Rams owner, on brink of Super Bowl triumph, faces rebellion from English soccer fans

Fans hold up a banner against Arsenal's majority owner Stan Kroenke during a 2017 English Premier League football match.

New York (CNN)By the end of the weekend, Los Angeles Rams owner Stan Kroenke could be a Super Bowl champion. But seven hours before kickoff against the New England Patriots, and an ocean away from the big game in Atlanta, another Kroenke-owned sports team might find itself in far less celebratory circumstances.

Arsenal, the English Premier League club that billionaire businessman Kroenke has owned since 2011, will travel to play Manchester City on Sunday in a showdown between two soccer teams at very different junctures in their respective histories.
City is the Premier League's defending champion and, though it hasn't matched its record-breaking form of last season, remains in contention to retain its crown and is also a serious contender to secure a first Champions League title, European club football's top cup competition.
Arsenal, meanwhile, is in the midst of another season where it is battling for a top-four finish rather than the title, and is once again struggling to keep pace, both on and off the pitch, with big-spending rivals.
    The Londoners' notoriously leaky defense could be humbled at the Etihad on Sunday -- the Gunners lost 5-1 in December to league leaders Liverpool -- making Sunday a two-fold referendum of sorts on Kroenke the sports owner.
    With the Rams, Kroenke finds himself on the brink of the American sporting summit, a win away from a championship three years after he helped engineer the team's move from St. Louis to southern California; at Arsenal, the American is viewed increasingly as the man who has overseen the club's wayward drift.
    Terry Bradshaw presents Rams owner Stan Kroenke with the NFC Championship trophy on January 20.

    Arsenal fans rooting for Patriots

    Kroenke has become so unpopular among Arsenal supporters that even those who might otherwise be indifferent to American football suddenly have a rooting interest in Super Bowl LIII.
    "A lot of fans over here are backing the Patriots," said Robbie Lyle, the host and proprietor of the YouTube channel AFTV, which bills itself as the "unofficial voice of Arsenal fans around the world."
    AFTV has built an enormous following since it launched in 2012, boasting more than 900,000 subscribers who tune in following the team's matches to watch Lyle interview fans, many of whom use the opportunity to rant and rave about the club's shortcomings.
    Lately, most of the ire on the channel has been directed at Kroenke. In a video this week following an underwhelming Arsenal victory over lowly Cardiff City, an AFTV regular known as Troopz expressed his annoyance with Kroenke.
    "He don't care, bro," Troopz said of the owner. "Until he goes, it's going to be the same sh*t."

    Public enemy No.1?

    In the passionate world of English soccer, a careless owner is public enemy No. 1.
    Supporters of Newcastle United, a team that regularly fills its 52,000-seater stadium but only this week broke its transfer record that had stood for 14 years, have staged protests against owner Mike Ashley for years over a lack of proper investment.
    At Blackpool F.C., a club in England's third division, fans have boycotted matches over displeasure with the club's owners. Some fans of Manchester United were once so infuriated by ownership that they formed their own club in 2005; F.C. United of Manchester are currently competing in the sixth tier of English football.
    "The biggest problem for an owner of a club," Lyle told CNN in a phone interview this week, "is when fans here in the U.K. think you don't care."
    While owning a team may represent a savvy investment for a billionaire like Kroenke, it's considered more than mere business in Europe, where many soccer clubs have been around for more than a century.
    Owners of Italian soccer clubs still regularly offer comments after their team's matches, and Arsenal (founded in 1886) was traditionally owned by locals who grew up supporting the team.
    "The idea of what ownership represents in an old fashioned English football club is maybe a little different than what an owner represents in American sports," said Amy Lawrence, a soccer writer for The Guardian who specializes in coverage of Arsenal.
    Kroenke, 71, has a portfolio of sports teams to his name. Along with Arsenal and the Rams, his holding company, Kroenke Sports & Entertainment, also oversees the NBA's Denver Nuggets, the Colorado Rapids of MLS and the Colorado Avalanche of the NHL.
    The Rams are, it would seem, Kroenke's crown jewel. In 2016, he uprooted the franchise from his native Missouri to bring the Rams back to their original home in Los Angeles. The move left fans in St. Louis bitter, but the NFL's power brokers celebrated the league's return to the country's second biggest market.
    Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones lauded Kroenke for having the "the vision, resources, inspiration and creativity to create the right setting for the NFL in Los Angeles." Bill Plaschke, a sports columnist for the Los Angeles Times, gushed in August that Kroenke was the Rams' MVP. "He gets Los Angeles. He understands its fans. He knows what works, and, man, he's been working it," Plaschke wrote.
    Kroenke shakes hands with Arsenal midfielder Mesut Ozil as Arsenal players celebrate their victory over Chelsea in the 2017 English FA Cup final.

    Convincing soccer fans

    Fans in England still aren't convinced that Kroenke gets Arsenal, and his perceived indifference toward the club can be chalked up to a number of separate but related factors.
    There is his reticence, a quality that has earned him the nickname "Silent Stan" and has left Arsenal supporters mystified over his plans for the club. He has professed a commitment to winning titles with the club, but such rhetoric is seen by many as perfunctory lip-service. Kroenke's absenteeism has also rankled fans. Lyle lamented that Kroenke failed to attend Arsenal's FA Cup tie with Manchester United last Friday.
    "That was the biggest match in Europe [last weekend], and he's not there," Lyle said. "He's never there."
    Kroenke's silence and poor attendance record have helped shape the unfavorable perception of him, but it's the club's stinginess that has cemented the fans' belief that the owner lacks competitive ambition.
    That point was driven home last month, as Arsenal waded into the January transfer window -- the period of the season when European soccer clubs are able to sign new players -- operating yet again on a relatively shoestring budget.
    The club brought in midfielder Denis Suarez on loan from Barcelona, with an option to make the deal permanent in the summer, but its ability to sign new players has been dwarfed in recent years by other big English clubs like City, Chelsea, Manchester United and Liverpool.
    Under the ownership of Sheikh Mansour of the Abu Dhabi royal family, City have transformed from a relative afterthought to one of the best teams in Europe with more than a billion pounds spent on players over the last decade.
    Arsenal, on the other hand, have continued to follow a "self-sustaining model," under which the club doesn't spend more than it brings in.
    The approach is admirable to some fans who scoff at the idea of a club "buying a title." But with players commanding higher transfer fees and salaries, that parsimonious strategy hasn't yielded much silverware for Arsenal in recent years -- other than the FA Cup in 2014, 2015 and 2017.
    Lawrence said that "the whole idea of being self-sustaining faced a massive challenge when the Sheikhs took over at Manchester City."
    "It's quite difficult to compete at the highest levels when you're not playing the same financial game as your peers," Lawrence told CNN. "It's not impossible, but it's really, really tough."
    Fans call for Arsenal's former manager Arsene Wenger to leave, showing their dislike of Kroenke in 2016.

    Spending rules

    In the NFL, as with other major American sports leagues, teams adhere to a salary cap that limits how much they can spend on players -- a factor that complicates the comparison between Kroenke's ownership of the Rams and Arsenal.
    UEFA, European soccer's governing body, has instituted financial fair play regulations that ostensibly prohibit clubs from spending more than they earn, but there has long been a sense that the policy might be toothless. A report last year by Der Spiegel claimed that Manchester City circumvented the financial fair play rules, which former Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger once dismissed as effectively meaningless.
    Those differences aside, Kroenke has still demonstrated a significant financial commitment to the Rams with a $1.6 billion investment in the team's stadium complex (total cost: $5 billion), which will open in 2020 and play host to the Super Bowl in 2022.
    "I would love for him to do for Arsenal what he's done for the Rams," said Lyle.
    Arsenal have been crowned champions of England 13 times -- more than any other club save for Manchester United and Liverpool -- but the team hasn't finished atop the Premier League since the 2003-04 season.
    According to soccer finance expert Swiss Ramble, Kroenke hasn't invested any of his own money into the club, a stark contrast from Manchester City's Mansour, who has invested nearly £1.3 billion of his own fortune since 2008.
    City have won the league three times in that span. Arsenal's lack of investment has particularly annoyed fans who point to the club's staggering revenues, which are driven in part by the fact that the team's ticket prices are the highest in England.
    On AFTV, some fans have argued that they have spent more money on the club than Kroenke, and there are growing calls to boycott the team's official merchandise as a form of protest against the owner.
    A spokesman for Arsenal pushed back on the suggestion that the owner isn't committed to the club, saying that Kroenke's son, Josh -- who sits on the club's board -- has attended a number of the team's matches in his father's stead.
    The spokesman also argued that, despite being subject to financial fair play rules, Arsenal has invested heavily in new players, including last January's acquisition of star striker Pierre Emerick-Aubameyang, who was signed for a club-record £55 million.
    "Stan and Josh Kroenke have been clear with everyone at the club and our fans that their ambition is for Arsenal to compete for and win the top trophies in the game. This includes the Premier League and Champions League," said Mark Gonnella, Arsenal's communications and community affairs director.
    "The Premier League and UEFA Financial Fair Play rules which apply to all clubs essentially require clubs to operate on a self-funding model, in particular for the P&L impact of player investments.
    "In the last three transfer windows we have invested significantly in our playing squad both in terms of transfers, contract extensions and player wages, including twice breaking our transfer record. This has been done with the full support of the owners who are regular visitors to the club and our matches and are in contact with us on a daily basis.
    "As a club we're confident we can reach our goals to compete for and win the major trophies but recognize this will take time and hard work in what is the most competitive league in the world."

    Low approval rating, 100% ownership

    Still, there is no denying the frustration from Arsenal fans toward the owner, which manifests itself when Kroenke does turn up to games.
    He was booed loudly when he attended the final home match of Wenger's 22-year managerial reign at Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium in London last May. Fans have hurled invective in Kroenke's direction by displaying signs and singing profane songs at games, calling for him to leave.
    After last year's resignation of Wenger, who also faced calls for his departure over the club's declining performances, a plane flew over the stadium during Arsenal's final game of the season carrying a banner with a warning for the owner: "KROENKE - YOU'RE NEXT!!"
    Lyle estimates that Kroenke's approval rating among Arsenal supporters hovers around one percent.
    The fans may be stuck with him for a while, though. Kroenke assumed full ownership of the club last year after spending $2.3 billion to buy up all of the remaining shares, including the roughly 800 that were owned by fans.
    Ian Wright, a former Arsenal striker who is now a soccer commentator in England, called the takeover "absolutely disastrous" and said he wondered if it meant "the days of seeing [Arsenal] challenging for top honors on a regular basis may well have come and gone."
    The Arsenal Supporters Trust, a group founded in 2003 to broaden supporter ownership of the club, likewise bemoaned the move.
    Nigel Phillips, a board member of the trust who owned shares of the club for 25 years before being forced to sell them in September, said he was "devastated" by the takeover. "The fox really now is in the hen house," Phillips told CNN in an email.
      The weekend may bring yet more despair for Arsenal fans, just as the Rams could be entering a glorious new era.
      "Come Monday morning, Kroenke might have won the Super Bowl in America," Lyle said, "but we might have been pummeled by Manchester City."