The case for Suning as good caretaker owners

Despite the sudden and unexpected sale of the club's talismanic star striker, which has triggered an understandable backlash from the supporters (myself included), it is hard to argue for any better alternative options as either short- or long-term owners of the club. To preface, this entire exercise is actually pointless. Despite having a major stake in the club's success, supporters have literally zero control over the club's board room level decisions. If Suning were to ever sell their majority stake to an American private equity firm (Oaktree), they would not require our approval or consultation. Having a rooting interest implies some kind of active engagement but in actuality we are all passive observers.

Regardless, in reflecting on the last five years and surveying the general state of club finances near the top levels of world football, it is pretty hard to argue that Suning isn't a close to ideal caretaker owner. After the spectacular failure of their first transfer window, which saw them investing huge sums in Joao Mario and Gabigol, the owners have, until this most recent window, invested very wisely. There have been some misses (Dalbert) but it is undeniable that there has been a significant improvement in the quality of the roster over these past five seasons.

More important than their investment, Suning have also been quite transparent and honest with fans. After an endless cycle of false start rebuilds, they established a long-term plan to slowly redevelop the club and return it to past glories. And they were successful. The club saw a continuous improvement in their table position until they finally got over the hump and lifted the scudetto last season. They were also able to attract one of the world's best coaches (Conte), super star players (Lukaku & Eriksen), and surround them with emergent talents (Barella, Hakimi, Bastoni). In five short years, Inter had been transformed from a mid-table basket case into a side that could, once again, be considered a legitimate European heavy weight.

And now it would seem that they are intent on unmaking all of that progress in just a few short months.

The reality is that Suning's long-term financial plan was predicated on being able to continue to increase the club's revenues by maintaining a constant presence in the Champions League, building our own stadium, and maximizing sponsorship/branding. There were two factors, one external and one internal, that imploded that plan. The first was the global pandemic, which has exposed the frailty of club finances throughout all levels of the competitive hierarchy. Inter are not the only sporting institution that has been suffering. Both the Spanish giants allowed their club captains to walk away for nothing this summer. Juve have hardly done anything of note this summer. The only exception to the general austerity throughout the European game are Chelsea, Man City, and PSG, which are outliers because of their unique(ly barbaric) ownership groups.

Which really begs the question: would we feel comfortable being the investment vehicle and patrons for kleptocratic oligarchs of the post-Soviet system or Gulf oil states? Of course, on-pitch success matters. We want to be able to attract the best players and see them compete for the game's top prizes. But at what price? And how sustainable are those business models? What happens to Man City or PSG when the petrol dollars dry up? Or when those Gulf monarchies realize that their investment in the sport is actually attracting more attention to their human rights abuses rather than white washing them (Qatar World Cup being the prime example)?

And what are the other alternatives? The most realistic take over would be from an American private equity firm. As a rule, private equities are solely interested in maximizing short-term profits to satisfy the bottom line of their shareholders. They don't make for good long-term investment partners because they are more interested in realizing the immediate value of assets as profit rather than increasing the value of their existing assets through investment. The irony is that the Chinese 'communist' system has created a much more effective class of long-term investors (capitalists) than the Anglo-American free market model. As a supporter, I would rather get into bed with the former than the latter.

And then there is the option of the member-owned club, which would see the club's shares taken out of private exchanges and redistributed to fans (socios who pay annual membership fees and are appropriately vetted by the clubs). This is, of course, the ideal model. But where is this actually working? Real Madrid & Barcelona's finances have reached a dangerously unsustainable level, which is why both of the clubs' presidents were so eager to adopt a closed shop European Super League. If Inter were member owned, they would undoubtedly be in the same position.

The reality is that the emergence of the Premier League has created competitive pressures that have rendered all of the various continental models (member owned clubs or wealthy patrons like Berlusconi, Angelli, Moratti) totally inadequate and unsustainable. The game requires governing bodies that are actually capable of enforcing a common set of rules. Unfortunately, there are no signs of that emerging on the horizon. In the meantime, we are all Marseille fans now.