BREAKINGVIEWS - Arsenal deal exposes unlevel U.S. sports field

Tue Apr 12, 2011 1:34pm IST

The crest of English Premier League soccer club Arsenal is seen in front of their home ground,  the Emirates Stadium, in London April 11, 2011. REUTERS/Chris Helgren

The crest of English Premier League soccer club Arsenal is seen in front of their home ground, the Emirates Stadium, in London April 11, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Chris Helgren

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-- The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own --

By Jeffrey Goldfarb

NEW YORK (Reuters Breakingviews) - The transatlantic playing field really is tilted. American billionaire Stan Kroenke is adding Arsenal to a portfolio that already includes U.S. basketball, football and hockey teams. The deal, which values the British soccer club at $1.2 billion, means half the 20-member Premier League will now be in foreign hands. By contrast, only a handful of the 122 major professional North American sports franchises have non-American owners.

Mikhail Prokhorov got the ball rolling. Russia's richest man agreed to buy the National Basketball Association's New Jersey Nets in September 2009, becoming the first foreigner, other than Canadians, to take control of a U.S. sports team in over 15 years.

U.S. teams have imported athletes rather than capital, but British soccer has embraced the whole global sports economy. Club owner meetings look like the United Nations. Among this year's top four in the Premier League alone, Kroenke joins fellow American Malcolm Glazer at Manchester United, Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich at Chelsea and a consortium fronted by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al-Nahyan of Abu Dhabi at Manchester City. Even U.S. basketball superstar LeBron James has a minority stake in Liverpool Football Club.

Part of the problem with investment coming the other way is the relatively provincial nature of American sports. Hockey, of the ice variety, has a following in Scandinavia, Russia and Eastern Europe but not in the biggest European economies. Outside the United States, interest in baseball is mostly limited to Hispanic nations and Japan, while American football, with its heavily-padded warriors and stop-and-start action, generally fails to travel.

Basketball has made the greatest strides exporting the game. But luring foreign capital into U.S. sports isn't just about feats of persuasion like getting wealthy cricket-lovers to enjoy baseball. American leagues require financial disclosure from would-be buyers and approval from existing owners. It's not a process many foreign billionaires want to endure.

Yet a recent sale of basketball's Golden State Warriors attracted some interest from Asia and wealth is growing in Latin America. Meanwhile, the dollar is weak and the United States a safe haven. It may not be long before more foreign ownership of U.S. teams becomes a slam dunk.

CONTEXT NEWS

-- U.S. sports tycoon Stan Kroenke agreed to buy Arsenal in a deal that values the British soccer club at about $1.2 billion. Kroenke, who owns the NBA's Denver Nuggets and the NHL's Colorado Avalanche, already has a 30 percent stake in Arsenal. His offer of 11,750 pounds a share secured the backing of two shareholders with a combined 32 percent of the club.

(Editing by Richard Beales and Martin Langfield)

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