By Simon Evans
MIAMI, July 12 (Reuters) – New Fulham chief Shahid Khan, the Premier League’s latest foreign owner, is likely to break the mould and be one of the most open and public of billionaires to take control of one of England’s top flight clubs.
Other international owners such as Russian Roman Abramovich (Chelsea) and American Malcolm Glazer (Manchester United) rarely talk to the media or engage with fans but Khan has shown that he enjoys attention.
When Khan bought the National Football League’s Jacksonville Jaguars in 2011, he brought his yacht into port in the northern Florida city and set about a series of community meetings with local politicians and fans.
“He is kind of a rock star with the fans,” Alfie Crow, editor of the Jaguars’ fan blog ‘Big Cat Country,’ told Reuters.
“He comes out to practice, interacts with the fans and talks to them. He is very much out there and engaged. He has really energised people.”
Any trepidation Jaguars fans initially had about the team’s new owner quickly dissipated as he won them over with his charm, not to mention a thick handlebar mustache and flowing hair that is a marked change from the staid image of the traditional NFL owner.
Khan, after all, is far from a typical owner of an American sports franchise.
Born in Lahore, Pakistan, where he not surprisingly fell in love with cricket, Khan moved to the United States as a 16-year-old, sleeping in a YMCA and washing dishes on his way to earning an engineering degree at the University of Illinois.
He ended up buying the first company to give him a job, transforming Flex-N-Gate into a lucrative car parts business. In 2010 he was making his first move into the sports world with an attempt to buy the NFL’s St. Louis Rams.
The man who foiled that attempt was Stan Kroenke, who took majority ownership of the Rams. At Fulham, Khan will be in close proximity to Kroenke, the majority shareholder in London club Arsenal.
While Khan missed out on the Rams he did win friends in the NFL’s elite ownership group and that helped him when he finally got into the league with the Jaguars.
“I thought, I have developed a love and affection as a fan for the sport and I’d like to be part of it,” he told Reuters in an interview last year.
As well as engaging with the local fan base, Khan has emphasised the opportunities to “put Jacksonville on the map” by taking the Jaguars to London for an annual game over the next four seasons.
It was typical of Khan’s approach though that he responded to speculation that his move for Fulham might have a negative impact on the Jaguars by emailing the team’s season ticket holders to reassure them.
“Fulham F.C. will operate as a fully stand-alone business from the Jaguars. Fulham and the Jaguars each have a great responsibility to their players, fans, partners and communities, and both deserve nothing less than a 100 percent commitment from ownership,” he wrote.
“In short, our pledge to you – a Jaguars franchise that is proud, bold and committed – remains unchanged.
Fulham season ticket holders can expect the same sort of hands-on attention, including fan forums, emails, media appearances, the kind of things that most foreign Premier League owners shy away from.
“I want to be clear, I do not view myself so much as the owner of Fulham, but a custodian of the club on behalf of its fans,” said Khan.
“My priority is to ensure the club and Craven Cottage each have a viable and sustainable Premier League future that fans of present and future generations can be proud of.”
The Premier League, with its unrestricted free-market approach to wages and transfers, is a very different world to the closed, salary-capped business model of the NFL, and it will be fascinating to see how Khan approaches Fulham.
However it turns out, Fulham fans are certainly going to know they have a new owner. (Editing by Frank Pingue)