Jordan Gardner has a novel idea: Buy a Scandinavian club, develop young Americans there and sell them off to bigger clubs in Europe.
On the latest Planet Fútbol Podcast, SI.com speaks to Jordan Gardner, an American soccer investor who already has ownership stakes in Ireland (Dundalk) and the United Kingdom (Swansea City) and has a novel idea. He’s about to buy a club in Scandinavia—likely in Denmark—where his strategy would be to develop young Americans and then sell them to bigger clubs in Europe.
You can listen to the full episode in the podcast console below (the conversation begins at the nine-minute mark) and subscribe to and download the Planet Fútbol Podcast on iTunes. Recent guests include U.S. midfielder Tyler Adams, The Ringer's Bill Simmons, ESPN's Katie Nolan, former U.S. women's national team forward Abby Wambach and former U.S. men's forward Eddie Johnson.
Here some of the highlights of the conversation:
On his idea:
“Young Americans are having difficulty cracking first-team minutes in MLS. The quality of the league is improving immensely, and teams like Atlanta are spending a lot of money on young South American players, which is great. There's nothing wrong with that. But it's becoming more difficult for Americans to get first-team minutes. So we're seeing young American kids, whether they're in MLS academies or not, jumping to Europe at I think higher rates than you would have seen maybe five or six years ago. So I sat down and thought to myself: Why doesn't an American own a club in Europe as a landing spot for these players? A lot of them are going to Germany for obvious reasons. It's difficult for them to get work permits in other countries or in the UK. But they're going because their agent knows one club in Germany, or it's very piecemeal. Maybe they're not going to the right spot for their development.
"So I started looking around and saying where can we buy a club that would be a great landing spot for some of these players? Not every single one is going to be perfect for what we're trying to do. I don't have any illusions that we're going to get Christian Pulisic right off the bat. But I did enough research and found that Scandinavia was the perfect landing spot for young Americans. Sweden, Denmark and Norway have very lax foreign player restriction rules, so it's very easy for Americans to come over. There's a culture of playing young players already in those countries, first-team minutes. Everyone speaks English in those countries, so it's very easy for those players to integrate versus Germany, for example, where it can be difficult on a cultural level. And I looked at the landscape and said you see young Americans succeeding in Scandinavia already. You have Jonathan Amon, who's AFC Nordsjaelland in Denmark. You have Romain Gall at Malmo in Sweden. Both recently got U.S. national team call-ups.
"So the idea that some of these kids could be big fish in a small pond in Scandinavia versus kind of getting lost in the shuffle in, say, Germany, is what is really intriguing to us. So the thought process is we buy a club, and we bring over young Americans. It doesn't have to be exclusively young Americans, it could be young South Americans, it could be other pipelines as well. Bring them over from 16 to 19, depending on if they can get an EU passport where would we slot them into an academy or directly into the first-team. Develop them for a year or two or three, and then move on to a bigger club. So that's the model right now. No one's really doing it [with young Americans], certainly not at scale. So that's something that’s really really exciting for us right now.”
On the possibility of owning such a club soon:
“We are hoping to close on a club in the next three months. We have an ownership group that's completely filled up already. We have a couple NBA owners, a couple U.S. men's national team former players who are interested in getting involved. We're looking specifically in Denmark, and we have a term sheet out on one club. We're looking at a couple other clubs. We are hoping in the very worst case to have a club up and operational within the next six months. So this is something that we are very active on. I've been to Denmark three times in the last three months. I'm very excited to be active about this and really get this up and running in the very near future.”
On how he would build relationships with agents and others to get young American prospects into his club:
“I get asked that a lot: How are we actually going to get two players over? I think at this level it's very relationship-driven. So certainly I have a lot of relationships with various stakeholders, whether it's youth national team coaches or top academy coaches and directors, and obviously agents are a big piece of this—many of whom I have good relationships with. I think a lot of it, the way I look at it at this level, in many ways it's almost like a college recruiting process. Because we are not going to be able to pay huge transfer fees. These kids are so young that you can't and won't give them big contracts. We just can't. They're too young. So we're going to have to craft a narrative starting from a really strong positive ownership group all the way down to infrastructure and basically selling these players on the idea that this is the best spot for them to develop from that 16- to 19-year-old age group.
"I've had discussions in other areas in terms of scouting and data and using other tools at our disposal to recruit the best players. But I'm realistic that at these age points it's going to be difficult. There's just not a lot of data out there. I just met with Luke Born, who was the head of analytics at Roma and now he's with the Sacramento Kings. We sat down for an hour, and I just picked his brain about how he would use data at this level to recruit players. And we had some outside-the-box thinking about crowdsourcing.
"We're still kind of formulating the best ways, but certainly this idea that I see across the world in soccer when one sporting director knows one agent and then the agent says here take my two players, and they sign the players. Maybe they watch a little bit of video on Wyscout. The lack of sophistication just blows my mind on player recruitment. That's certainly something we're very cognizant of and focused on, is that we're going to be very thorough and use all the tools we can for a club this size to make sure we are identifying the best players that can come over and succeed and then move on to bigger clubs.”
On the size of the investment when buying a club in Scandinavia compared to one for an MLS club or USL club:
“It's a significantly lower investment than anything on a comprable scale in the U.S. or in Europe. Depending on exactly what level the club is at … the clubs we are looking at are anywhere from a million euros up to probably 3 million euros. You're looking at probably a 1.5 million euro operating budget. The most important thing for us is finding clubs that have a solid financial footing. So I'm not looking to buy clubs for the most part that are losing money. I know everyone thinks every club in the world loses money, which a lot do, but a lot of these clubs in Scandinavia, the culture is very much of efficiency, and businesses over there are well-run. I've been able to find a lot of clubs that aren't making money, but they're not losing money.
"So the idea is we don't want to go and buy a club that's hemorrhaging money and have to start digging out and really have to sell players to make budget. A lot of clubs we run into have to sell players to make budget. We don't want to do that. If I'm completely wrong about this player development model, we'll be right back where we started in three years. I think too many investment groups, particularly Americans, don't really understand the model and think they can come in and know better than everyone else and can commercialize clubs and come in in a way that can really bridge the gap on these clubs that are losing a lot of money. And when they're wrong, they're in the hole for a lot of money.
"This is why I spend my time and Europe versus the States. I want down the road and hope that I'll be able to spend more time and energy here in the States. you could buy multiple teams in Scandinavia for the price of a team in the USL, for instance.”