Will the Red Sox winning formula work at Anfield?
Published 11/10/2010 | 05:00
"There is," declared one notable Liverpool supporter yesterday, "only one reason why people like this buy football clubs -- to make money."
That he was standing outside Stamford Bridge, possibly the biggest sporting plaything we will ever see, did not add weight to his argument.
But the suspicion that prickles among the club's fans is readily understandable, and matches the worries that troubled the minds of the Red Sox Nation when John W Henry and his partners -- who make up New England Sports Venture -- first arrived in Boston in 2002.
But, over the course of the last eight years, a baseball club with a great history that had fallen on lean times has re-emerged as one of its sport's shining lights.
So, what can anxious Liverpool fans learn from the business model and practices implemented by Henry at the Red Sox?
Signing new players and keeping them happy
In Major League Baseball, players are largely recruited through the draft system, with teams taking it in turns to have their picks.
But raw cash still comes into it and the Red Sox have proved willing to pay what it takes to ensure they get their man.
Just this summer they awarded Anthony Ranaundo, a much-coveted 21-year-old pitcher, a bonus of $2.55m, a MLB record.
For this year's draft they paid a total of over $10m, which may not compare to Premier League fees, but does signal a real willingness to spend -- the total has climbed steadily in the years since NESV took over.
Once they have the players on their books, the Red Sox also seem ready to reward them handsomely. Only the New York Yankees pay higher salaries than the Red Sox, and the Yankees have resources far beyond Boston's reach.
Fenway Park may have opened in the same week in which the Titanic sank, but it has proved one of sport's great survivors.
When NESV took over it was widely assumed that the ground was on borrowed time -- much as Anfield is seen to be by many now. The other interested parties had all said they would build a new ground, but Henry kept the Red Sox at their iconic venue.
Redeveloping is a cheaper option than starting from scratch. Anfield would need much greater redevelopment than Fenway Park, which has a capacity of just under 40,000, as well as requiring planning permission from a council that have been keen on the Stanley Park project.
But over the last few weeks, the prospect of staying put and refashioning a 60,000-seat arena has swung back into focus.
Baseball arenas are not as easy to develop as football stadiums and, in Boston, it has been a case of adding bits here and there -- although one radical proposal/gimmick to hoist seats on a crane failed to get off the ground, literally.
They have overhauled the hospitality side of the ground -- an area where Liverpool notably languish behind the likes of Chelsea and Manchester United, bringing in £42.5m per season compared to United's £102m -- despite the limitations of an old stadium.
NESV have invested $250m in the ground and another $75m on a new state-of-the-art training ground in Florida, where the team go to prepare in warm weather ahead of each new season.
Do they bring in the crowds?
The numbers speak for themselves. It was May 2003 that a Red Sox game at Fenway Park last failed to sell out, 628 games ago.
The ground may not be the biggest, and as Liverpool do not have any problems in pulling in supporters, that may not overly impress the Kop.
What may concern them is that there have been mumblings of discontent over ticket prices that have risen steadily over the years of NESV's tenure -- but the owners can counter that by simply pointing to the field of play.
The "product" on view is far superior to what came before.
Sponsorship: How they make their money
The Red Sox have the third-smallest ground in MLB and so need to generate income elsewhere to make up for it.
As a result, they rarely miss a branding opportunity.
When the group took over there were fewer than 40 sponsors -- now there are over 100 and climbing.
The club has an "official" plumber, pizza, sandwich and windshield replacement agent.
In baseball, as well as the NFL and basketball, shirt sponsorship is a no-go area -- it is banned by the MLB, but the Red Sox have flirted with it. Two years ago they sported a logo on the right arm of the team uniform for a tour of Japan.
There are other areas too which have been tapped into -- supporters can pay to watch practice sessions and there has even been a scheme where a group of fans pay around $500 to stand on the field as the visiting teams warm up and field the stray balls.
What about the fans - bums on seats or the ones who matter
For all the commercial drive of the NESV, they do appear to genuinely consult their fans, one of the more fanatical supporters' groups in the US.
The club's vice-president in charge of ticketing, Ron Bumgarner, has just completed a 'Listening Tour' where he and other officials travelled around New England holding open sessions for fans to air their views.
As well as the big issues, such as ticket pricing, it has led to small-scale changes such as more vegetarian options in the food outlets around the ground and the opening of Wally's World, a children's play area.
Last but not least - the result?
To put it simply: success on the pitch. When Henry took control, the Red Sox had not won the World Series since 1918.
It took two years for that to be put right and they have now won it twice under his stewardship.
"They took an underperforming, iconic team and imbued in it a winning mentality," said Martin Broughton, Liverpool's chairman and the man who set up the deal.
"They have invested in players and stadium development and they have delivered a winning team. These guys believe in winning and they have a demonstrable case study to back it up.
"They see that they can develop Liverpool like they have the Boston Red Sox into an attractive emotional success and into an attractive commercial success."
A leading member of the American team bidding for the 2018 World Cup finals -- in London for the Leaders in Football conference -- happens to be a member of the Red Sox Nation.
"There was apprehension," he confessed, casting his mind back to when Henry arrived. "But it has proved unfounded."
And they have made money, too. (© Independent News Service)