Like several storied soccer teams, Liverpool Football Club has been kicking around in the States this month. Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to speak with a couple of the lads, as they refer to themselves, and I asked defender Jon Flanagan whether he was familiar with the team’s owner, John Henry.
“He’s a good man,” Flanagan said. “Met him a few times. He signs the checks…pays the bills.”
Flanagan characterized John Henry as a down-to-earth fellow, which would probably delight the owner of three pro sports franchises. His Fenway Sports Group controls the Boston Red Sox and Roush Fenway Racing as well as Liverpool. Henry has acknowledged that he didn’t know much about soccer when he purchased Liverpool a little less than two years ago. According to Billy Hogan, Liverpool’s chief commercial officer, that’s when the opportunity became ripe.
“We saw a club with tremendous global appeal, and also one that at that particular time was going through some difficulties,” Hogan said. “It was essentially a distressed asset, really.”
The “distress” was being experienced not only by Tom Hicks, the American from whom John Henry acquired the club, but by Liverpool’s fans, who soured on Hicks’s stewardship as the club began to drown in red ink. Even in that state, according to Hogan, Liverpool presented Fenway Sports Group with a golden opportunity…literally.
“The Premier League is really one of the few that can say that you are getting in front of literally hundreds of millions of eyeballs every weekend, and so there aren’t many properties that can do that,” Hogan said.
This particular magnet for eyeballs was in Boston for a friendly against A.S. Roma, another internationally famous team recently acquired by an American businessman, hedge-fund manager James Pallotta. According to New England Sports Museum curator and sports historian Richard Johnson, Messers Henry and Pallotta are part of a trend.
“Teams to the ruling class are what paintings and summer houses were years ago, so this is the new world, and I’m sure they’re enjoying them, because those are two great teams,” Johnson said.
Be assured that the new owner of A.S. Roma, which, like Liverpool, has long been in debt, knows that nine local morning radio shows bombard their listeners exclusively with news of the team, and that one daily paper in Rome contains nothing but discussion of what the team has done, is doing, or might do.
Before the match between Roma and Liverpool on Wednesday night at Fenway Park, I asked A.S. Roma’s chief executive officer, Mark Pannes, whether those passionate Italian fans could be happy with the their beloved team in the hands of an American owner:
“This is clearly a meritocracy,” Pannes said. “If you win, fans are going to be happy. We are caretakers for this club. You can’t own A.S. Roma any more than you can own the Colloseum, right? We’re stewards, and at some point we’ll hand our club on to the next ownership group, and when we do, we hope we’ve left it in a much better position than when we found it.”
No doubt that it will fetch a greater price than what Mr. Pannes’s boss paid. Because the business of sports works like any business. Sentiment and loyalty aside, which is where owners have been known to put it, you buy low and sell high if you don’t want to get run over or run out.
That perhaps explains why the Glazer family, owners of the Premiership’s Manchester United, have been trying to reduce the team’s debt of nearly half a billion pounds with a stock offering. This week, that effort stalled for the second time. Numbers of Man. U. fans have publicly accused the Glazers of irresponsibility, though Man. U. chief executive David Gill recently praised their tenure, which began in 2005.
“What they’ve brought is stability of ownership,” Gill said. “The decision-making is quick, and they’ve really delivered in terms of their hopes, in terms of people, marketing, research, and the results of the partners we have are paying dividends.”
Stable or rickety, the American owners of marquee teams compete with the likes of Russian Roman Abramovich, who owns Chelsea, and Sheikh Mansour of Dubai, who owns Manchester City. Each man has resources Richard Johnson characterizes as “limitless.”
Happily for Liverpool owner John Henry, the enthusiasm inspired by his club also appears to be limitless. Before the game on Wednesday evening, the streets around Fenway Park were full of people wearing Liverpool red. In a noisy pub across the street from the ballpark-turned-soccer pitch for the night, I ran into a group of fans who’ve followed Liverpool from the U.K. to Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand.
That lot told me the jury was still out on John Henry, but Neil Hilton, also from Liverpool, approved of the team’s owner. “To be fair to John Henry, they have threw money at the club, and we have bought players for over £20 million, so it’s not like they haven’t gave us the money,” Hilton said. “We’ve just made some bad signings, so hopefully they’ll keep throwing the money, and we may hit right one day, hopefully.”
Liverpool didn’t hit it right Wednesday evening. Roma, paced by newly-acquired American Michael Bradley’s goal, won the friendly, 2-1. But in a press conference afterward, Liverpool’s new coach, Brendan Rodgers, expressed satisfaction with his team’s performance, given that lots of his regulars hadn’t been available. Then in response to a complicated question about tactics and strategy, he delivered a line with which no coach could take issue.
“We want to score goals, but obviously, I don’t like to concede goals,” Rodgers said.
It was nice to be reminded that it’s a simple game, all that talk about debt, stewardship, wealthy oligarchs, and those hundreds of millions of eyeballs delivered notwithstanding.