Stan Kroenke's American success should give hope to Gunners fans

April 12, 2011 - 0:0

Who is Stan Kroenke, where does his money come from, and what changes will he make at Arsenal? Jeremy Wilson travelled to Denver last January to find out.

We are in a remote northern suburb of Denver, a city that is exactly one mile above sea-level, and rather less famously, precisely 4,683 miles from the Emirates Stadium.
It is a part of America’s mid-west that is better known for skiing than football yet, since 2004, it has also been the home of the Colorado Rapids, one of seven sports teams that Stan Kroenke either owns or holds a significant stake in. Another is Arsenal — and the unlikely affinity is instantly obvious.
On the reception wall at the Rapids, a huge map of the world identifies the entire United Kingdom simply with an Arsenal badge. A section of the 917-acre Dick’s Sporting Goods Park has also been called the 'Arsenal Gunner Corner’ and a giant cannon is even set off within the 18,000 all-seater stadium whenever the Rapids score.
It is clear that thousands of Colorado-based Arsenal fans will be combining their breakfasts tomorrow with live coverage of the match against Manchester United. At the same time, all eyes in the Emirates directors’ box will be on Kroenke, the club’s 62 year-old billionaire shareholder.
With unrest among supporters at Manchester United and Liverpool, the spotlight on the ownership of Premier League clubs has never been brighter but, unlike so many recent investors in English football, Kroenke seems to have no shortage of available cash. He has already spent around £160 million in acquiring 29.9 per cent of Arsenal and now stands just 17 shares short of the threshold that would require a full takeover bid.
Yet it is only by going to the United States to explore Kroenke’s extraordinary business empire that you can properly understand what all this might mean for Arsenal, for Arsène Wenger and even the rest of the Premier League.
It also helps to unravel some of the myths surrounding the man known as 'Silent Stan’.
“There shouldn’t really be much mystique,” says Paul Andrews, the executive vice-president of Kroenke Sports Enterprises. “He is just a brilliant man, a legendary businessman, who has done things in his life that 99.9 per cent of the world didn’t have the amount of drive and success to do. There is maybe nobody I know who reads more than him.
“He has built something from when he was a kid until now and he is just a very genuine individual that likes to play basketball, loves to talk sports, loves to watch sports. If he was sitting with you and me now, he would be just a normal guy.”
While Kroenke prefers to remain publicly mute, Telegraph Sport was granted access to the key figures and inner sanctum of his sporting operations in the United States. Among his main aides, the knowledge and interest in Arsenal is quickly apparent.
My arrival in Colorado comes just 24 hours after Arsenal briefly went top of the Premier League by beating Bolton 4-2 and the small-talk with Jeff Plush, the managing director of the Rapids, mirrors the sort of discussions you might have with a season-ticket holder in any one of the pubs along the Holloway Road.
Andrews even produces a new application he has for his iPhone that allows him to pick up live commentary of every Arsenal game. He is adamant that Kroenke is similarly absorbed in Arsenal’s day-to-day fortunes and stresses their appreciation for Wenger’s brand of football.
“Fox Soccer Channel often carries the Arsenal game, and if we are in a part of the world that has that, we will find a bar,” he says. “It’s the highest level of football in the world and it is beautiful to watch the game at the level it is being played in London. It is a completely different experience than we, as Americans, have.”
If the home of the Rapids exhibits the most obvious visual reminders of Kroenke’s links with Arsenal, it is the Pepsi Center in the heart of downtown Denver which stands as the undoubted focal point for his sporting kingdom.
Kroenke bought the building, as well as the Denver Nuggets basketball team and Colorado Avalanche ice hockey franchise, for about £280?million in 2000. With a luxury apartment in the roof, the Pepsi Center is also Kroenke’s occasional residence and, during matches, he is generally courtside, near the players. “He is in tremendous shape — and can probably still out-shoot most people I know on the practice court,” Andrews said.
Basketball might be the family’s first love (son Josh won a scholarship to the University of Missouri and is now vice-president for team development at the Nuggets), but Kroenke teams have won their sport’s ultimate prize in American football, ice-hockey, arena football and lacrosse.
“We want to win the championship every year but nobody can tell you they are going to do that,” Andrews said. “The philosophy for each of the teams is to build a consistently competitive product.”
As Andrews explains how Kroenke believes this can be done, it could almost be Wenger talking.
“First thing is to put the infrastructure in place that allows the success to continue,” he says. “There is never a quick fix in sports. You might see that one player, who looks like a great player, who might come at a very high price, so do we bring that player into our basketball team?
“The answer to that, however tempting, is that maybe, when you bring that person in, it upsets the chemistry of that team. Typically, history would tell us that doesn’t work to build long-term success.”
It is an approach that should reassure Arsenal supporters that any Kroenke takeover would be unlikely to mirror the impatience of Roman Abramovich, who is on his sixth Chelsea manager in seven years.
“The experts in soccer are in the UK and Arsenal, in our opinion, is the foremost expert,” Andrews said. “You hire people you have confidence in and you let them go out and prove they can do the job.”
Kroenke’s pragmatic strategies in basketball and ice hockey provide perhaps the most telling insight. There were contrasting challenges when he took control of the two teams in 2000, with the Nuggets struggling and the Avalanche in the midst of one of the greatest eras in their history.
“We could have had all kinds of problems,” said Pierre LaCroix, the Avalanche general manager between 1996 and 2004. “Instead, this cool guy walked in and said, 'OK, what’s the plan? Fine, do it’. If you are deep in your reflection, if your rationale makes sense, he will be supportive. If you show him that you are fiscally responsible, then you have an ally. He understands that in sports it is often a cycle.” LaCroix then produces a photograph of the celebrations from their Stanley Cup victory in 2001, with Kroenke joining the players and coaching staff in their moment of glory.
“Some of the young guys absolutely soaked him in champagne and he loved it,” LaCroix said. “He might seem laid back but he is actually really passionate. He’s got this presence. He doesn’t want excuses and he doesn’t use excuses. Arsenal fans shouldn’t be worried. Soccer is not my forte, but I do know that his involvement is going to improve whatever situation they were in.”
While in Denver, I watched the Nuggets beat both the Los Angeles Clippers and the New Orleans Hornets, while the Avalanche were 2-1 winners over the Nashville Predators. Both teams are top of their respective leagues.
The final word, though, should go to arguably the most successful athlete across all of Kroenke’s sports teams. Chauncey Billups was Most Valuable Player (MVP) in the 2004 NBA final for the Detroit Pistons and is widely regarded as the catalyst behind the Nuggets’ recent rise. “I take a lot of pride in what has happened in Denver,” Billups said, “but you don’t recruit the players we have without Mr Kroenke’s commitment. For us, it’s simple: Mr Kroenke is the MVP.”