As a member of the Arsenal Supporters’ Trust, this was my fourth Arsenal Annual General Meeting as a proxy member and, as one would expect of any corporate AGM, the event is a slickly handled affair. It’s difficult to think of another football club whose annual duty to its shareholders attracts quite the same level of media coverage or interest. A football club’s AGM requires a higher level of political savvy in its handling than that of most private companies. It’s certainly difficult to think of another industry where a company’s posting of year on year profits needs carefully scripted justification. The sole interest of most attendees is not profit, but how the fruits of that profit exit the club’s vaults.
Upon entry, attendees were handed a very swish looking key chain commemorating the club’s record of 12 F.A. Cups, prior to being ushered into the Woolwich Suite of Arsenal’s Club Level enclosure. To address the burning question straight away…the biscuit selection was adequate. As we entered the main hall, the panel of directors- Lord Harris of Peckham, Josh Kroenke (neither of whom spoke or were spoken to for the duration of the meeting), David Miles, Sir Chips Keswick, Ivan Gazidis, Stanley Kroenke (who also did not speak during the meeting) and Arsene Wenger’s places were set out with plaques from left to right. Front row and centre, were the F.A. Cup and the Community Shield trophies. Video screens relayed highlights of the 2014-15 season as the audience took their seats.
Sir Chips Keswick brought the meeting to order with some opening remarks, as is traditional in his role as chairman; followed by remarks from Ivan Gazidis and Arsene Wenger. I have summarised, or minuted their remarks and the question and answer session that followed for your delectation.
- We won the F.A. Cup again don’t you know. Woo hoo!
- Jeffrey Freeman is participating in his 50th Arsenal AGM. Woo hoo! (applause)
- Congratulations offered to Arsenal Ladies who have again qualified for the Continental Cup Final. Woo hoo! (further applause).
- Arsenal players scored a total of 11 goals whilst on international duties for their countries over the last week. Woo hoo!
At this point, Sir Chips attempted to address the honking great elephant in the room early on. Questions for the AGM were pre-submitted to the board by shareholders and addressed together in the Q & A section of the meeting. However, the board took the unusual step of separately addressing a question around the £3m consultancy fee paid to Kroenke Sports Enterprises by Arsenal Holdings for the second consecutive year. A full copy of that question is reproduced below;
- For the second year running Arsenal was ‘charged a fee of £3m’ by KSE. When this was questioned last year the answer was light on detail, except to say that Sir Chips Keswick had proposed it. Ivan Gazidis has said Arsenal ‘run a tight ship’, and yet £3m can apparently be spent on the whim of the chairman, without competitive tender, without any report of what services were provided for it and without any evidence of tangible benefit. A neutral observer would find it difficult to believe that something costing £3m can’t be described in some detail. Given that the payment has been repeated, are we to assume the services were beneficial? If so, surely they can now be described so that all shareholders and supporters can see that value for money is being obtained?
A further question asked whether these services were “subject to a full written agreement.”
Sir Chips explained that he and the board “felt it was right” to pay the fee pertaining to “a wide range of services,” adding that “it wouldn’t be good governance to get them for free.” He continued that KSE has “extensive experience in sports management and they have “contributed to the evolution” of the club in terms of property, media, commercial and sporting management. The audience murmured discontentedly at the answer, at which point Keswick curtly announced, “I have answered the question, now we move on!”, sighs of disbelief broke into a sustained grumble. Predictably, this was far from the final comment on this contentious issue.
The formal part of the meeting saw the approval of Deloitte as auditors, with the re-election of Lord Harris of Peckham to the board and the re-election of Ivan Gazidis. All of these votes are determined by a show of hands, which is essentially little more than a gesture given that one hand in the room is worth close to 70% of the total votes. But it ought to be mentioned that the show of hands for Gazidis was emphatic. Sir Chips tried at this point, to move the meeting on to Ivan Gazidis’ presentation, but he was interrupted by a member of the audience, Jeffrey Lewis.
Jeffrey had asked the second part of the question over the consultancy fee paid to KSE, and after a cry from the floor, he was invited to the microphone, whereupon he laid out his dissatisfaction with the answer to the enquiry he had posed, “Chairman, will you please answer my question!” he implored, to the audible gratification of the floor. Sir Chips diffused the situation by promising to answer again during the Q&A section of the meeting, acknowledging as he did that Mr. Lewis’ disgruntlement was clearly shared by the floor.
Eventually, Ivan Gazidis was allowed to take the microphone whereupon, he dissed Kroenke’s toupee and challenged him to a rap battle……Not really, Ivan cracked out the PowerPoint and set out “the vision for the club, how we go about achieving it and where we are.” The main headlines were as follows:
- The overarching vision for the club is to compete for top trophies, play football “the way it is meant to be played” (I presume that’s an allusion to the style of football Arsenal play and not some underwhelming promise to remain within the rules of association football), that plays “with joy and not cynicism”, that develops young people and is “a club we can all be proud of.”
- Ivan made good with a slide demonstrating the “virtuous circle” of the club using its own revenue. The club currently has 24 commercial partners and that arm of revenue has doubled in the last three years.
- He said that the plan was to continue to try and cultivate the club’s commercial revenue, match day revenues have stayed flat and, in real terms, have reduced by 20% since the stadium move.
- Club have made investments in IT infrastructure, online retail and have opened a commercial office in Singapore. Further investments have been made in stadium refurbishments and a new floodlight system was installed over the summer of 2015.
- £13m has been invested in redeveloping the club’s London Colney and Hale End sites. Colney will have a 40,000 square foot “player performance centre”. He also said that Arsenal Ladies would have a new and bespoke home. The training ground would also contain a new state of the art media centre.
- Gazidis then elaborated on the “3 pillars of squad development.” Producing academy players, buying players and retaining quality players. He stated that it’s not possible for Arsenal to attempt to outspend everyone in “a never-ending arms race” so developing players would give Arsenal a competitive edge. Investments have been made in scouting, facilities and coaching in that area and the manager will need to continue to find ways of inducting young players so that there is a clear path to the first team.
- At this point, Gazidis produced a slide with a picture of the first team squad, pointing out that 18 of the 27 players in the photo had been signed in the last 4 years. Squad “consistently invested in with full support and backing of Stan Kroenke and the board” and Arsene Wenger continues to be empowered to make those calls. Gazidis described the transfer policy as “talent led, not money led.” Of the club’s last 12 transfer purchases, only Lukas Podolski is no longer at the club, which the CEO says “compares favourably with any top club in the world.”
- Gazidis continued to elaborate on this, suggesting that many of those signings were not well known at the point of purchase but “are well known now.” He continued, “You don’t sign players like Mesut Ozil, Alexis or Petr Cech without ambition or without convincing them of your ambition,” before spinning a nice yarn about Petr Cech having a tug of war competition with the groundsman to emphasise the levels of camaraderie.
- The club have renewed key contracts and are in a good situation with contract positions across the squad. The wage bill has risen from £164m – £192m in the last year, which means Arsenal must continue to be thoughtful with their resources.
- Ivan’s rousing conclusion was that Arsenal’s history and heritage was not enough to “sustain us against the challenges ahead,” and that the club’s overall aim is to “create more special moments in a way that makes us proud to be Arsenal.”
By now, it was Arsene Wenger’s turn to address the audience. He opted against the use of PowerPoint (that sound you can hear is of Sam Allardyce grinding his teeth in disgust), and the manager gave a Churchillian address, only in a distinctively Gallic accent…
- He expressed his humility at having celebrated his 19th anniversary at the club recently, to sustained applause.
- He was appointed to a club of 80 staff with a share price of £400, now there are over 550 staff and, well, he doesn’t know the share price anymore.
- He split his reign into three chunks. The first, 1996-2005 he described as “easy and smooth.” The second, from 2006, was much more difficult with restricted finances and increased competition “in a sceptical environment.” He pointed out that, whilst it is not enough, the club’s Champions League qualification record is bettered only by Real Madrid. “In my job, you are always told what you don’t do,” he uttered, before declaring, “it is not enough, but it is not easy otherwise everyone else would have done it too.” He also said that, given the choice, he probably wouldn’t have the wherewithal now to go through another period like that.
- Wenger thinks the club have been out of that period for 2.5 years (AÖ basically, After Özil). But he said the new challenge is that Champions League money is not as significant as once it was due to increased Premier League TV revenues.
- He also paid tribute to the staff around him who, by the sounds of it, are ploughing him with data 24/7. “18 years ago, it was only my eye. Now I have access to so much information and data,” but, as a counterpoint to that, “people know more than they did in 1996.”
- He said that he felt Arsenal were “in the fight for the title” before making reference to the numbers his data lackeys are furnishing him with all hours of the day and night. “The numbers show we have the right potential.”
- Tellingly, he said he felt Arsenal needed to show the urgency demonstrated against Manchester United in every game and that his task was to find the right mix of top class players from outside and players that love the club and have been developed from inside. At this point, he used the dreaded term “cohesion.”
- He says he was certainly more relaxed 19 years ago than he is today because he knows how badly defeat and failure hurts the fan base, but he is also resolute enough to withstand the pressure. His speech was again met with sustained applause.
At this point, pre-submitted questions, displayed on screens throughout the venue and summarised by Club Secretary David Miles, were fielded by the directors. I’ve summarised the questions, in the interests of brevity.
Q: The first question asked whether Arsenal would consider withholding players for the 2022 World Cup as an act of protest over the ongoing FIFA crisis and the timing and venue of the Qatar showpiece.
IG: Gazidis described the FIFA crisis as “a grave concern” and that the primary objective should be “to restore faith and confidence” in their stewardship. Gazidis said that clubs and players do not have enough critical input into FIFA’s governance and that that would need to change. He said the club have a seat on the Board of European clubs and that they would try to affect change that way. He didn’t explicitly say it, but it sounded very much as though Arsenal would not take the kind of punitive action suggested in the question.
Q: Given the huge piles of lovely cash flowing into the club from TV companies, any chance of a ticket price freeze or reduction and adopting the Bundesliga pricing model?
IG: We’re developing revenues to focus on the commercial side.
Ticket pricing has never been based solely on demand and prices have remained flat in 7 of the last 10 years, with only inflationary rises on the other 3 occasions.
20% fall in match day revenue in real terms since 2006, renewal rates are currently over 97%.
Difficult to compare with Germany, whose stadiums are publicly funded, so the tax payer subsidises football tickets.
The Arsenal fan forums and supporters clubs have influenced ticketing, the Young Guns enclosure and Category C pricing, as well as the Arsenalisation of the stadium. All of these were initiatives suggested by supporters and taken forward by the club. He pointed out that the Young Guns enclosure rarely sells out, so more needs to be done to promote it.
Ivan reaffirms commitment to cheap travel options for away fans in difficult to travel to fixtures, including Sheffield Wednesday away in the League Cup.
The Premier League are still collectively discussing away ticket pricing and there’s no more to say on that currently, but discussions are ongoing.
Q: Will the club review its composition, given that it is all white, all male and advancing in years? Would board consider the appointment of an ex player to add football expertise?
SCK: Board is aware of need to regenerate due to its age, which will be considered “as we move forwards.”
Board has extensive football knowledge, Arsene is very involved, Gazidis has spent 21 years working in football, there is an experienced transfer negotiating team.
Q: What are Arsene Wenger’s targets for the season as set down by the board?
SCK: To compete for trophies at the top of the domestic and European game. The board is firmly convinced that Wenger is the right man to do that.
Q: Has KSE used the club as a guarantor against any loans and, assuming not, can the board confirm that this will not happen?
SCK: Arsenal is a private company, so all of its decisions in that respect, are made public.
Q: What are the club’s plans for the incoming cash influx of the new TV rights deal?
IG: Collective responsibility for Premier League to ensure that it’s a league that fans all over the world want to watch, that means investing in facilities for fans, investing in players, better referees. For Arsenal, it means investment across the club to ensure that we compete.
Q: Will use of Emirates Stadium be expanded for use for other events?
IG: Club restricted by planning constraints, applied for license to hold more concerts but application was rejected.
Brazil v Chile staged at the stadium in March, at which point Ivan joked about being “only doing it so we could keep Alexis in the country.”
X Factor, concerts, Hollywood film shoots and weddings also held there. 200,000 went on the Stadium tour last year and the Emirates Cup continues to be well attended.
Q: Will work be done by the club to improve the safety of Arsenal fans that travel to White Hart Lane and regularly experience intimidation?
IG: Club are looking at this and have had meetings with Spurs and the Met Police to avoid this happening again in the future. In 2015, fans should not be in a position where they fear for their safety at a football match.
Q: 3 questions bundled together that basically ask, “we have plenty of dough, why aren’t we spending it?!”
IG: Squad has been improved in recent seasons with plenty of transfers. Transfers important, but not the only facet of building a competitive squad.
Approach is kept under constant review, but spending just because you have money compromises quality and ambition. Other clubs have spent lots on players that haven’t contributed and Arsenal have had that scenario in some cases too.
Harder to find the last 5% of squad improvement than it is the previous 20%, which is the club’s big challenge now.
Q: Will the Arsenal board commit to paying all of its staff the London Living Wage and do the club insist suppliers do the same?
IG: All full and part-time staff are paid living wage, match day stewards are paid £9.50 per hour, which is above the living wage set down by the government. For 3rd parties this is reviewed as contracts come up and club will continue to do so.
Q: Will the club investigate changes to make the ticket exchange more flexible and will club review the Cup Final ticket allocation policy?
IG: Significant investment has been made in current ticket exchange mechanism, which is best and most successful in the world.
It will, however, undergo a complete redesign, by 2016 it will be available as an app on tablets and smartphones.
Review of how cup final tickets are allocated is ongoing. Have pressed the F.A. continually on increasing tickets made available to fans of competing clubs and hopeful of success there, we also hope it’s a problem we have again this season!
Q: The Arsenal website lists the most expensive ticket as £97, but some tickets are on the ticket exchange at £126. Why does the club not list this price on the main website?
IG: It’s not advertised because there are no general admission tickets at this price available, they are all held by season ticket holders. Hence, that price will appear on the ticket exchange from time to time as those season ticket holders list it.
Q: With the dissolution of Fanshare, are the board committed to a plurality of ownership?
SCK: We have a plurality of ownership and importantly, stability too which is “a precious commodity in football.” AGMs and shareholder issues are taken seriously. (Nice to know, Chips!)
Q: Why isn’t Theo Walcott stationed further forward when the team are defending setpieces?
IG: We have the joint best defensive record in the league at the moment. Arsene has heard you and will take note! (Cue laughter).
Q: How seriously does the club take the captaincy given that our last two captains have not even been first choice players?
SCW: We are happy with the job that “Michael” (he honestly said that) Arteta and Per Mertesacker do a great job with the captaincy.
Q: The beer is rubbish at the Emirates, will you get some better hooch?
IG: Finally, a serious question! Catering options are under constant review and your feedback is helpful.
Q: What does the club think of the proposal to have a mandatory quota of English players in the squad?
IG: We want more good English players, but quotas aren’t the way to achieve it. Insulating them from competition will not make them better, several studies back this up. Investment into facilities and coaching a much better way to go. English national team was no more successful when there were few foreign players in England.
Q: Will we revert to the old club crest (WHO ARE THESE PEOPLE?!) and what is the club’s reaction to Spurs hosting NFL games at their new stadium?
IG: Current crest fit for purpose, it won’t change in the foreseeable future, we want to look forwards, not back.
NFL not an avenue club will explore, the stadium couldn’t execute it anyway and it would compromise the playing surface. Arsenal would rather develop its own use of stadium rather than ground sharing.
Q: Will the club make in-stadium announcements around added time over the stadium public address system?
IG: It’s on the screens, but we don’t announce so as not to distract players at critical section of the game.
Q: What does the club need to do to win the Premier League? (SERIOUSLY, WHO ARE THESE PEOPLE?!)
SCK: “It’s difficult to answer without being patronising, get more points than the other teams!”
AW: (More diplomatically) We need good bill of health, win big home games, try at least not to lose big away games and find a way to win 1-0 when a game looks like it will be 0-0.
At this point, Sir Chips promised to elaborate “a little” on the £3m fee paid to KSE by Arsenal Holdings. He said that “when you run a business, the best advice is the quick advice from people that know more about the problem than you do. I am responsible for the financial management of the club and ensuring that money is well spent and we get the best advice as quickly as we can.” As the crowd grew restless, still unimpressed by the answer, Sir Chips invited the audience to study the accounts and the trophies in front of them to decipher the value of those services.
He attempted to move on, before somebody from the audience shouts out, demanding to know whether the services are subject to a written agreement. “There is no written agreement, but we get the right advice.” The crowd continued to bristle, but Sir Chips managed to move the meeting on temporarily, with questions invited from the floor, unvetted.
The first gentleman ranted heartily about Arsenal’s performance in the Champions League, before Sir Chips cut him off, advising that “there’s no sensible answer to that,” (he’s got a point to be fair) and suggesting that the gentleman had made the noise he wanted to make.
Q: What has Ken Friar, who must be pushing 80 now, done to justify a 20% pay rise?
SCK: Advised that the questioner that he “found the ageism unattractive” before telling the gentleman that Mr. Friar had done more for the club than any individual in the last 50 years, which was greeted with applause.
Someone then proceeded to waste everybody’s time with a garble about the poor atmosphere at the Emirates (WHAT DO YOU WANT THE BOARD TO DO ABOUT THAT? LAP THE PERIMETER OF THE PITCH WITH A MEGAPHONE SHOUTING ‘WHAT DO YOU THINK OF TOTTENHAM?’ Actually, that’d be pretty cool). The young man then proposed a solution whereby the club check that those sitting in Club Level are definitely Arsenal fans before granting them admission to the stadium. His question was not greeted with nearly the disdain it deserved, with Gazidis providing a short answer about the impracticalities of such an approach, rather than slapping the young man about the chops with a wet kipper.
We then had a gentleman from the States who could well have been Stan Kroenke in disguise. He gushed endlessly about how “this is the best AGM I have ever attended” and “we are so lucky to have KSE on our board.” Eventually, Sir Chips had to encourage the man to get to the point and ask his question, acknowledging that he had cut off the ranters and must, in the interests of fairness, do the same to the sycophants (my words, not his).
The man then asked an entirely worthless question about the volume of the stadium PA, before complaining that people in the North Bank stand too much. Alas, he was not given the wet kipper treatment either. I hereby offer to tender my services to the club for next year’s AGM to slap people that ask stupid questions with a damp fish. I’ll settle on a payment of £3m for this service.
Q: Have the club changed their policy on injury management over the last few years? (No, Shad Forsythe was hired to amuse the players with balloon animals and amusing finger puppets. WHO ARE THESE PEOPLE?!)
AW: Injury risk is part of the game, Barcelona have lost Messi for two months and you see the problem it gives them.
We’ve tried to increase our work on muscular injuries, those are the ones a club can control better.
Q: Eventually, a worthwhile question from Mr. Phil Wall (@angryofN5). What were the services that KSE provided to Arsenal that were worth £3m of the club’s money? Phil pointed out that Kroenke has the right as a shareholder to vote for this fee and if that is what happened, the board should just say so so that everyone knows where they stand.
SCK: Fees cannot be codified, continuity of the fee makes that impossible.
Q: What are club doing about tickets being sold on the black market? And can club review current away credits policy?
IG: Consistently oversubscribed for tickets.
Difficult to take tickets away from loyal fans that have been buying them over many years to give them to others, but policy will be reviewed.
In constant dialogue with authorities around touting and the black market.
Q: Ivan said that FIFA need to become more representative, does the Arsenal board not need to do the same?
SCK: Board members have to believe that they are being representative at all times.
He then went onto make a garbled point to the lady that asked the question, suggesting “I understand that you want to be on the board,” which, obviously, drew further frisson from the audience, at this point Chips apologised if he had misunderstood the question. (I’d suggest that if you literally don’t know what diversity means, it’s hard to say you’re being consciously representative there Mr. Chips).
IG: (Sensing that the chairman was in danger of making an almighty hash of his answer) Club understands it needs to be more representative at board level. We are proud to have earned the equality standard award from Kick It Out and it’s an issue we take seriously.
As Sir Chips tried to draw the meeting to a close, a member of the audience shouted out, “Can we have a few words from Mr. Kroenke, please?” to which Mr. Keswick answered, “No.”
Arsene Wenger chimed in at this point to answer the gentleman that had ranted about Arsenal’s Champions League performances earlier on, pointing out that Arsenal are in the top 5 in Europe for Champions League win percentage and that, whilst Monaco, Anderlecht and Olympiacos were bad performances, they were not representative of the whole picture. His payoff line, “Look at the games we played in the Champions League before I arrived and then come back to me.” OOSH!
A relieved Sir Chips closed the meeting with, “thank you for your passion, it is appreciated,” a variation on an old classic.
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