Owner of Jaguars and Fulham Seeks Football Fusion

LONDON — The mile-long walk from
the Putney Bridge tube stop to Craven
Cottage, the home of Fulham Football
Club, is among the most scenic in
English soccer. On game days, fathers
and sons, young couples and hardened
fans amble together through Bishop’s
Park past rose bushes, stone sculptures
and the Thames.
The pastoral parade is a world away
from Jacksonville, Fla., where most
Jaguars fans arrive at their team’s
games by car or truck in search of
parking spots for their card tables,
barbecues and coolers. The scenes had
little in common until July, when
Shahid Khan, the owner of the Jaguars,
bought Fulham for an estimated 200
million pounds (about $319 million),
creating an unlikely sports tandem.
Less than two decades old, the Jaguars
are one of the N.F.L.’s youngest
franchises and play in one of the
league’s smallest markets, with only
occasional success.
Fulham, by contrast, dates to 1879, and
while it lacks the winning tradition of,
say, Manchester United, it has produced
great players like Johnny Haynes and
Bobby Robson. Archibald Leitch, a
renowned architect, designed part of its
stadium, a landmark in an upscale
section of London.
Khan, an auto-parts magnate, wants to
fuse the teams in ways no owner of
American and English teams has done.
He committed the Jaguars to playing
home games in London the next four
seasons — including on Oct. 27 against
the 49ers — fueling talk that they may
move there. Fulham will play friendlies
in Florida. Khan has hired marketers
to win sponsors on both sides of the
Atlantic and has told his teams to share
tips on everything from catering to
ticketing.
“They are two separate entities, but
there is common ground where two
plus two equals five,” he said. “It’s kind
of saturated in the U.S., so the growth
will be internationally.”
To date, most owners of American and
English teams have viewed their clubs
as too distinct to integrate. While the
N.F.L. has a salary cap, Premier
League clubs can spend without limit
for players. American stadiums are
like theme parks, dominated by luxury
boxes and food courts; British stadiums
are frequently minimalist, with fans
doing most of their eating and drinking
in nearby pubs. While American teams
seek stadium naming partners, shirt
deals in England are often more
visible, and more lucrative.
The most prominent combinations of
teams have little to do with one
another, including Manchester United
and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, which
are owned by the Glazer family; and
Arsenal, the St. Louis Rams and the
Colorado Rapids of Major League
Soccer, which are owned by Stan
Kroenke. Randy Lerner, who owns
Aston Villa and sold the Cleveland
Browns, did little to fuse his teams.
The owners of Manchester City are
likely to collaborate with the M.L.S.
team they bought this year, which
expects to begin play in New York in
2015. The Fenway Sports Group has
created cross-border links between
Liverpool and the Boston Red Sox,
though baseball is barely played in
Britain.
Khan seeks to go further. Because the
Jaguars will play in London regularly,
the N.F.L. gave them extra marketing
rights that are starting to generate
more income for a team that is last in
the league in revenue per ticket sold.
Khan is promoting Jacksonville to
British fans in the hope they will visit to
see a Jaguars game. To whet their
appetites, he sent the Jaguars’
cheerleaders to perform at a Fulham
match, and a British lingerie company
created a calendar for them. The
newly formed Union Jax Jaguars fan
club in Britain has about 17,000
members.
“Mr. Khan said we’re not the Fulham
Jaguars,” said Laura Oakes, who was
hired to find sponsorships for the
Jaguars in Britain. “But in terms of
raising our profile, Fulham is a
wonderful icebreaker.”
Despite the focus on the N.F.L. in
London, the bigger opportunity could
be in selling Fulham to American fans:
on a per-capita basis, English soccer is
more popular in the United States than
American football is in Britain, said
Steven Gans, a principal at
Professional Soccer Advisors. The latest
deal to carry Premier League games in
the United States was three times as
large as the previous contract, one sign
of the sport’s growing prominence.
“It’s validated our theory, which is,
Americans want high-quality soccer,”
said Gans, who helped Fulham seek
business ties in the United States several
years ago. “The growth here has been
consistent for people who love high-
quality soccer.”
Having Fulham tour the United States
in its off-season could bring in millions
of dollars. While the club does not have
the stature of Real Madrid or Chelsea, it
has a following in the United States
because national team stars like Clint
Dempsey and Brian McBride once
played for the team, earning it the
nickname Fulhamerica.
“I love any time I see someone with a
Fulham jersey or scarf,” said McBride,
who was captain during his nearly four
years at Fulham and is now an analyst
for Fox Sports. “When an American
fan goes over there to go to some
games, there are some special stadiums,
but Fulham has character.”
Getting executives five time zones apart
to work together is easier in theory
than in practice. And some things, like
selling tickets more efficiently, will do
only so much to offset a terrible player
contract, missing the playoffs or being
relegated. Some owners, including the
Glazers, have also taken heavy
criticism from fans who suspect them
of using profits from United to
subsidize the Buccaneers.
For now, Khan is getting high marks
from fans in Jacksonville, where he is
treated like a rock star, and in London,
where he removed a deeply unpopular
statue of Michael Jackson installed by
the previous owner. But losing breeds
discontent, and the winless Jaguars
may need a financial boost if they are
to turn around their fortunes on the
field. Khan also agreed to pay about
one-third of a $63 million upgrade to
EverBank Field in Jacksonville and will
spend even more to upgrade Craven
Cottage. Fulham, which is one spot
above relegation before this weekend’s
matches, must compete with free-
spending clubs across Europe for top
players.
Because of the N.F.L.’s healthy
revenue-sharing program, the Jaguars
earned an operating profit of $15.5
million last year, even though they
were the second-least valuable
franchise in the league, according to
Forbes. English soccer clubs share less
of their revenue, but Fulham can tap
into the wealthy London market for
new sources of revenue.
Indeed, Fulham plans to spend about
30 million pounds (nearly $50 million)
to expand its stadium, which has only
25,000 seats and is hemmed in by a
park, the Thames and its landmark
grandstand. The team wants to add
new lounges, 4,300 club seats, and a
cafe and restaurant that will be open
on nongame days.
“It’s a very important part of our
business plan,” said Alistair MacIntosh,
Fulham’s chief executive. “There is a
trend towards being self-sustaining.”
With its small stadium and modest
ambitions, Fulham is unlikely to
challenge for the Premier League title
or regularly qualify for the European
tournaments that might bring in more
revenue, even though the team’s
previous owner, Mohamed Al-Fayed,
once vowed to turn the club into the
“Manchester United of the South.”
Yet the Cottagers, as the team is known,
have been good enough to avoid
relegation the past dozen years. Last
year, Fulham had nearly $130 million
in revenue, a total that was 10th in the
20-team Premier League but only one-
quarter of what Manchester United
earned. The team still lost $30 million
before taxes.
“Balancing the books is the goal,” said
Alexander Thorpe, who works in the
Sports Business Group at Deloitte, which
produces an annual financial review
of the Premier League. “If everyone is
getting a big chunk of television money,
the difference is how much commercial
revenue teams earn.”
Like all teams, Fulham has a devoted
following. But many fans, including
transplants to London, consider the
club their second team. Craven Cottage
is a rarity in that it has neutral zone
seats for fans of any affiliation. It is
also considered family friendly, at least
by British standards. Fulham’s former
cheerleaders, the Cravenettes, were
replaced by a mascot, Billy the Badger,
who once received a yellow card for
his sideline antics.
Fulham’s best asset might be its
tradition. It is one of England’s oldest
clubs, and its cozy stadium evokes
Fenway Park along the Thames. The
famed Johnny Haynes Stand includes
wooden seats installed more than a
century ago, and a two-story brick
cottage doubles as a dressing room.
Unlike rowdy crowds elsewhere,
Fulham’s fans, who include the actor
Hugh Grant, appear content simply to
be playing in England’s top division.
“Fulham will never compete with
Chelsea,” its more powerful neighbor,
said Steve Nutley, a lifelong Fulham
supporter whose London taxicab is
adorned with team paraphernalia.
“There’s no animosity between the
teams. That’s how we grew up.”
Fans ultimately want to watch a
winner, and the lack of a salary cap in
the Premier League means Khan can
spend heavily on players if he wants.
But he is more likely to take advantage
of new financial fair play rules in
European soccer that will tie the
amount a club spends to what it earns.
The rules could help rein in owners
who have bankrolled losses in their
search of the best talent, and give Khan
some time to figure out ways to
generate more money from his teams.
The goal for Fulham, just as it is for the
Jaguars, is that it “should not depend
on the benevolence of its chairman,”
Khan said.
“It should become a sustaining
business,” he added, “a virtuous cycle
where you are bringing money in and
spending on players.”