Arsenal a cash cow? Maybe … for now

By Chris Jenkins (@ByChrisJenkins)

Think Arsenal’s soon-to-be eight-year drought is too long to go without a trophy?

 

How about 104?

 

Given recent reports that Arsenal’s cash reserves have topped 100 million pounds, and that the team again is on track to turn a healthy profit thanks to selling big-name players and replacing them with relatively unproven prospects, there’s a rising sense of nervousness among Arsenal fans that the team has become something of a cash cow for principal owner Stan Kroenke.

And there’s a fear that the team’s rosy financial picture provides little incentive for Kroenke to authorize big spending, even as the club faces another trophy-free season and a potential loss of significant revenue if it fails to qualify for the Champions League.

 

It’s impossible to know Kroenke’s intentions, given his low public profile. Sure, there are reports ever year that Arsene Wenger will be given a healthy budget to pursue big-name players, but they never seem to yield any big deals.

 

For a while, most of us assumed that Wenger was being stubborn, determined to prove he could win without spending big. More recently, Wenger has at least hinted that his hands have been tied from a financial perspective.

 

What’s really true? Nobody knows.

 

But if Kroenke is inclined to see just how far he can push Arsenal fans by trying to contend on the cheap while charging the highest ticket prices in the Premier League, he would be wise to heed the cautionary tale provided by the gold standard of trophyless teams: baseball’s Chicago Cubs, who notoriously haven’t won a championship since 1908.

 

(As the joke from the team’s jaded fans goes, “Anybody can have a bad century.”)

 

For much of the 1980s and ‘90s, it really didn’t matter that the Cubs had only a few brief flirtations with contention. With a nostalgic ballpark filled with sunshine and beer-swilling post-college party seekers, the Cubs’ management had a license to print money and surely felt little pressure to put a winning product on the field.

 

Sure, hard-core fans would grumble about the team’s failings – but even some of them absolved management of guilt. Instead, they believed the team was destined to lose because it was cursed by a local restaurant owner who wasn’t allowed to attend a game with his pet billy goat in 1945.

 

Seriously.

 

But lately, the Cubs’ failures seem to be catching up with them. The Cubs went 71-91 in 2011 and lost a staggering 101 games last season.

 

The team now has new ownership and new management led by Theo Epstein, the architect behind the Boston Red Sox resurgence. But after all those years of selling sunshine and suds instead of success, Cubs fans finally seem to be running out of patience.

 

The team drew 2.8 million fans last season, still among the top 10 in the league. But that’s down from the 3 million-plus they’d drawn in recent years. Now they’re running radio ads encouraging fans to buy tickets – something that would have been unheard-of in the 1990s.

 

And that’s not even counting the less-acknowledged problem of no-shows, people who bought tickets and didn’t show up or tried to resell them cheaply on the web, where tickets can be had for $5.

 

So with the Cubs’ cautionary tale in mind, how long will it be before Arsenal finds the upper limits of its fans’ patience?

 

How long will it be before all that relatively meaningless venting on Twitter turns into something that really hurts the club’s bottom line – no-shows at matches, a slowdown in merchandise sales and overall reduced interest?

 

Given some of those empty seats at The Emirates lately, it might already be happening.

 

For sure, Wenger’s remarkable run of consistent Champions League qualification has created high – and perhaps unrealistic – expectations.

 

While Arsenal fans moan about the prospect of missing the Champions League next season, they’d sound spoiled to a Liverpool fan whose club hasn’t been a part of soccer’s biggest tournament since the 2009-10 season. Meanwhile, fans of mighty Newcastle spent much of the season flirting with relegation.

 

So it could be worse – and if things don’t change, they will be.

 

Signing young core players to contract extensions was a nice start. Now it’s time to stop shopping in the bargain bin. With some of the club’s most insanely well-paid fringe players’ contracts winding down, identify two or three must-have talents and make them offers they can’t refuse.

 

If not, that cash cow could become a goat.