A short stroll away from the centre of town, St Louis’ best-known soccer pub is opening its doors for early drinkers and the city’s dwindling number of Arsenal fans. The Amsterdam Tavern has only recently started opening early on a Sunday to cater for the English Premier League lunchtime kick-offs, which start around 7am Central Time.
St Louis has always been a soccer town, from back in the days when America’s first pro-soccer league was formed there. But only in recent years, with the explosion of global interest in the game, have people filled the dark-wood interior of the Amsterdam for English, Spanish and Italian matches.
Inside the tavern, walls are covered in soccer jerseys from around the world. A Celtic top hangs over the bar. On most nights and afternoons the place is filled with drinkers and supporters. Arsenal had kicked off their mid-afternoon/early morning match against Bournemouth. It was a crucial game. Leicester were still, surprisingly, at the top of the table. But the fans of the traditional giants of English football, Arsenal among them, still couldn’t believe the underdog story would continue. Arsenal had to win, and keep the pressure up.
That morning, two men, both called Mike, are the only Arsenal fans present. One is wearing a retro yellow Arsenal away jersey with ‘SEGA’ plastered across the front; the other Mike is sporting a traditional red ‘Emirates’ Arsenal top. “I detest how Stan Kroenke is affecting my life – not only Arsenal but with the Rams in so many ways,” says Sega Mike. “I hate the lack of control we have over things in the face of this billionaire. There’s absolutely loads of Tottenham fans now. Sure, there were a lot of Americans who played for Spurs. That is one reason. But the other is that if you are a St Louisan… well, you’re not going to pick the one with Kroenke. You’ll pick his mortal enemy.”
Sega Mike has been an Arsenal fan for almost 20 years. “That’s as real as an American fan can get, pretty much,” he says, of a period of time that almost exclusively covers the modern era, with TV money and all-seater stadiums. But even fans like Mike, detached from any geographical connection to north London, have felt the destructive pull of the new breed of soccer club owner– a strangely familiar feeling.
The American ideal is about absolutely enriching yourself first. That is how American business is
“It is something a lot of Britons are not familiar with. When the Glazers took over [Manchester United],” he says, “there was a lot of shock that private stock owners were getting enriched. And that is just America. That is going to be the new future for English football: a lot of private enrichment.”
This presents an ethical issue for soccer fans. While in England, the club you support has traditionally been connected to geography or family connections, American soccer fans consciously chose a team. And part of that choice for many involves a consideration of ethics. Who owns the club? And where do they get their money from?
“At least the slave-owning Emirates and the mob-tied Russian billionaires spend money on their club to get results!” jokes Sega Mike. “The man ripping apart the fabric of America with Wal-Mart is doing nothing for his team.”
“Look at other teams Kroenke owns,” adds Emirates Mike. “The Avalanches, the Nuggets, [MLS team Colorado] the Rapids….”
“Jesus,” interrupts Sega Mike, shaking his head. None of the teams have enjoyed much in the way of success since Kroenke took over. “When you think about it, he’s the worst. In the past, at least you had lord-y English owners who invested for prestige, not necessarily making money. Now the American ideal is [about] absolutely enriching yourself first. That is how American business is. The Glazers and everyone else.” There are no good guys to root for, not in the top leagues anyway. “It is either an emirate or a dodgy Russian former Soviet-enriched billionaire. Which way do you want to be ethically compromised?”
It was hard to find anyone with a good word to say about Stan Kroenke – Rams fans, Arsenal fans, businessmen, barmen, mayors, activists, journalists alike
Working behind the bar, Dave isn’t much of a soccer man. He was a Rams season ticket holder and went to his first game when he was six, with his father. “My dad doesn’t care for soccer, he’s old school,” he said. “I come home from work and Arsenal lose, and he shouts: ‘Yeah! With Kroenke teams I hope they never win.’ He is genuinely stoked when Arsenal lose.”
His father wasn’t just alienated from the Rams – no one in St Louis would follow the team in LA – but from American football as a whole. Dave’s family had invested thousands of dollars and thousands of hours of free time supporting the team through thick and thin. There was one Super Bowl to show for the glory years, when the team was so good they were dubbed the ‘Greatest Show on Turf’. But since then the Rams had declined markedly. Over the past ten years, no NFL team had ever acquired as bad a record as the St Louis Rams.
“Me and my dad, we are not going to watch the Super Bowl. We are done with football,” Dave says. “St Louis will be the only city in America not watching the Super Bowl. The Rams were a 20-year thing. It was the worst team ever for ten years. And we still turned up! Twenty years that just ended in an instant. It’s heartbreaking.”
Arsenal ran out 2-0 winners at Bournemouth. As soon as the match finished, the bar filled to bursting. There was talk that the soon-to-be abandoned stadium in the centre of the city might now be put to good use. There had been talk of an MLS expansion team in St Louis, which might be able to take up the lease. But, of course, whether a team could compete in the league wasn’t dependent on merit, on rising up through the leagues and earning your place. You had to prove your wealth and your worth, and join the same kind of financial club of rich owners that had, in the end, destroyed the St Louis Rams.
“We deserve an MLS soccer team,” Sega Mike says. “Just don’t let Kroenke near it.”
A 2011 Sports Illustrated profile: ‘The Most Powerful Man in Sports… You Had No Idea, Did You? Stan Kroenke'
It was hard to find anyone with a good word to say about Stan Kroenke – Rams fans, Arsenal fans, businessmen, barmen, mayors, activists, journalists alike. Even the Uber driver who picked me up from the Amsterdam at 11am and who stunk of weed was dismissive.
Kroenke was referred to as ‘Silent Stanley’ in the US media for his low profile and few conversations with the press. The handful of interviews he has given painted him as an unassuming, down-to-earth guy. The title of the 2011 Sports Illustrated profile on him hinted as much: ‘The Most Powerful Man in Sports… You Had No Idea, Did You? Stan Kroenke.’
While many in the city were planning to boycott the Super Bowl, one accident and injury lawyer from St Louis had decided to make a more visible protest, paying for and starring in his own advert to be shown at half time. Super Bowl is famous for its adverts, which can cost as much as $5m a minute. I clicked on the story on the CBS website, and the picture at the top looked familiar. It was Terry Crouppen, the lawyer of the ‘Winningest’ billboard that I’d seen all over town. I checked the picture on my phone and called the number, but it went straight to answerphone. I left a message. He called me back within five minutes. Ten minutes later he is sitting next to me in a bar.
“We were voted the ‘winningest’ law firm in the entire state and we are very proud,” he says, ordering an orange juice. “It didn’t cost $5m to take out the ad, but it was a lot, the most I’ve ever paid for an advert,” he says when he sits down. “If I had $5m going spare, I’d probably hire a hit man.”
There’s a moment of silence. “That’s a joke, by the way.”
The Billionaires Club: The unstoppable rise of football’s super-rich owners by James Montague is out now (£16.99, Bloomsbury Sport)