Thursday, August 29, 2013

Fulham Football Club and the Math of Khan

For a man who has spent much of his life courting media attention and generating more than his fair share of controversy, Mohamed Al Fayed did a good job this summer of keeping the sale of Fulham Football Club under the radar. For the past eighteen years he has lavished on the Craven Cottage faithful the kind of success which the vast majority of football fans can only dream about - that is to say, hardly any. Yet in an era of billionaire oligarchs, where the upper limit of expectation for most supporters is to push for a play-off place and make the third round of the FA Cup, mid-table Premiership mediocrity is nothing to be sniffed at.

Viewed from within the parameters of possibility as defined by the modern game, where supporters not unreasonably gauge their chances of success by the depth of their chairman’s pockets, Fulham fans will no doubt look back on Al Fayed’s time rather fondly. Following two successive promotions, continued Premier League survival has been punctuated by a number of memorable results, the odd cup run and a brief foray into Europe. It may not be enough to impress their neighbours along the Fulham Road but it testifies to a quiet achievement. Intelligent manager selections were made; aging stars, purchased from ‘bigger’ clubs had their careers extended; young, untried talent (from both home and abroad) was gambled upon. It was football in its most unassuming guise, in stark contrast to both the razzamatazz of the Sky Sports era and the life of its former chairman.

Let’s not forget that Al Fayed has been a veritable headline-factory over the years, although conventions of etiquette insist that we describe him as “colourful and charismatic”. Ever since his arrival in the UK during the 1970s he has courted, most unsuccessfully, the approval of the great and the good in this country, desperate to be accepted as one of their own. For their part, the ruling class, instinctively racist, and in turn repulsed by the Egyptian’s gregarious celebrity, went so far as to deny him a passport. Still, his money opened doors. It bought him Harrods, landed him in a long-running court case, and was partially responsible for ending the political career of Neil Hamilton. By the end a recalcitrant Al Fayed was so at odds with the upper class that he publically denounced Prince Philip as a Nazi who had organised the deaths of Princess Diana and his son Dodi. It was a statement most people believed to be, at the very least, half true. With the exception of that statue, Fulham got off lightly.

Whether judged by the success of his team on the pitch, or the size of his character away from the game, Al Fayed is the archetypal tough act to follow. So step up Shahid Khan. The car-part magnate is rumoured to have spent somewhere in the region of £200 million for Fulham, which now becomes the sixth Premier League team to be owned by an American. Unlike the others in whose wake he follows, the man who looks like the love child of Salvador Dali and Ron Jeremy is capable of giving Al Fayed a run for his money in more ways than one.

Khan, like his Craven Cottage predecessor, is an immigrant, his story charting a journey from Pakistan to the United States. It was this tale that was told in a 60 Minutes piece last year, so favourable it bordered on hagiography. But, hey, when the legend becomes fact, we’ll carry on and print that legend. Born in Lahore during the early 1950s, the son of a professor of mathematics, he idled away his childhood by watching cricket, building radios and displaying an early, and uniquely distasteful, entrepreneurial spirit by charging friends to read his comic books. At the age of 16 he was accepted at the University of Illinois to study mechanical engineering, and arrived in the United States, in January 1967, with just $500 in his pocket. What follows reads like a template for the American Dream. Suspiciously so.

After a night at the YMCA, Khan had an epiphany. If he was to make a name for himself in this land of opportunity, he would have to find employment. He wandered down the street, and found a job as a dishwasher earning just $1.20 an hour. At this point, history becomes blurry. We can say for certain that Khan graduated from university, promptly joining Flex’N’Gate, an auto-part company for whom he had worked during his degree. There is a suggestion that he played a part in developing the first one-piece car bumper, although how great the extent of his input was is rarely discussed. By 1978 he had borrowed $50,000, and ploughed in his $16,000 savings, to start his own company. One can only assume it was an almighty success, because within two years he had bought out Flex’N’Gate for the rather more sizable sum of $800,000.

As with all such rags to riches stories, Khan’s life has a too-good-to-be-true feel about it. Khan is clearly a savvy operator, and one wonders if omission has been just as important as achievement in the construction of his myth. The US media is keen for the story to be true, eager to find an example of someone enjoying life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. In fairness to Khan, setting cynicism temporarily to one side, it is easy to see how his image is as much self-defence as self-promotion. Despite his wealth his life has been one of the outsider, the alien. At university he had been accepted into the Beta Theta Pi fraternity, but treated as a “novelty” by his white contemporaries. In the post-9/11 context he has become the Muslim. He talks of being questioned and searched by the police, and was once detained while trying to cross the bridge that links Detroit to Canada. He handles it all with the kind of magnanimity that only the rich can afford: “Well, it’s like, their intentions are good.” By embodying the Dream narrative, his story of success is as American as apple pie.

What we can say with certainty though is that today, according to Forbes, he is reportedly worth $2.9 billion, making him the 163rd richest person in the United States, and sneaking him into the top 500 wealthiest in the world. In comparison Al Fayed is worth merely half this amount. For pities sake, he doesn’t even register in the top 1000 richest people in the world. Khan, in the vernacular of these here parts, is proper minted. He has so much money that he now feels able to carve out a reputation as a philanthropist.

As befits a man of such wealth, Khan’s record on such issues as tax avoidance, environmentalism and workers’ rights is shocking. In 2011 the IRS were investigating both Khan and his wife, on suspicion that they had evaded $85 million worth of tax by “sheltering” the money in off-shore accounts. The following year protests highlighted the accusations that Khan had failed to clean up a spill of carcinogenic chemicals at one of his plants in Michigan. It came at a time when the United Automobile Workers had targeted Khan’s company as part of its union drive. According to Automotive News, “Cindy Estrada, a U.A.W. vice president, said Flex-N-Gate's nonunion employees are paid what she called unlivable wages of $9 to $10 an hour, and said the safety conditions at some plants are among the worst she has seen.” Estrada followed this with a simply classic line, “He [Khan] paints himself as the American dream, but it came at the expense of the workers.”

Like many a bored businessman before him, Khan decided his vast wealth could be used to branch out into the world of sports. In November 2011 he bought the Jackson Jaguars for $770 million, a deal which made him the first ever non-white owner of an NFL team. It was a bold move considering the Jags are the least valued, least popular franchise in the league. By default, Khan has become the face of the team; his avuncular charm responsible for an approval rating of 78%. Not that this should be interpreted as universal support. While still in talks to buy the team Khan was subjected to hideous Islamophobic abuse online, with fans labelling him a “Terrorist from Pakistan”, a “Sand Monkey”, and another asking, “If you buy a Jags season ticket, does it come with a prayer rug?”

There were, however, others who found good cause to take issue with Khan. During a press conference he said, “For me a fan is somebody who is a season ticket holder for the Jaguars.” Now, we all know fans are nothing more than consumers to clubs and their owners, a revenue stream with arms and legs and bank accounts. But it is incumbent upon them to maintain at all times the illusion that they see supporters as the lifeblood of a club. In uttering these words, Khan crossed the line. Quickly he backtracked, claiming he had only been joking, and truly believed that, "All it takes to be a Jaguars fan is to love the Jaguars.  And if you love the Jaguars, you're the most important person to me and the entire organization."

The truth was out: Khan was the same as all the others. He was just another corporate suit playing fast and loose with the dreams of sports fans. And he struggled to learn his lesson. When asked why he chose to buy the Jags rather than any other team he replied, “Well, because you buy what is available for sale. This isn’t like going on Craigs List and picking up a NFL team.” Perhaps aware that the harsh reality of supply and demand is not necessarily what plays best with his team’s fanbase he quickly added, “It was fate, it was destiny, it was kismet.” In truth he is happy to leave the football to others, his vision for the Jaguars extends to the building of “an international brand”, with the goal of playing at least one game in London in the next few years.

In this light his purchase of Fulham appears to have less to do with a love of football, and more akin to a smart piece of corporate strategizing. At least in the States he could claim he was converted to the appeal of American football whilst at college. His plans for a redevelopment of Craven Cottage hint at where his priorities lie: 'The Riverside expansion is a key element, with more hospitality and higher revenue seats. My goal is that Fulham will live on as a viable business long after I’m gone.' More hospitality, higher revenue seats. Not a successful club, but a viable business.

No doubt the majority of Fulham fans would prefer an owner who feels the same way about the club as they do, but their desire is tempered by an understanding of the way in which football is subordinate to business in the Premier League. “All those fans I’ve spoken to are cautiously optimistic,” said David Lloyd, editor of fanzine TOOFIF. “If Khan is as rich as suggested, he’s hardly going to buy a club that just wants to avoid relegation every season.”

That sense of hope has been bolstered by Khan, for once, making most of the right noises. He will have fostered much good will by immediately stating his dislike of Chelsea, talking of Fulham as being a “special place”, and reminiscing about watching the team play in 2007. He pledged to support the club “financially and spiritually” – the former no doubt more important than the latter. Serendipity has played its part once more: “This is the perfect club for me at a perfect time.” And there have been early signs that there will be deeds as well as promises. Already Fulham have signed Maarten Stekelenburg, Scott Parker, Adel Taraabt and Darren Bent. While the deals have been cheap the wages involved are likely to be considerable.

Khan has also stated his desire to take Fulham “to the next level”. For owners and managers at new clubs this is of course a stock phrase, a rhetorical flourish deployed in the middle of a press conference designed to ingratiate them with fans harbouring great expectations. Yet in the case of Khan it functions not only as a statement of intent but as comment on the nature of modern football also. Everybody understands that to move up to that next level, no matter how ill-defined it may be, money must be spent. Lots of money. Fulham have the potential to reach the next level because their new chairman is richer than their last.

It is doubtful that Khan possesses sufficient knowledge about the vagaries of the Premier League to have already formulated a fool proof master plan, one guaranteed to take his new plaything into the Champions League. What Khan does possess is an unshakeable self-belief in his own business acumen and a vast bank balance. This is why he thinks Fulham can succeed in breaking the closed shop of English football; this is why he thinks he will accomplish more than Al Fayed. The sad thing is that, in a league which measures wealth as accurately as form, he may well be right.