By Ryan Turner
By the time the auto parts tycoon Shahid Khan made his foray into British sports official, purchasing Fulham Football Club from Harrods’ boss Mohamed al Fayed, he had already established a compelling legacy.
He arrived in the United States in the 1960s as nothing more than an ordinary member of Pakistan’s emerging middle class, having secured a place at The University of Illinois to study engineering. 45 years on, his name was emblazoned across Forbes Magazine’s a rich list, where he was acclaimed as the modern embodiment of the American dream. As such, he is confident seizing ownership of the illustrious and historic Wembley Stadium.
“He’s very inquisitive, he’s studied it and he’s been talking about it for a long time,” asserted Ron Guenther, a former athletic director at The University of Illinois, following his acquisition of the Jacksonville Jaguars in November 2011.
Indeed, while his aspirations seemingly know no bounds, he has always been pragmatic in nature, a quality which has defined his immense success both in business and in sport. Now, he has his sights firmly set on the crown jewel of his expanding sporting empire, ‘the home of English football’ and his history suggests this will be a well calculated. It has been widely reported this week that the car parts billionaire has now reached “logical conclusion” with Martin Glenn, chief executive of the Football Association, which is now in the process of being finalised.
That glowing character reference from Ron Guenther indicates that his interest in acquiring Wembley Stadium from the Football Association is anything but spontaneous, but rather has been planned meticulously in the interest of boosting his profits and the prominence of his sporting franchises.
Speaking to The Times, Khan revealed that the possibility of purchasing Wembley has been an abiding dream of his for some time now.“The Jaguars have played there five times now and won the last three so we’ve been looking for when there will be a time when this would make sense. It’s been a process. We’ve had a relationship and as we’ve seen what our needs are and what their [the FA’s] needs are — this was a logical conclusion a month or so ago.”
His Jacksonville side currently occupy one of the smallest TV markets in the sport, making the potential for commercial and economic growth within the NFL a difficult task.
While it is not certain that he will relocate the team to London permanently, Khan is clearly exploring other avenues and attempting to broaden its economic horizons in the UK. Hosting more matches at Wembley is certainly an integral part of his vision to turn the Jacksonville Jaguars into a stellar name within American Football.
The development of the new Wembley stadium was completed in 2007 with a total cost £800 million, in which the FA received £161 million of taxpayers’ money to finance the project. From a romantic perspective, ceding ownership to Khan feels unpalatable.
Wembley Stadium represents decades of sporting and cultural heritage dating back to 1923, which has since hosted events of significant calibre, notably the 1966 World Cup and Euro 96 finals. Brazilian footballing icon Pele once declared it as “the cathedral of football”. With such an important legacy, it was understandably revered by the FA as a fundamental national asset.
Yet, any semblance of that aura and magic of the old Wembley was lost in the demolition of the original structure in 2002, which dismantled many of its distinctive features, notably the Twin Towers and those 39 steps which players needed to ascend in order to claim a trophy.
The new Wembley is devoid of such legacy and has become a physical encapsulation of the commercial desires of the football administrators and most fans have made their aversion to it abundantly clear.
The notion of having a national stadium where the majority of its citizens can’t affordably access is one such view shared among its many detractors, with many trains often finishing their services well after the game finishes.
Moreover, the FA’s need to generate as much revenue as logistically possible to recoup its outlay culminated in the creation of Club Wembley, which entails the annual sale of corporate tickets en masse. Club Wembley accounts for 17,000 of the total 90,000 of the stadium’s capacity and is considered by many a decisive factor contributing to the sight of empty seats and a soulless atmosphere during some of the most clamoured events, such as FA Cup and Champions League finals.
The proposed sale to Shahid Khan thus represents an opportunity to relocate to a more accessible location for fans living outside the metropolis. While the premise of Club Wembley itself is indicative of its suitability as a venue for general public entertainment, and no longer as the home of English football
Some of these criticisms levelled at the new Wembley in fact what makes it so compatible with Shahid Khan’s plans to expand the NFL across the European market. This process was set in motion as recently as January when Tottenham Hotspur announced that NFL games will be held at their stadium as of October and the acquisition of Wembley would conceivably be a precursor to the advent of an American Football league entering the European sphere on a more permanent basis.
Located in the professed capital of Europe, Wembley possesses the kind of latent commercial potential required to globalise the Jacksonville brand, and ultimately the sport as a whole. Khan has previously emphasised the importance of playing matches at Wembley for ensuring the ‘financial stability’ of his NFL franchise. “If my ownership interests were to include Wembley Stadium, it would protect the Jaguars’ position in London at a time when other NFL teams are understandably becoming more interested in this great city.”
While this deal ostensibly suits all parties, the manner in which it has been conducted has raised more than a few eyebrows. Sam Wallace of The Telegraph revealed that this has been a deal which has been in the making with Khan since 2015 when the latter was offered a preferential option by the FA to carry out a purchase.
As with any asset of such significant financial and symbolic value, an open and stringent process should have been conducted, so as to ensure that the best possible deal was struck. Securing the most available amount of money from a bidder should have been the FA’s duty, who seem to have rushed into such a crucial decision. Their process has been questionable, to say the least.
Furthermore, the success of this sale from the FA’s perspective will be measured against how they choose to invest the proceeds. The presumption and hope amongst fans of football is that this deal will free up finances to be released to grass-roots, which would enable the development of new pitches, facilities and provision for young and aspiring footballers.
However, concerns over the FA’s capacity to effectively make use of such finances remain, and details of how it will be spent must be made public. As Marin Ziegler of The Times correctly points out ‘I’m not sure having £800m tied up in a stadium which currently runs at a loss is particularly useful for football. But it does need to see a proper transparent spending plan published by the FA on the money’.
Ultimately, it is hard to imagine that 10 years down the line, football fans will rue the loss of Wembley. The reality is that it has lost those historic features that rendered it such an evocative and captivating setting for players and supporters alike. As an avid fan of the sport, it would be great to see FA Cup semi-finals restored to stadiums such as Villa Park and it would benefit everyone for the national team to treat fans with matches being played all around the country, instead of being held exclusively held in London.