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:
SI.com: You're based in Liverpool, but the club's owners are based in Boston, and they also happen to own the Boston Red Sox baseball team. How does your communication work with the Fenway Sports Group in Boston? How regular is it?
Ayre: The way we operate and manage the business is fantastic. There's a brilliant interface with Fenway Sports Group in general, not just with John [W. Henry] and Tom [Werner] and the ownership group, but also with all the senior executives. I'm on a call with John or Tom at least once a week. They're involved to that extent, and they come visit. Tom's in and out a lot. We have lots of strands feeding in from Liverpool to Fenway and back. Our finance, marketing and media teams are talking constantly.
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.
SI.com: I've been interested in John W. Henry's own growing fascination with soccer, Liverpool and the Premier League. Are there any details you can provide of his interest level increasing?
Ayre: The thing with John is, if he's going to do something, he wants to be the best he can be at it. He's also not the sort of person who would try to kind of fake having the knowledge of something. So in terms of his football knowledge, he's watching and watching, and not just Liverpool, but everything he can get access to. His wife, Linda, told me he's literally watching hours and hours of soccer. He's a prolific reader of content from all sorts of avenues to get himself well-informed.
But he also asks a lot of questions, asks your view on things. He sends things around to all of us. What do you think of this? He and Tom are both very open in their approach. They'll contact David [Gill] at [Manchester] United and Ivan [Gazidis] at Arsenal. What do you think? That's healthy. Let's a get a rounded view of the sport and how we should be doing things. It's better to have an owner taking a genuine interest and is well-informed, rather than someone who says, I was successful in baseball, so I can do that in soccer. They both put a lot of time into the team and into the game. That bodes well for Liverpool.
SI.com: How does FSG strike a balance between keeping on top of things for both Liverpool and the Red Sox? Both fan bases are extremely passionate, and sometimes you hear both sides saying ownership is spending too much time with the other team.
Ayre: There have been quite a few comments this season because John hasn't been to a game this season. [Note: Henry has since visited Liverpool this week.] 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.
SI.com: One thing they did with Fenway Park, instead of building a new stadium, they did a lot of smart things around the stadium while refurbishing the stadium itself to increase revenue streams. That seems to be the approach Liverpool decided to take with Anfield. Where are you right now with that plan?
Ayre: We've always said the preference was to stay at Anfield. It's the heart of the football club. I remember the first time John and Tom came to look at Liverpool before they bought it. I was the person showing them around. When we went into Anfield, John said to me, "This is like Fenway. It's the same feeling. Why would we want to build a new stadium?"
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.
SI.com: When the new owners came in, there was talk of a strategy of buying players, and maybe because they were connected to baseball as well, the notion of "Moneyball" came up. Liverpool was the club that was bringing Moneyball to English football. Maybe that was associated also with specific people like Damien Comolli [Liverpool's director of football in 2011 and 2012]. Has there been a shift in transfer-market strategy post-Damien with the word Moneyball not being used as much?
Ayre: I don't think there was ever anyone at Liverpool using the word Moneyball, but plenty of other people were using it. I think the reality is there were two phases to what's happened since the change of ownership. In the first phase, like any major transaction of that type, we talked about the knowledge of soccer, and that takes time. So we probably spent a year with the owners taking a leap of faith to a certain degree of other people telling them what they should be doing. Within that year we then get to a situation where the dust has settled, and people start to see what is and isn't working.
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.
SI.com: As busy as Brendan Rodgers and his staff are with a punishing game schedule, are you OK with not having a director of football right now?
Ayre: Yeah. I think that director of football role in a lot of cases almost creates as many problems as it solves. Because people try to judge where the power base is with that role. Who's picking the team? Who's deciding which players? What we actually have is probably three or four people who all are involved in that role that all contribute if you like to the output that role would have. We have a head of analysis, a head of recruitment, a first-team manager, myself. All of those people are all inputting into a process that delivers what a director of football would deliver.
SI.com: Luis Suárez has been tremendous this season. I know he's locked in for a while contract wise, but other clubs would be interested in having him. Is that something you would consider in the transfer market if you got a remarkable offer for him?
Ayre: I remember when they bought the team, John made a comment in the media: We don't want to just build a team to win but to keep winning. To do that you have to have a number of world-class players on your team. To play at the highest level in the Premier League and European soccer, you need players like Luis and Steven Gerrard on your team. So the last thing in our mind is selling Luis Suárez. He's not for sale. It's not something we're interested in.
SI.com: There have been recent reports that Liverpool's debt had increased by 22 million pounds. How concerned are you about that?
Ayre: Firstly, those accounts were about 18 months old when we announced them, so it's kind of a historic discussion in that sense. As the senior person in any football club or business, of course you're concerned about debt. But in the grand scheme, our revenues continue to increase. Debt in football clubs is somewhat a moving feast, in the sense that if you buy or sell a player that can swing easily by that sort of number. The most important thing is if the debt is well-managed. If you look at our debt compared to our major competitors, in most cases we're in pretty good health. As a global business, we were the only team in the Deloitte Top 10 money league that doesn't play Champions League football. That tells you something about Liverpool. We have revenue streams that are beyond our football performance right now. As long as we continue to improve our revenue performance and invest well in the team and build the business sustainably, that's our objective.
SI.com: How convinced are you that UEFA will enforce Financial Fair Play?
Ayre: I think it's a real test for them and for [UEFA president Michel] Platini and others. Because they've really nailed their colors to the mast on this. They've been out front talking about the importance of it, about the need for it. If they don't deliver on it, then shame on them, because a lot of people have put a lot of time into it. Most clubs have been trying to manage toward it, particularly over the last two years when the measuring has started. This is a real test for UEFA.
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.
SI.com: NBC will start showing the Premier League games in the U.S. in August. What's your sense of what they're about?
Ayre: They came and presented to all of us. They did two things. One, at the last Premier League shareholders meeting, NBC came and did a presentation to all the clubs, which I was at. It was fantastic. The fact some of the games will be shown on the main network, for me that's more important than the money. In markets where the game is growing, you want eyeballs as much as you want money. It's great for sponsors, great for the game. That will feed the revenue in the long term. NBC also came individually. I hosted some NBC guys at Liverpool at a game. We showed them what matchday is about, what sort of facilities there are. They've done that almost everywhere. It's great to see they're making a very real commitment to it. I think it will transform the exposure of the game in the United States.