Andrew Warshaw: Fulham, the latest club to fall into American hands

What do Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal, Aston Villa, Sunderland and Fulham have in common? Okay, they are all members of English Premier League but that’s not the answer I’m looking for.

The answer I’m looking for is they are also now controlled by American owners or majority shareholders, Fulham being the latest to join that particular ‘club’ for a reported £200m.

Not so long ago, the notion that almost a third of top-flight English clubs would be in American hands 13 years into the new millennium would have been dismissed as fanciful given the fact that professional football, relatively speaking, is still in its infancy in the United States, lagging behind other sports at senior level.

But business is business. Entrepreneurial American fortune-makers, just like their colleagues in the Middle East and elsewhere around the world, know how to spot an investment opportunity and such has been the massive global growth of the Premier League that there are few more enticing sporting ‘brands’, to use the current trendy parlance, than iconic English clubs.

Whether the English like it or not, clubs with history and tradition are snapped up more as attractive commercial ‘franchises’, to use another American term that sits uncomfortably with many fans, than anything to do with fanaticism across the pond for the world’s biggest sport.

Which is why the announcement that Fulham – that iconic institution down by the River Thames – has become the latest English club to be taken over by Americans has generated such interest.

Until last weekend, Shahid Khan was a virtual unknown in UK sporting circles even though he reportedly enjoys rock star status in the United States. The flamboyantly moustachioed Pakistan-born businessman is described as the living embodiment of the classic American dream, having landed in the country from Lahore at the age of 16 to go to college and turned himself into a self-made billionaire by building up a fortune from scratch in the US automotive industry.

Khan, like many other American owners of overseas soccer clubs, already has a strong sporting power base, in his case as owner of the Jacksonville Jaguars NFL franchise. Typically, he said all the right things when taking over at Fulham, insisting he was merely “a custodian of the club on behalf of its fans. Fulham is the perfect club at the perfect time for me.”

Quite what that actually meant was not explained. Under Mohamed Al Fayed, Fulham established themselves in the top flight while many other clubs around them of similar size and stature – in some cases, in fact, far more illustrious – fell by the wayside, unable to sustain themselves in such a competitive environment.

I was interested to read that the Jaguars, whom Khan purchased in December 2011, struggled badly last season finishing bottom of AFC South with two wins from 14 games. I don’t profess to know a great deal about the NFL and, of course, sport in the UK and the United States is run on very different lines. But the Jaguars’ recent record didn’t exactly spread optimism among my Fulham-supporting friends.

For all Khan’s infectious and outgoing personality – he is surely just as likely to generate a heap of column inches as his equally charismatic predecessor – the most obvious explanation for this latest intrusion, if you can call it that, by Big Brother would appear, as ever, to be the huge sums of money the Premier League generates, particularly when it comes to broadcasting rights.

Exactly what strategy Khan will employ at Fulham – everyone’s second favourite club (unless you are a Chelsea fan) – is the 64,000-dollar question. The Premier League hierarchy may see this latest deal as another example of how it rules the world but as one recent report into Khan’s takeover stated, the fact remains that no other European country is selling its football clubs to foreign owners with such alarming rapidity. Rightly or wrongly, “here we go again” has been the general clamour among grass-roots fans.

While it would be unfair to judge Khan until he settles into the role, for Al Fayed, the handover represents the end of an era after a 16-year stewardship. The raised eyebrows that may have initially accompanied Al Fayed’s purchase of Fulham quickly evaporated as he became its saviour by pumping a reported $300 million into the southwest London club situated not far from Harrods – the famous department store which Al Fayed also owned before selling it to Qatar Holdings for a reported $2.3 billion in 2010.

Fulham may have long crouched in the shadow of hated neighbours Chelsea and never challenged in recent decades for the Premier League title. But, with the help of Al Fayed’s bankrolling, the club has managed to cement its spot in the world’s most watched league after winning promotion from the second tier in 2001, even reaching and winning the Europa League final three years ago.

Al Fayed describes the man he has sold to as “honest and capable” but the jury, in the short term at least, is out. For a start, any attempt to move away from Fulham’s Craven Cottage home would destroy the club’s very identity.

But let’s give the new guy a chance. All owners are different and Khan may not be the bogeyman some people fear. In fact, he may well be the best thing that could happen to Fulham. He may well carry on the Al Fayed legacy and end up becoming one of the most open and well-respected billionaires to take control of one of England’s top flight clubs.

No secret has been made of the fact that the Jaguars will contest an NFL game in London for the next four seasons. But Khan promises the two franchises – to use that horrible word again – will be run as completely separate entities. Crucially, Fulham are debt-free, unlike certain other clubs who have been taken over by foreign investors with borrowed money.

Khan is bound to make changes among the staff. The real test – not tomorrow, not next month but soon – will be whether this latest acquisition becomes merely a self-serving commercial tool or whether Fulham’s status is enhanced by genuine plans to combine its long-standing reputation as a homely, welcoming club with strong investment, an honest, patient approach and – most important of all – a long-term commitment to the supporters.

Andrew Warshaw is chief correspondent of Insideworldfootball.