Liverpool managing director on Fenway Sports Group, Moneyball, more
NEW YORK -- You'd be surprised how often European soccer figures make it to the Big Apple, even during the middle of the club season overseas. Recently one of those visitors was Ian Ayre, the managing director of Liverpool, who was nice enough to meet me at my local coffee shop. He was on his way to speak at an IMG conference in Florida, just one of the many signs that soccer is the most global of sports.
Ayre and I talked about a number of topics, including Liverpool's U.S. owners (the Fenway Sports Group), the pursuit of "Moneyball" in soccer, LFC star Luis Suárez, the refurbishment of Anfield, the club's debt, the future of Financial Fair Play and the Premier League's new U.S. distribution deal with NBC Sports that starts in August. Here's a look at our conversation, edited for length and clarity:
It's not all through me. I manage the business, and there's a lot of dialog between me and ownership. But the actual day-to-day interaction is going on all the time. We share best practices. If we're looking at a strategy around the distribution on something or what we're doing on our media products, how we might change the format of some of our content, we're able to tap into the resources of the guys at NESN and understand what MLB.com did. Likewise, in Liverpool this is probably the first product FSG invested in that's truly global. So you have a whole set of experience that the team I have at Liverpool can pass back the other way.
But he also asks a lot of questions, asks your view on things. He sends things around to all of us.
Tom's been to quite a few. That's part of them sharing that responsibility. As is always the case, the media then spun that into "John Henry hasn't been to a game and is losing interest." That's nonsense. It's about them finding that balance. In sharing that responsibility, it's not about being at the games. We've got 46,000 people at the games. We don't have to have John there for it to be a success. It's more important that they give equal support to the business. The sharing of that is very fair and balanced, I'd say. We speak every week. We have a management call. We talk through issues. John and Tom are very involved in that. That's the way it should be. Of course, fans don't see that. They just think he hasn't been to Liverpool. But Tom has been to Liverpool, so Red Sox fans are probably saying he doesn't spend much time in Boston. I guess they can't win. But I can say the effort they put in is very balanced.
In order to extend Anfield, we need to acquire a bunch of privately owned property around the stadium. We're making really good progress with that. We have a meeting coming up in the next few weeks with the city council and ourselves and stakeholders. We said some months back it would take several months to improve that property acquisition situation. We're definitely on target so far. The No. 1 priority is to stay at Anfield, but there are two or three hoops to go through. The first is property acquisition. The second will be planning. And the third will be to build the thing. I would guess our next announcement on it will come sometime in May or June.
I think the fundamental shift particularly around player acquisitions and disposals was that we took the view that it needs to be more of a science. Your biggest expenditure line can't be the whim of any individual. What we believe, and we continue to follow, is you need many people involved in the process. That doesn't mean somebody else is picking the team for Brendan [Rodgers, the manager]. But Brendan needs to set out with his team of people which positions we want to fill and what the key targets would be for that.
He has a team of people that go out and do an inordinate amount of analysis work to establish who are the best players in that position. It's a combination of things. Despite what people think and read, it's not a whole bunch of guys sitting behind a computer working out who we should buy. It's a combination of old-school scouting and watching players -- and that's Brendan, his assistants, our scouts -- with statistical analysis of players across Europe and the rest of the world. By bringing those two processes together, you get a much more educated view of who you should and shouldn't be buying. And perhaps as fundamentally, how much you should be paying and the structure to those contracts.
I think we've had relatively good success since we deployed that methodology. We're getting better all the time. Just as you think our football is getting better, our transfer activity is getting better. We were very pleased with the most recent window in January with Philippe Coutinho and Daniel Sturridge. Hopefully you continue to follow that path. But it's not a Moneyball strategy. It's a combination of skills and people and processes that bring us to what we're trying to achieve.
We've all seen some of the deals that have gone on. I know when Manchester City announced their Etihad Stadium sponsorship, and John Henry made a comment: I'd love to see the guys who came in second. Could you tell me what the losing bid was? That's going to be the challenge. It's such an important part of the game. We've been working very hard within the Premier League to adopt our own form of Financial Fair Play so we don't have five or six teams qualifying for Europe that are subject to the rules and then another 15 or so that aren't.