Derby’s American Owners: Question Marks

Derby County
Can Derby County’s new American owners take them back to their glory days? Long past but still remembered are nights such as their legendary and controversial clash with Juventus in the semi-final of the European Cup in 1972, when Brian Clough’s English champions were beaten by what he called “cheating bastards” who had allegedly bribed the referee.

Recent financial troubles and the club’s struggles in the Premier League this season have not discouraged the new owners from speaking of making Derby a global brand.

David Conn has a few questions for Derby County’s new regime, Michigan-based General Sports and Entertainment.

GSE were founded in 1998 by Andy Appleby, a former Senior Vice President of the Detroit Pistons. Derby is their first major acquisition, though they also own a successful Minor League Baseball team, the Fort Wayne Wizards.

From who actually owns the club to whether they’ve paid off the debt or not, Conn says that GSE have provided few answers so far. I’m not sure that’s hugely worrying at this preliminary stage; but I’m glad someone is asking the questions.

The GSE website, with its upbeat intro promising to “build relationships” through sports and entertainment, isn’t particularly helpful. They choose to cite the Green Bay Packers as an example of the power of sports (ignoring that part of the reason that “the whole state of Wisconsin lives and dies with every down of a Green Bay Packers game” is that people in Wisconsin actually own the Packers).

They seem to be very ambitious.

At General Sports it is our conviction that no one has yet capitalized on the full potential of the power of sports and entertainment. While many businesses include sports and entertainment in their marketing mix, businesses rarely have been able to maximize the value of their investment. General Sports is the only company with the breadth and depth of experience, knowledge and contacts to truly maximize the power of sports and entertainment. We charge ourselves with capitalizing on the enormous potential of the power of sports and entertainment to give our clients the competitive edge to maximize the value of their business.

Detroit ExpressGSE are apparently convinced that they can “establish the Rams as a global brand”. In fact, the word “brand” appears three times in three paragraphs of the press release announcing the takeover.

It is encouraging that the release notes Aston Villa as a model of American investment, and it’s not believed GSE’s takeover was funded by debt, as was the case at Man Utd and Liverpool.

Further, the addition of Roger Faulkner to GSE is a promising sign. Faulkner grew up in Derby, and has been active in the American soccer community since the 1960s. He was the original founder of NASL team the Detroit Express, later purchased by English football pundit Jimmy Hill, who featured Trevor Francis and (briefly) George Best. He explained his past to the Derby Telegraph:

“This is a dream come true. To say I’m pleased to be here would be an absurd understatement,” said Mr Faulkner.

“After 40 years of self-imposed exile in the United States and promoting soccer in the country, to find myself back in my home town and at a club that means so much to me is extraordinary,” he added.

“I feel I’ve come full circle.”

Mr Faulkner recalled the day he became a Derby fan.

“The date was April 27, 1946,” he said.

“My father had spent World War Two in the Middle East and when he came home we went to Bournemouth on holiday. I was seven and I remember gathering round an old wooden radio and listening to Derby County beat Charlton Athletic in the FA Cup final.

“Not only did I bond with my father that day, but I also bonded with Derby County.”

He then rattled off Derby’s cup-winning side. “I know it’s absurd and irrational, but that’s how football fans are.

“You can change your wife and citizenship – both of those things I’ve done – but you can’t change your club.

“Derby is my football team. This is very precious to me.”

He sounds like a genuine supporter, and one hopes he will have real sway within GSE in running Derby.

Back to Conn’s questions: of particular concern for the future is how the owners intend to get the “solid investment return” GSE promise their investors, and what will happen if they don’t. Derby will be relegated this year from the Premier League — I don’t think I’m sticking my neck out on that one — and will have two years of “parachute payments” to cushion the financial fall.

Investors like GSE are only buying in to get a stake in rising Premier League valuations and television money: a yo-yo club like Derby is going to need serious and smart spending to consolidate a place in the Premier League if they win promotion next year, but if they get it wrong, GSE could end up mortgaging the future. Derby are already heavily in debt.

Perhaps Faulkner’s experience in the NASL will encourage him to be cautious for the sake of his beloved club.

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