Arsenal CEO Vinai Venkatesham was invited onto Bloomberg’s ‘Surveillance’ show to talk about the growth of soccer in the United States and why Arsenal keep returning to take a slice of the American Pie.
Here’s what he had to say in a seven-minute appearance from New York…
Big game tomorrow against Manchester United at MetLife Stadium. Before we get to all of that, let’s just start with, why here? I see a lot of Spanish clubs come to the United States now, a lot of Italian teams do their pre-season tour here. Why is this so important for Arsenal Football Club?
Well, firstly, thank you for having me on the show today. The US has become our number one international market and we see that anecdotally. Every time we come to the US, we come every couple of years, we can see the game is growing and we can see Arsenal’s popularity is growing. And we also see it in the numbers. Last season on NBC Sports we had a record audience for Arsenal versus Manchester United, we see our social media following growing really fast, 20 per cent of our retail business is in the US and we played the MLS All-Star game in Washington jam-packed and jam-packed full of Arsenal fans, which was great to see.
Lots of money in it, I’m sure. You’re also spending lots of cash as well. And I’m sure a lot of Arsenal fans want us to go straight there. How much have you spent this summer on football talent?
I guess the story about this summer really starts with looking back at last season. So last season, we had what we consider to be a successful season. We took the title race right until the last weeks. In the end, we finished second rather than the first that we were fighting for. But we have one of the youngest squads in the Premier League so this season they’re going to be another year more experienced. And what we’ve done this summer is supplement that fantastic squad with three new signings, the three positions we want to strengthen, the three players we wanted and we were delighted to get them right at the start of the window. So, we have them here with us on tour in the US and it means they can assimilate in the squad and it was a heavy significant investment and that investment really shows the ambition of our ownership group. They have had enormous success with their franchises in the US over recent years, winning the Super Bowl, winning the Stanley Cup and then winning the NBA Championship. So they’ve really invested behind the team and have really supported us this window. So we will be ready for the fight this season.
There are two views as to what model major sports run. One is the UK model where you don’t have forced equalisation, where you have relegation. One is the US model where you don’t have relegation, you have forced equalisation. If you were to create the Premier League from scratch, would you keep the current model that allows a few teams to dominate all the time or would you go to more like a US model that allows for far more equalisation?
I’d keep the model that we have at the moment and I think it’s proven that the Premier League is the world’s biggest league in the world’s biggest sport and I think one of the reasons the Premier League is so successful is the broadcast [revenue] distribution in the Premier League is actually relatively equal. So the top club in the Premier League gets roughly 1.8 times the bottom club in the Premier League. So we try and keep the revenue distribution as equal as we can to make sure the league is as competitive as it can be. And it goes in cycles. Sometimes you have a period where teams dominate and sometimes you have a cycle where it’s more competitive.
You’re seeing all this US support come to Arsenal. And I’m hearing there’s a lot more interest in soccer, as they call it here. Is this a pull factor or a push factor? Is this people being pulled by the fact that NBC is covering more games? Or is it the fans that are pushing people to talk more about UK soccer.
I think it’s a little bit of both. I think NBC have done a fantastic job for the Premier League over a long period, both in terms of how they promote the game and how they’ve also educated the audience around all things football. And we see it in their viewer numbers. I think NBC’s viewership numbers last season were 20% higher than the season before. We’ve got our game tomorrow at MetLife [Stadium]. It’s going to be a sell-out. It’s going to be our biggest ever game from a revenue perspective that we’ve ever played in the US. And I think it’s going to be MetLife’s biggest ever soccer game that they’ve had in their stadium as well from a revenue perspective. So the demand is really, really, really there. And it’s growing really quickly.
We’ve got to talk to you about Saudi involvement in the game, increasing and increasing through this summer, particularly over the last couple of years with that purchase of Newcastle more recently. What does it feel like as a CEO of a football club to be competing with a country, not a single person, but a nation? What does that feel like? Do you feel like you’re doing that now this summer?
Well, the Premier League…one of the reasons the Premier League has been so successful is because it’s so unbelievably competitive. And, you know, Newcastle are another team that’s stepping forward in that competition. They had a very successful season last season. They’re in the Champions League. So it’s always a dynamically changing market. Another big change that everybody’s been talking about this summer has been the number of players they’ve actually transferred to Saudi. So that’s another interesting development in the game. It’s new. It’s a little bit too early to know how that’s going to affect the Premier League, if at all. And we’ll all be watching with interest.
Long ago in my youth, I saw the Rochester Lancers and a wonderful guy named Charlie Shiano try to make this happen and the fact is it was perceived by me and everybody else in America as Minor League Football. What is the symbolism of Messi going to MLS now? Does he take them from minor league football to something new and different?
Well the MLS has been on, as I understand, a good growth trajectory over many years. The league’s expanded, there’s been a number of expansion franchises. For us at Arsenal, we want football, or soccer as we may call it here, to grow in popularity. So we want there to be a vibrant, healthy domestic league in the MLS. Messi is a generational talent, so to have him in MLS playing in Miami I think will have a really, really positive effect. At the same time, the new Apple TV deal is going live as well. So we’re really hopeful that it will help continue to grow MLS. And we’ve seen in the few days we’ve been here how much coverage there has been around Messi and how many people have been talking to us about Messi and that’s what we want. We want that conversation to go on.
The Apple deal, Vinai, I’ve got 45 seconds but I want to squeeze this in. The Apple deal is huge. For a football player to get a slice of the TV money directly like that [as is happening in Messi’s case]. Do you see more of that happening?
Well, I don’t know the details of the Messi deal, so I just read what everybody else reads. All II can really say is I think Messi can have a really, really significant impact on the game in this country, and I’m sure it was a really competitive process to get him to play here because there’s lots of people that would love Messi playing in their league and I’m sure MLS had to work really hard and really creatively to get here and they’ve been successful because he’s here and he’s driving a whole load of interest.