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FSG's project is at a crossroads and it's time for action

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When the Boston Red Sox won the World Series for the first time under the stewardship of Fenway Sports Group, they broke an 86-year curse (eighty-six!). From a Liverpool perspective, how the Red Sox broke the curse was important. It offered a blueprint to how the club's ownership group operated in the sports world. What happened after the curse was broken could be instructive too. Now that FSG have presided over the ending of another title drought, we can look at what mistakes they made and what lessons they learned. It could chronicle the cause of where Liverpool head over the next half-decade.

A quick pause here to note the different ecosystems the two operate in. Baseball is different. The market place is different. The individuals involved are different. But the overriding philosophy of each side is the same: Sell the past to fund the now. In funding the now, the team wins. By winning now, they can sell that as new history in order to fund the future.



There are lessons to be learned.



In the early years, the Red Sox married the old with the new, using some old-school devices --- chasing superstars, acquiring known talent -- and blending that with new-age thinking: data analysis, the hunt for under-the-radar gems, on-the-fly statistical analysis to help choose the best in-game tactics.



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Sound familiar?

A retelling of the Sox story has taken place in recent years, one that obscures the money they spent. In the FSG's telling, and trumpeted by the film Moneyball and that words creeping importance in the lexicon of sports, they out-thunk the sport. Rich guys never want to think they achieved something just because they're rich, you know. They win because they're smart. And because they're smart they are rich. So, yes, they used money, but that's really because they're smart.

There's some truth to the Fenway Fantasy. What they really did was outspend the smartest thinkers in the room. Other teams wanted to hire the smart-guys. The Red Sox out-bid them. Other teams wanted to sign the players who had become market inefficiencies. The Red Sox outbid them there, too. Boston didn’t buy a title in the traditional sense, they selectively used their wealth to pinpoint inefficiencies. And when they needed to drop the money hammer, they did. Their payroll when they first won the series in 2004: $124 million, second in all of baseball.

Sound familiar?

Liverpool's payroll the season they won the Premier League title for the first time: £264 million, second in the league.

It is important to remember the financial disparity between the Red Sox and Liverpool within their own sports. The Red Sox sit at the big boy table in MLB. The Red Sox, Yankees and Dodgers are the three largest brands in baseball. They have the deepest pockets. There are no international leagues that can compete with the level of MLB spending. Simply: If the Red Sox, Yankees or Dodgers want a player that hits free agency they get them, with rare exceptions.

After their initial World Series win in 2004, the Red Sox sought to consolidate their power. Between 2004 and 2019, the Red Sox have averaged the second-highest payroll in MLB, behind only those dastardly Yankees (that they play in the same division matters). Baseball has no salary cap, which makes the Yankees and Red Sox equivalent to Paris Saint-Germain and Man City in football: they can pick and choose when to outspend you.

Things are obviously different for Liverpool. There has been a greater focus placed on finding undervalued gems in the market -- on making the club as self-sufficient as possible.

That model could change now that Liverpool are Champions. The signing of Thiago Alcantara may not point to a complete changing of ‘the model’ but it shows that the model itself is fungible, that now that there are new avenues, new players, new approaches available to the club, things could be different. Last summer was representative of the old model (Diogo Jota) and the new (Thiago).

The Red Sox won their first two World Series titles in four years (2004 and 2007) thanks to an avalanche of offense from premier hitters, most notably David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez. They had a huge payroll. The relationship between the team and Ramirez, a mega-star at the time, was sour throughout his run with the team, and he was almost immediately bounced after the second title. “I’m tired of them, they’re tired of me,” Ramírez said ahead of a deal that saw the Red Sox dump one of the most prolific hitters in baseball.

But it wasn’t a cost-cutting measure. Instead, the Red Sox continued the whale-hunting strategy, chucking all kinds of money at free-agent targets and extensions for in-house talent. They pushed the idea that chemistry and knowhow and friendship didn’t matter to its outermost limit. All that mattered was talent. Winning teams would grow to become friends over time, such is the joy of winning.

The team entered its lean years -- by Red Sox standards. From 2009-2012 there were embarrassing episodes: teams that were too close and therefore unprofessional; teams splintered, with major rifts between the players and management and among the players themselves.

Things were stipped back by 2013, when the team won its most memorable non-curse-breaking title during the “Boston Strong” year. But that win was less about the process and more about the wonderful randomness of baseball.

The 2018 title is likely the most comparable to what this Liverpool team just pulled off. The Red Sox were the best team in the sport from start to finish. They gelled fast and blitzed everyone -- finishing the season with a ridiculous 108-54 record, the team’s best record in over 100 years.

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Once again, that Red Sox were at the start of the latest innovation in baseball: the start of the strikeout-or-get-out era. The team mantra was “do damage”. As in: club the ball as hard and long as possible. Nothing else matters. Hit home runs. Stop home runs.

They hammered everyone. The sport had been trending that way over the previous couple of seasons (2016 onwards), but the Red Sox perfected the formula at the perfect time -- their 108 wins were the most from any franchise since 2001. They had an abundance of stars, a crop of brilliant homegrown players, had perfected the new style of the game, and wiped the floor with everyone.

Sound familiar?

It was also the apex of the club’s spending power. After languishing between fourth and third (sarcasm intentional) in overall payroll from 2013 to 2017, the Red Sox outspent everyone in the Major Leagues on their way to the 2018 World Series win.

What came next was a mess (gulp). The Red Sox maintained the highest payroll in the sport, but painful overspends came home to roost. Players who cost a lot of money but didn’t contribute to the Do-Damage team were impossible to move on; the Red Sox fired head honcho Dave Dombrowski a year after winning the whole thing. The team was accused and found guilty of stealing signs, a murky practice that involves teams trying to figure out what pitch is coming before it leaves the pitcher's hand.

(Wading into those waters in this space is difficult. The conventional wisdom goes something like this: Stealing signs naturally is a part of the game, but using technology, as the Red Sox and other teams have been caught doing in recent times, is a no-no. There is also a Baseball Omertà. Everybody knows what everybody is doing, but people only talk when someone gets busted.)

It’s unlikely Jurgen Klopp’s team will get busted in an Apple Watch scandal. But there are plenty of things that can be taken from the way FSG operated in 2018 and the earlier years.

FSG is still paying for the free-spending Dombrowski years. They have cut payroll to the lowest levels since they took over the team -- this was before the COVID pandemic; it's expected further cuts will follow if there is a baseball season. Heading into the 2020 season, they’re down to fifth in payroll. They traded the team’s superstar , Mookie Betts, a future Hall of Fame, homegrown player in order to avoid the dreaded "luxury tax".

Speculation is rife within the city of Boston about what comes next: will FSG turn their focus solely to the Premier League? Where is baseball’s place in the fabric of American society? Could they consolidate the team, their regional cable network, the newly purchased spaces around their ground, and flog it in one mega-deal?

That final point is an interesting one to consider. After breaking the curse, Red Sox ownership went on not only to invest in the team but into the city, using the goodwill and political capital that came through those early years. The continued the revolution of their in-house media channel, NESN, converting it from a premium channel into a more standardised cable network, fueled by Red Sox centric programming at a time when the dominant forces in the city became the Patriots (NFL) and Celtics (NBA). “In fact, to many of the interested parties, NESN was the main draw,” Tom Werner said of buying the team back in 2008. NESN was and remains the crown jewel of the Regional Sports Network model. Most RSN’s are operated by cable providers who pay an enormous fee to local teams to broadcast their games (think Sky, BT, so on). FSG owned and operated their own network, with a monopoly over the fan-base. It was and remains a gold mine. The success of the team-owned model led a host of other teams to dabble in their own networks. When you hear the chatter of Super League's and new TV models and the like, you best believe Liverpool's ownership group has eyes on a booming LFCTV network, rather than selling a rights package to TV companies.

FSG also brought up property around Fenway, turning the area around the ground into a pseudo-Red Sox world. It looks like the old walk, it sounds like the old walk (kind of) but each season a little more of the money goes into the owner’s pockets rather than the locals who made it what it was in the first place.

Separate and apart from that — and they would be very careful to stress it is indeed separate, no conflict of interest here — John Henry individually purchased the Boston Globe, the paper of record for the region, this after FSG had tried and failed to purchase the entire New England Media Group from the New York Times Company . To say their coverage of the Red Sox in recent years has been favourable would be like saying Pravda were fans of Stalin’s economic agenda. Coincidentally, Henry purchased the paper from the New York Times Compan y in 2013 right after the Fenway Group backed out of the deal. Honestly, it was a coincidence.

To put that into perspective: That would be like the Liverpool Echo and the one-stop-shop to view Liverpool games being owned by the club and its principal owner.

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Such a structure, along with other local issues, have made the ownership group more disliked the conventional wisdom would be for a group that has clinched four titles in their time as custodians of the franchise -- remember: the team went 86-years without winning a title.

Cutting the payroll and shipping out Betts has been seen by a section of the fan-base as the ownership priming the Sox for a sale. Ownership would claim they’re trying to balance the books after a couple of seasons of wild spending when the team well and truly veered away from its initial model.

It’s a timely reminder that while the vocal minority among the #FSGOut brigade likes to sight net spend, over time FSG has proven to be anything but a cheap ownership group.

With the Red Sox, FSG took a trio of approaches: They embraced the club’s history, deciding to renovate the team’s historic ground, Fenway Park, rather than uprooting and moving to a modern spaceship; they were smart, embracing the new-age analytics that was revolutionising the sport at the time they took ownership of the team; they spent money.

That formula is how the Red Sox ascended to the top. Re-working the financial success of the club was a thought, but that kicked into overdrive once the team reached the pinnacle. Winning was important, because savvy operators understand to market a sports team correctly, to generate as much revenue as possible, you have to be winning right now, you can not continue to sell the past forever.

FSG didn’t pick Liverpool by chance. They surveyed the market and saw in Liverpool the same attributes that drew them to the Red Sox -- a sports team that severed as a public institution was available on the cheap. They knew, too, that that built-in fan-base gave them a chance to rocket ship the whole project once they got it steered in the right direction.

When FSG arrived on Merseyside, they found a club on its knees. It needed a complete and utter overhaul. Every single facet of the business and football operation needed a re-think. It needed modernizing.

Mission accomplished. What comes next and how the club gets there will be interesting. Plans are already underway for the ownership group to develop further around Anfield. A new stand will be built once the financial fallout of the global pandemic is understood. A new Hilton hotel will fall within the club’s boundaries; expect a new mega-store too. What else will we see? Fenway is a kind of Red Sox World dressed up as a suburb. Will Anfield follow the same path? What of a fully-fledged in-house TV network (something that is being packaged in the new Super League agreement), whether that’s broadcasting matches at the end of the current TV deal or offering a secondary experience (VR, AR, etc)? How will the club look to enter the most lucrative new frontier of all: China? And how will it navigate those murky waters with a vocal, strident fan-base?

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Will they spend? That's the big question. More than likely. The idea of FSG flipping the club in a quick sale isn't founded in logic. They will spend to stay at the top because at the top is where all of Football's money is. Racking up the Premier League's TV money is small potatoes by billionaire standards. Building an Anfield Megaplex, starting a dynastic run, and then selling the club for upwards of $4 billion is the kind of thing mega-rich people think about.

To deliver on that, as well as to satisfy the rich-guy ego, Liverpool will have to remain at the top throughout Klopp's run. Once FSG restored the Red Sox to the pyramid, they doubled down; they invested more. (They did not always do this well, and it didn't happen in this financial climate).

As Liverpool slump in the table, as the title defence falters, it's clear to see that there is once again angst on the transfer front. Klopp himself gave voice to te frustrations after the Burnley game. "In good times everybody thinks our owners are really generous,' said Klopp. 'In bad times everyone thinks they are really tight but they are not. They are absolutely concerned about the club, the success of the club and understand how we have it. "

How they have it is by doubling-down once they've reached the top. Adding Jota and Thiago in the summer was excellent business. But as this season has borne out, it was not enough. "They see exactly the same things I see about the necessity (to bring in) players and things like this," Klopp said. "It is not that I say: "By the way, a centre half would be really nice!" and they say: "Wow! A centre half! Really, why?" It is all clear. It is all on the table. We work on that, you can imagine."

Signing players is not a fix-all. But freshening things up right now is a must. Over a decade, FSG have proven shrewd in the transaction market. Whatever your gripes over 'net spend', the team has had its most successful run since the days of Shankly and Paisley. It's a success they've mirrored over in the US (the past 18-months aside). Now is the time for the Boston-based businessmen to stick their hands in their pocket and not worry about an immediate return. The transfer coffers do not need to be replenished now. That can come by way of sponsor bonuses and prize fees in both the Premier League and Champions League.

Slipping out of the top-four would be a mess for the ownership group's approach, particularly as they work through the details of a billion-dollar investment. When things got tricky in Boston, then the business model was compromised, FSG chucked money at the issue. It was smart money, but it was money nonetheless. It's time for a repeat of that model before this season drifts too far away.

***

This piece was originally published as part of Liverpool.com’s ‘ What’s Next ’ series


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