £24,000,000 to Aston Villa, but he has bought wisely with the money acquired, carrying on in the same vein as in his time at Wigan Athletic, and brought through players from the academy. Indeed, Bruce like Short and those around him are determined to get rid of the yo-yo tag which has, much like West Bromwich Albion, been attributed to the club in recent years, and instead focus upon climbing up the Barclays Premier League table. The blueprint for the club is straightforward enough: stay clear off relegation, establish the club within the top ten and consequently build upon that progress, secure itself financially, nurture home-grown talent, look no further than the highly sought after Jordan Henderson, cast its net further afield to try and attract the best talent from abroad, as seen most recently with the clubs record purchase of the Ghanaian striker Asamoah Gyan for around £13,000,000, and increase ticket sales and revenues. In the 49,000 capacity Stadium of Light, Sunderland boast one of the most recognisable landmarks in the North East and a stadium fit for Premier League let alone European football. Whilst the stadium is rarely sold out on a regular basis, despite the club putting forward some innovative pricing strategies, namely selling child tickets for just £1, attendances are strong. There’s no doubt that the infrastructure for the present and more importantly the future is there and underpinned by the unwavering support of the Sunderland faithful, the future looks to be a bright one for the Tyne and Wear outfit.

For Sunderland fans in particular, it is reassuring to know that the manager, chairman and owner are all singing from the very same hymn sheet. The club may still have some way to go if it is to be seen to be constantly challenging for European football but the transparent business model carefully crafted by Short and Quinn is both sensible and potentially profitable in future years to come. Perhaps Sunderland’s sound economic policy aimed at regenerating both the club and the city as one should be considered by more Barclays Premier League clubs so that we avoid witnessing the financial fiascos experienced in recent years by Portsmouth and West Ham United. Progressive, pragmatic and punctilious, Sunderland may have just uncovered another legend and his name is Ellis Short.