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Old 21st September 2017, 14:44   #1
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Default Moneyball guru eyes beautiful game with Barnsley takeover

Moneyball guru eyes beautiful game with Barnsley takeover

US baseball’s Billy Beane hopes to transfer his statistical strategy to football

by Murad Ahmed and Arash Massoudi in London
FT September 15, 2017

Billy Beane, the US baseball executive behind the statistically savvy approach to sport known as “Moneyball”, is looking to test his ideas on the beautiful game in God’s own country.

The baseball guru, once played by Brad Pitt in the Oscar-nominated movie that detailed his obsessive methods, is part of a consortium headed by Chinese-American investor Chien Lee and American businessman Paul Conway. The group is close to acquiring a 98.5 per cent stake in Barnsley, a football club in Yorkshire, northern England, for between £10m and £20m, according to two people briefed on the talks.

The majority of the money used to buy the club, which plays in the Championship, the second tier of English football below the Premier League, will come from Mr Lee and Mr Conway.

Mr Beane, executive vice-president of baseball operations at the Oakland Athletics, the US Major League Baseball team, is eyeing the opportunity to transfer his knowledge and ideas to football, a sport he has followed for years.

One person close to the talks said Mr Beane will take a 10 per cent stake in Barnsley and a seat on the club’s board, as he hopes to gain a key role in the future strategic and sporting direction of the club.

Mr Lee and Mr Conway have been in negotiations with Patrick Cryne, Barnsley’s owner, for several weeks. Mr Cryne has terminal cancer and wrote in a poignant letter published before a recent match that he was “living on borrowed time”. He thanked his club’s fans for their “kindness down the years”.

Last year, Mr Lee became the majority owner of French football club Nice, where Mr Conway is also a director. Mr Lee has long sought to acquire an English club.

The two men have previously engaged in takeover negotiations with Hull, Middlesbrough and Brentford, and the pair wants to create a “network of clubs” around the world, among which it can trade and develop players.

One person close to the plans said the investors will not rush to plough money into the club to gain promotion into the Premier League, and are instead hoping to slowly grow Barnsley alongside their primary investment in Nice, which is in Ligue 1, the top tier of French football.

Chinese investors have spent several billion dollars acquiring European football clubs, sponsorships and sports rights in recent years, after President Xi Jinping called for a sporting revolution to make China a global force in football.

Barnsley, Mr Lee, Mr Conway and Mr Beane did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Mr Beane faces a familiar challenge with Barnsley as he has with the Oakland A’s: steering an unfancied club that must compete against better resourced rivals to achieve sporting glory. Barnsley last played in the Premier League two decades ago, in the 1997-98 season.

The US executive is one of the pioneers behind “sabermetrics” in baseball, using statistical insights to gain hidden advantages in the game, such as identifying undervalued players to acquire them cheaply.

As immortalised in Michael Lewis’s bestselling book, Moneyball, the Oakland A’s went on a record 20-game winning streak in 2002 under Mr Beane’s leadership, despite fielding a team with one of the lowest wage bills in Major League Baseball.

Mr Beane’s ideas are credited with helping to transform the US sport. One of his protégés, Theo Epstein, has gone on to win World Series with two historically underachieving teams, the Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs.

“There are fundamental differences between baseball and football,” said Ben Marlow, an executive at 21st Club, a football consultancy that has advised the new owners of Everton and Swansea City on recent takeovers.

“But the principle that you can use information that is evidence-based, instead of more traditional subjective methods, to gain an advantage is something that is transferable between sports,” he said. “Football has been slower to adopt some of these ideas that have been adopted in other industries.”

Mr Beane has long talked of his interest in football, as well as a desire to take a hands-on role at a European club. He has previously advised the Dutch football club AZ Alkmaar.

“Quite frankly, I can’t get enough of soccer,” Mr Beane said in an interview with the Guardian in 2014. “I tell my jingoistic friends in the United States there’s a reason why it is the world’s number one sport. The rest of the planet can’t be wrong.”

He added: “If I don’t get to watch a match live, I tape it. Even if I know the score I go back and watch. I find it fascinating. I love the sport. I love the business. I love the fact there’s such a dichotomy between, say, the Emirates [home ground of Arsenal] and Turf Moor [home ground of Burnley]. It’s an education for me.”
Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter. Martin Luther King
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