At a soccer game in Liverpool last week, Texas Rangers and Dallas Stars owner Tom Hicks watched his most recent acquisition – the Liverpool Football Club of the English Premier League. But as Hicks sat among the soccer faithful, there were some chants and banners directed solely at him.
“Liverpool Football Club … It’s in the Wrong Hands,” they chanted. The banners were also quite clear: “Thanks, Yanks. No More Friendly Fire” read one.
In 2007 Hicks and George Gillett, owner of the Montreal Canadiens hockey team bought the famed British soccer club and made some big promises: They would build a championship-caliber team, spend money on great players, and finance a new stadium. Hicks acknowledged that, yes, he’d bought the club to make money, but he also mentioned the successful sports teams he owns on this side of the puddle, and the Brits lapped it up.
Less than a year later, the Liverpool fans are beginning to see Hicks the way many Rangers fans see him – through the loser’s lens. He is being perceived as a sports owner who (duh) cares more about money than winning. A headline in the British tabloid The Sun summed it up: “Fans Want Yank to Walk Plank.”
The downhill slide started last fall, when Hicks and Gillett told Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez they wouldn’t OK funds for the “transfer window” – the time period when European leagues allow deals to be made for players, similar to free agency here. Benitez didn’t like being restricted by the new owners and said so publicly.
Hicks, basically, told Benitez not to talk to the press and to win with the players he had. The Liverpool fans love their Spanish manager and were plenty miffed – and even more so when it leaked out that Hicks had talked with German coach Jürgen Klinsmann about possibly taking Benitez’ place.
At the same time, the issue of the team’s finances was coming to a head. Hicks and Gillett had borrowed about $600 million to buy the club. They put up no money of their own and had one year to refinance the note. Oh, and they needed to find another $600 million for the new stadium. With the credit crunch looming, neither chore is turning out to be easy. According to news reports, the banks want Hicks to put up $20 million in cash, $75 million in letters of credit, and $60 million in personal guarantees – and the Brit press has been asking if he’s got the, um, liquidity, to do it.
With that in mind, plans for the new stadium have been downsized and delayed at least a year. Critics of Hicks say the massive debt the club will incur from the refinanced loans will mean little or no money for transfer players. And last week, the rumor overseas was that Hicks and Gillett would sell the club to Dubai International Capital (DIC), the investment company of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum. The business press has speculated that Hicks and Gillett will each reap a profit of $80 million if they sell the team after just one year. Gillett may even buy out Hicks and bring in the sheik as a new partner.
For Liverpool fans, the news has been abysmal. This is one of the most successful team in Britich soccer history, going all the way back to 1892. The club is running in the middle of the pack this year, and many fans blame the record on the new owners’ empty wallets and misunderstanding of European soccer.
On a Liverpool sports blog last week, one fan posted the following: “Gentlemen, you clearly have a lot to learn. At the moment, you are alienating the fans, the players, and the manager. You are turning a happy, dynamic club into a bitter den of uncertainty and infighting. … I can guarantee you now there will be more hate and revulsion towards you.”
The Rangers open their training camp within a month, and fans of the baseball team might want to follow the Liverpudlians’ lead. Hicks closed the wallet for his baseball team in this decade, and they have been mired at the bottom ever since. He seems more worried about the Glorypark development around the ballpark and how to use the team to make money. No free agents here, no transfer players across the pond. And that is not how you win in any league.
So I guess the fans in Merseyside have a lot in common with those in the Metroplex. The sports owner expects both sets of fans to show up in droves and put cash in his pocket. But it looks like the British soccer fans figured this one out a lot more quickly than the Texans – and they’re far more serious and passionate about their sport. Hicks may want to work hard on his defense.