The war on globalization conjures images of dilapidated towns in the American Rustbelt, of the jubilation that encompassed Trump Tower on election night 2016 and of the solemnity that defined David Cameron’s expression as he approached the podium outside 10 Downing Street to announce his resignation in the hours following the United Kingdom’s collective decision to withdraw from the European Union (‘Brexit’). Increasingly, however, the mention of isolationism should herald thoughts of Arsenal Football Club.
Arsenal’s supply chain is irrefutably atypical, commencing with the sourcing of players, who in effect serve as the organisation’s raw materials, from around the world. Last season, players from 65 countries were represented across the Premiership. Players are subsequently cultivated and assembled by Arsenal, culminating in the finished product: a team of eleven players who compete in domestic and international competitions. The downstream supply chain is composed of the distribution of viewing rights in the form of both ticket sales and licensing to domestic and foreign TV channels (ticket receipts accounted for £100m in 2016, 24% group revenue; sales of TV rights contributed £199m in sales, 47% group revenue) (1). The final downstream channel is tied to the ability to be associated with the product, which arrives in the form of sponsorship deals (‘Commercial Revenue’ accounted for £117m in 2016, 28% group revenue) (2)
Football holds a central role within England’s national consciousness, and thus carries an unparalleled capacity to elevate the national morale. That ability has, more recently, been accompanied by the ascent of the Premier League as an emblem of globalization. When Arsène Wenger was appointed Arsenal’s manager in 1996, he became the fourth manager appointed from outside the UK in English history; today, he is one of 12. (3) This season, 84% of Arsenal’s playing minutes have been played by foreign footballers. (4)
Arsenal’s rapid internationalization renders it particularly vulnerable to the brand of isolationism manifested in Brexit. The upstream supply chain is intensely threatened by the prospect of enhanced work permit restrictions being levied on foreign players, particularly those from within the EU, whose talent has contributed significantly to its success as a Club to date. Those permits serve, in effect, as tariffs on the human capital necessary for Arsenal to continue to prosper.
In turn, the deteriorative ramifications Brexit poses for the club’s downstream supply chain are principally vested in three key tenets. The first of which is that the sale of TV rights and sponsorships deals internationally are inextricably tied to the presence of players from across the globe, i.e. French viewers are more likely to watch if there are French players. Secondly, stadium ticket sales will decline alongside the fall in number of foreign visitors to the UK expected to emanate from more stringent visa restrictions. Finally, the decline in quality signaled by more restrictive sourcing policies will culminate in a diminished product.
With two exceptions, Arsenal’s response to Brexit has been animated by the hope that the rinsing tide of isolationism will recede naturally. The first exception is that the Club has sought to suppress the extent to which its global distribution model relies upon foreign players, by building the global popularity of its brand independent of its access to foreign players. Arsenal has achieved this through the means of pursuing exhibition matches across the globe, hosting training camps internationally and enrolling foreign corporate sponsors. Furthermore, the Club has increasingly enacted a strategy of fostering home-grown talent, through cultivating a pipeline of young footballers and subsequently awarding those players opportunities to develop their talents. In doing so, Arsenal has further extricated itself from its historical dependence on foreign talent and has ascribed to the FA’s 2016-designed regulations on homegrown players. (5)
To maintain the success of the club’s supply chain going forward, Arsenal must address the origin of concerns regarding the distribution of its product through maintaining the quality of its players. This can be achieved through two means: lobbying the British government to replicate the existing access to athletic labour following Brexit, and committing additional resources to developing local talent.
From a structural perspective, the Club should explore the possibility of enhancing supporters’ ability to participate in the governance of the organization, in order to reorient around local interests and talent. The representation of supporters within the management of German football clubs has contributed to a culture that affords more opportunities to players from within the country. (6)
The Club should, also, investigate the opportunity of hosting competitive Premier League matches outside of London, in a manner similar to that in which the NFL has held matches in London, in order to further cultivate international support.
How will Arsenal cope with the demands associated with the English Premier League once more becoming English? In an industry in which localization is not a plausible strategy, how do you retain support in international markets amidst a groundswell of isolationism?
(1) Arsenal Holdings PLC, Statement of Accounts and Annual Report, 2016-17, p. 16
(2) Arsenal Holdings PLC, Statement of Accounts and Annual Report, 2016-17, p. 16
(3) The Economist, The English are Bad at Playing Football- but Brilliant at Selling it, September 2nd 2017
(4) ESPN, Premier League Third-Most Reliant on Foreign Players in All of Europe, October 9th 2017
(5) The Telegraph, Brexit Disappointing and Will Damage Premier League, 25th June 2016
(6) The Economist, The World’s Game, Not England’s’, May 3rd 2017