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Khan of Fulham aims to bridge the Atlantic

last updated Monday 15th July 2013, 12:45 PM

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American success story Shahid Khan to play the long game at Fulham.

The Pakistani, ranked at 490 on Forbes' billionaires list, will use the Cottagers as part of his grand plan to revolutionise the Jacksonville Jaguars and the NFL itself

"Shahid Khan is a great American success story," said Wayne Weaver when the Pakistani billionaire initiated his takeover of NFL franchise the Jacksonville Jaguars in late 2011. "Shahid Khan has become a living embodiment of the American success story," said Mohamad Al Fayed after he handed over control of Fulham on Friday night.

It would be hard to argue with that assertion. Having moved to the United States at the age of 16, Khan has amassed a $2.9 billion (£1.9bn) fortune in the auto part industry, becoming a pioneer in the short time he has been involved in America's national sport.

And after announcing $63m (£41.7m) worth of improvements to the Jaguars' Everbank field in June, including the planned installation of the world's biggest scoreboards (measuring a whopping 55 by 579 feet), Khan wasted little time in snapping up the Cottagers last week.

To the untrained eye, the $760m (£503m) Florida-based franchise do not have much in common with little old Fulham, but the move certainly makes sense. Whereas other American owners of Premier League clubs have sometimes been accused of focusing on their US teams, the relationship between Khan's two flagship entities could be unprecedentedly close. Politically at least.

The NFL has been determined to take its show on the road in recent years, and after playing the first regular season game on foreign soil in 2005 - in front of more than 100,000 people in Mexico City - London has been the destination of choice.

The St Louis Rams, owned by Arsenal majority shareholder Stan Kroenke (who actually outbid Khan when the Pakistani attempted to acquire 60 per cent of the franchise in 2010), had agreed a deal to play one "home" game person season at Wembley between 2012 and 2014. But when they reneged on that agreement, Khan's Jaguars were all too happy to step in and sign up for four matches between 2013 and 2016.

Rumours of a full-time relocation to London raged. Ambitious NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has long wanted one of the league's teams to be permanently based abroad in order to boost the sport's popularity outside the States, and London is seen as the ideal host. There are 11,000,000 gridiron fans in the UK, according to the NFL, while there has been a 154% increase in those watching Sunday matches on television.

And after it was announced that two regular season games would be played abroad for the first time ever, both at Wembley in 2013, the unrelenting Goodell made his play. When it was suggested that London could even host three matches per season, he admitted he wanted the Jaguars contest two of them.

Khan, who had pledged to keep the team in Jacksonville when he took control in early 2012, has since realised that relocation may be the best option. Large sections of the 81,000 capacity stadium, one of the biggest in the league despite being a team of modest popularity, are covered in tarp, while financial backing has also been hard to come by. But he refused to be drawn on Goodell's attempts to force his hand.

"What we're focused on right now as a team is four games in London for the next four years," he said.

"That's very important to us. I think everyone needs to understand playing games in London is very, very important for Jacksonville, it's very important to this franchise. We need fans, we need more corporate sponsors. Jacksonville is excellent in fan support, great facilities that we're going to have. We don't have enough corporate sponsors.

"London is the missing piece but, right now, our focus is the next four years with one game."

Having spent between £150m and £200m to acquire Fulham - one of the most expensive takeovers in British football history - just a matter of weeks after investing £40m in overhauling the Everbank field, Khan is clearly not shy to fulfill his plans.

And it's not as if Fulham do not have potential. The picturesque but somewhat outdated Craven Cottage is being modernised, along with the immediate surrounding area, while Al Fayed has left behind the solid foundations of a genuine mid-table Premier League club. Chelsea have always ruled that particular corner of London, but, with intelligent investment, the Cottagers could prove to be a worthy rival.

This has clearly caught Khan's eye, and it should excite Fulham fans, too. Though this latest purchase could be seen as something of a reconnaissance mission, meaning Manchester City levels of spending are unlikely, there is nothing to suggest the club won't benefit from being part of Khan's grand plan.

Should the Jags eventually move to London, despite those lavish redevelopments at the Everbank, they will be gambling on the British public adopting the franchise as their own on a regular basis. There are no guarantees that the roaring popularity of the one-off games, still very much a novelty, will translate to a sustained following throughout a season. But that is clearly the hope, and the acquisition of Fulham will give Khan an extra understanding of Britain and its sporting culture.

Form suggests investment can be expected at Craven Cottage, and should the Jags prove successful on these shores further down the line, it is not unreasonable to expect Fulham to benefit from a spike of popularity in the States.

Undoubtedly an American success story, Khan must now repeat his efforts in a completely different market. There is clearly a long way to go, but Khan's plan could propel Fulham and the Jacksonville Jaguars out of the shadows and into the limelight.

Source Sam Lee at Goal
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