Moneyball Gives Billy Beane-Backed Barnsley a Premier League Shot

JohnWallStreet
·5 min read

Barnsley FC plays in the Championship, the second highest division within the English football league system. Currently in a three-way tie for fourth place, the club has qualified for the playoffs—and a chance at English Premier League promotion. A move up would come with lucrative financial rewards. For perspective, Barnsley currently brings in about 8 million pounds ($11.1 million) of TV money annually. Promotion would mean at least 120 million pounds of TV money next year and at least 90 million pounds over the following three years (even if the club were to be relegated immediately).

Pacific Media Group (PMG), the holding company that owns Barnsley—as well as KV Oostende (Belgium), FC Thun CFG (Switzerland) and AS Nancy (France)—has the 130-plus-year-old club in the playoffs despite maintaining one of the lower wage budgets in the English League Championship (there are clubs with budgets 8-10x the size). They have done it by bringing a highly disciplined, dispassionate, analytical approach—a Moneyball approach—to the club. Of course, it’s not a coincidence that PMG describes its philosophy in baseball terms: Billy Beane invested in Barnsley in 2017.

Our Take: There are three pillars to PMG’s version of Moneyball. The first is a reliance on analytics over traditional scouting. The group can’t afford enough scouts to scour the globe in search of players to fit their system. “It’s also not efficient,” Paul Conway (Co-Chairman, Pacific Media Group) said. “We’d rather have our analysts in one location watching six games a day online”—games featuring players identified by their analytics platform.

While the use of data and analytics has become commonplace in U.S. sports, it remains “rare in Europe,” the co-chairman explained. “It’s rare even with the biggest clubs because you have this cult of personality, where decisions are made by the sporting director, the chairman or the manager,” Conway said. “[Those with the power] don’t want to give up control, and the board of a club must have the guts to do something different.”

The second pillar to the group’s strategy is a “ruthless commitment to young players.” Conway said they “rarely sign players over the age of 23. And that’s hard, because the industry [believes] a team needs older leaders to balance out a [young] squad. But we’ve done a lot of empirical research on it, and that is just not true.” PMG instead leans on young players with extensive game experience for leadership (think: 21 year-old with four years as a pro).

Making uncomfortable decisions, like not re-signing a popular veteran player, is a critical component of the group’s commitment to youth. Many clubs struggle to let star players, on the downside of their careers, leave town; instead, they offer lucrative deals they later regret. For PMG, saying goodbye to fan favorites is part of the process. “We’ve explained to our fans very clearly that this is the way we’re going to compete,” Conway said. “We’re balancing a budget, and we have to develop young players. We have to create transfer profits because we think we can reinvest those profits, just like a fund manager, and get greater returns and build our squad from there.”

The idea of balancing a budget might not sound like radical strategy to U.S. sports fans. But in some European countries it is “perceived to be a bad thing by most supporters and even boards,” the co-chairman explained. In England’s second division, the average team lost 10 million pounds a year chasing a chance at Premier League promotion prior to the pandemic. By establishing system controls, by picking up the phone and dealing directly with other teams (as opposed to relying on agencies) and avoiding business in countries that lack decent corporate laws, Barnsley says it has managed to eliminate much of the leakage in European football that contributes to club losses.

The third and final pillar to PMG’s Moneyball approach is a narrow focus on the acquisition of players—and coaches—who thrive in a “high-press” system. “Three years ago we decided if we’re going to have multiple clubs, we have to have one style of play because there are efficiencies between clubs and then you can move players around,” Conway said. By playing a relentless, attacking style, PMG believes it can be most competitive on the pitch. Most Championship teams don’t play the system because they lack the athletes to do so.

PMG has been able to profit on the transfer market because of its disciplined approach to spending and deep knowledge of football markets outside of England (thanks to their multi-club ownership model). “A couple of weeks ago we sold a 34-year-old player in Belgium, who had two-and-a-half months left on his contract, for six figures. We sold him to a Swedish club. Most European clubs wouldn’t know or care if the Swedish transfer window was still open. But the six figures we’re getting, plus the savings on his contract is money we’re then able to reinvest. Every 50,000 or 100,000 Euros is valuable to us because that can pay the annual wage of a young player,” Conway explained.

The group’s willingness and ability to cast a wide net on players also enables it to keep player costs down. “European clubs are always targeting one or two important players. That gets out in the media, and then you have this kind of self-fulfilling prophecy of pressure on the board, where they are not identifying other targets and they overpay—either in transfer fee and/or wages. [But] we’re always recruiting players. So, we always have a long list of targets (often as many as 20 for a given position),” Conway said. If a player doesn’t want to come at a reasonable price or his club wants too great of a transfer fee, the group simply moves on to the next player. “Most clubs don’t have the discipline [or the database of target players] to do that,” he added.

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