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The Directors Box in London's Emirates Stadium gives new zest to the phrase luxury suite. Arriving on a private elevator, guests are greeted by an attractive hostess, shown to tables with floral centerpieces in the opposing team's colors, and seated in chairs upholstered in leather that has been dyed Arsenal red and embossed with the club's logo. They eat smoked fish imported from Scandinavia, burrata cheese from Italy and lamb from the British countryside, all washed down with champagne from France. As the Gunners' players and 60,000-plus fans, most swaddled in red scarves, brave a cold, rainy, heartlessly gray afternoon, the denizens of the Directors Box bask in warmth, comfort and conviviality.
The received wisdom that soccer truly is the world's sport is confirmed by the cast of characters in the box. British dignitaries mingle with soccer royalty. Sir Alex Ferguson, the manager of Manchester United, sits at a back table. A mere half hour before the English Premier League match between Arsenal and Queens Park Rangers kicks off, the Gunners' own manager, Arsène Wenger, a mystical Frenchman, makes an appearance, shaking hands with other guests, who include a marketing executive from Dubai, a knot of Russian businessmen and, improbably, DeMaurice Smith, head of the NFL Players Association. As if the theme of globalization and multinationalism needed further reinforcement, LED screens ringing the perimeter of the pitch flash a team diversity initiative, ARSENAL FOR EVERYONE, translated into various languages—Hebrew, Arabic and Korean among them.
As the game is about to start, the most important figure in this international barony walks through the suite doors: a lean man wearing a gray pinstripe suit that looks to be flannel, a white shirt, a solid black tie and cowboy boots, his ruddy face set off by a caterpillar of a mustache. His entrance could scarcely be less conspicuous—he's talking quietly to another man, who turns out to be his son—yet it causes an immediate drop in ambient volume. Enos Stanley Kroenke, a 65-year-old son of Mora, Mo. (pop. 491)—"The Ozark/Osage region," according to him; "about 16 miles south of Sedalia," according to Wikipedia—has arrived, bearing a complement of toothpicks in his breast pocket.
Kroenke soon grabs a black Nike ski parka and ventures onto the exposed terrace, where he can better concentrate on the game. His hands forming a tepee on his lips, he surveys the field. As he genially explains the sport's subtle charms to a soccer neophyte seated to his right, his green eyes remain fixed on the pitch. When Arsenal misses a scoring opportunity he recoils, smacks his palms together and arches his back. When the Gunners intercept a pass and transition deftly from defense to offense, he nods approvingly. When the officials miss an obvious QPR foul, he mutters, "My, oh my, oh my." When, an hour into the game, the score remains nil-nil, he says firmly, if to no one in particular, "Time to score some goals, guys."
The crowd has been expressing that sentiment with significantly more gusto, standing, groaning, imploring, imprecating, belting out full-throated cheers. These, after all, are some of Britain's—and the world's—most demanding supporters, fanatically devoted to a club whose London roots go back to 1886. Yet Kroenke is singularly entitled to make the request. Last year he added another $370 million to an initial investment in the club of $80 million to obtain a majority interest that now stands at more than two thirds.
Kroenke, in fact, already had more skin in the sports game—more assets invested, more holdings, more major franchises—than anyone else on the planet. This unassuming, private man from the guts of America, with a Midwestern drawl, also owns the NFL's St. Louis Rams; the NBA's Denver Nuggets; the NHL's Colorado Avalanche; the Pepsi Center, where the Nuggets and the Avalanche play; the Colorado Rapids of MLS, as well as their stadium; the National Lacrosse League's Colorado Mammoth; and Altitude Sports and Entertainment, a regional sports network. (To comply with NFL cross-ownership rules, after purchasing the Rams, Kroenke handed day-to-day control of the Nuggets to his 32-year-old son, Josh.)
Inasmuch as money is power, Kroenke is sport's ultimate kingpin, with holdings approaching $4 billion. But with Arsenal, the quintessentially American owner has inherited a legion of hard-to-please, quintessentially English subjects whose affection for him depends on how willing he is to spread around his spectacular wealth.
Today more than ever, the owners of sports franchises are an assortment of oddballs worthy of the Star Wars bar scene. There are Russian oligarchs and oil-rich sheikhs and hedge-fund arrivistes. (And that's just in the Premier League.) There are Jerry Jones, Mark Cuban and Nolan Ryan. (And that's just in Dallas--Fort Worth.) Their motivations vary with their personalities. To some, owning a team is a way of carrying out a civic good; to others, it's a way to gain entrée into the jock clique they couldn't penetrate in high school. To some, it's overseeing a public trust; to others it's owning the ultimate fantasy team. A recent TIME magazine article noted that among the inaugural Forbes 400 list in 1982, nine members owned pro sports teams; this year there were 32.
Kroenke is not only on the Forbes list but also in the highest quartile—No. 92, with an estimated net worth of $4 billion. Never heard of him? He's not bothered. Wouldn't recognize him on the street? So much the better. Haven't seen him quoted? That's because he seldom does interviews. Nor does he tweet. Someone once remarked that celebrities are as famous as they want to be. Same holds for owners of sports franchises. "I'm definitely not in this for recognition," Kroenke says, smiling.
Why is he in it? In a slow, rolling cadence, he says, "Sports are about these qualities of character: teamwork, perseverance, work ethic. These are universal values, and sports, at their best, promote these. [Sports] break barriers, they're embraced around the world, they bring communities together.... I can keep going if you want."