All I Can Say To Fans Of Liverpool FC Is "Caveat Emptor"

John W. Henry, the hedge fund manager and  noted egomaniac who owns the Boston Red Sox, has just bought the sixth biggest soccer team in the entire world: Liverpool Football Club.

Around England, the news comes as a shock and a relief. Valued at $822 million dollars but saddled with debt from current American owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett, Liverpool currently languishes at the bottom of the English Premier League. Fans and board members both say they hope the sale will help reinvigorate the club.

But if Henry’s English adventure is anything like his brief stint in South Florida, Liverpool fans are in for a rude awakening.

Henry bought the Florida Marlins from Wayne Huizenga in January of 1999, but sold the team only three years later to current owner Jeff Loria for $158.5 million. Henry then used the money to buy the Boston Red Sox, after failing to convince the taxpayers of south Florida to pay for a new stadium (which would have increased the clubs value several fold no doubt).

While “Red Sox Nation” has seen a resurgence in recent years under his ownership, one should be weary of giving much of the credit to Henry.  There are plenty of places to lavish praise on the Red Sox organization, but the ownership isn’t one of them in my humble opinion.

The best thing Henry ever did was to hire the wunderkind we have all come to know and love/hate Theo Epstein.  While Epstein has had his moments that make you scratch your head at times, he (and his partner in crime Larry Lucchino, Red Sox CEO/President) has “reinvented” the Red Sox organization from top to bottom, changing their focus and methodology on a profound level.

Now, I know this is a subject of heated debate amongst Red Sox fans or even baseball fans in general.

One merely needs to bring this kind of thing up and out come the lists of “Theo’s Greatest Hits”.

We hear about how great a move it was bringing in David Ortiz for peanuts, though we now know his Red Sox reinvention was as much of a pharmaceutically enhanced one as any, fans rave about the defensive acquisitions of Orlando Cabrera & Doug Mientkiewicz in 2004 and people yammer on and on about the “curse ending Curt Schilling deal” (even though those of us that remember how it ACTUALLY went down know it was a successful trade by default).

On the flip side we get Theo’s detractors coming out of the woodwork to point out the Matt Clement and Edgar Renteria free agent contracts that turned out to be busts (John Lackey’s recent deal might be added to this list and Dice K’s SHOULD be added to it), his love for the risks he takes on injured stars trying to earn their way back to the big bucks and a very perplexing trade or two (Cla Meredith & Josh Bard for Doug Mirabelli ring any bells?).

The reality is that while all of those things should be discussed/debated when assessing the Red Sox transformation from lovable loser to perennial power under Epstein’s leadership, they are a small part of a much bigger picture.

From the very top of the franchise to its lowest tiers Theo Epstein and Larry Lucchino changed the way the Red Sox approached things.  They became a team based on two simple concepts.  Have the pitching and defense that refuse to give away cheap & easy runs to an opponent and an offense that doesn’t throw away at bats.

No longer did they look at superficial stats like “Wins” & “Losses” or “Average” & “Runs Batted In”, but rather they turned their focus towards more intuitive statistics like ERA+, OPS and UZR.

Nothing personifies this fact more than the 2002 hiring of Bill James, the noted stat guru, at Epstein’s urging.  To this day one can find the “Bill James Bible” tucked securely under the GM’s arm more often than not.

They stopped chasing aging free agents and built around a core of players in their prime (25-29) while stocking their own minor league system with a plethora of young talent that could either fill their ranks or be used to acquire a key piece here or there through a sensible trade.

Granted, the team’s position as a big market club with a sizable payroll allowed them more of a margin for error than some other clubs are accustomed to having but none of that should be allowed to discount the massive organization wide philosophical change the pair engineered, nor the success it has spawned.

So if you are a fan of Liverpool right now you are undoubtedly being beaten over the head with quotes from local politicians and business men about “what a great owner John Henry is going to be” and “how beneficial this arrangement is going to be” for both the fans, the franchise and the city/region.

You are being regaled with stories of how he turned this historic baseball franchise around and how he is going to do the same for you.

To that I most assuredly say…caveat emptor.

Case in point, this from today’s Guradian.co.uk:

This has largely been achieved through high investment, which can specifically be seen in the Red Sox’s payroll. It currently stands at somewhere close to $170m [£107m] a year, which is second only in the Major League to the New York Yankees. Big wages do not necessarily lead to a great team but it certainly shows a commitment to signing and keeping top players, which has been a hallmark of Henry’s time in Boston so far.

Yes their payroll has been one of the highest since he took over the team.  But it was almost always one of the highest in the league before he arrived.  So this is quite a hollow argument to me, one that is rather disingenuous at the least.

The piece goes on to point out that Henry has had a sensitive ear to fan concerns, especially regarding club tradition:

Along with the money has come a respect of traditions. When Henry took over it appeared certain that Fenway Park, the Red Sox’s stadium, was destined for demolition. It opened in 1912 and by 2002, when the takeover happened, it was truly looking its age. But instead of knocking it down, Henry preserved Fenway Park and renovated it in a way that reflected its original appearance. All Red Sox fans will tell you that they love the aesthetics of the stadium – if anything they prefer it now to how it looked eight years ago.

While this is commendable the piece fails to point out the fact that Henry has increased ticket prices every year he has had the team to offset the lost revenue he would gain from a newer stadium.  In fact, until the teams rival New York Yankees opened a new stadium in 2009 that featured high value luxury seating in the neighborhood of $2000 per ticket (driving up average ticket prices) the Red Sox have far and away had the highest priced tickets in MLB under Henry’s tenure.

None of this is to say that Henry’s acquisition of the legendary club is necessarily a bad thing for the city and its fans.  I will, however, say that you may want to go into this one with your eyes wide open.

I also, in the interest of full discretion, won’t insult anyone and call myself a devout football fan. I will say that I do follow the sport, albeit from a distance.

I lived in Germany in the early 90’s and consider myself somewhat of a convert, one who went from “yeah, um, screw that candya@# sport” to “you call that a quality first touch?”

I know enough about this wonderful sport to know that it is not as intrinsically tied to statistical measurement as one such as baseball. It just isn’t.

So unless I am missing something and Henry has an ace up his sleeve, some Epstein-like savant who can come in and institute organizational wide changes that will help to revert the team to its winning ways I hope that fans of The Reds will temper their expectations.

One might also want to look at Henry’s brief ownership of baseballs Florida Marlins to get a more informed assessment of the man’s ability to “turn a franchise around”.

Some try to erroneously give him some of the credit for the Marlin’s world series win in 2003, further enhancing his mythos as a sporting success story, but I am sorry, the man had very little say in that matter.

His tenure was so brief, his attention was so devoted to securing a new taxpayer-funded stadium for the club and transactions of his had such little impact on the matter that it is almost laughable to make such an effort. Simply put, the bulk of the talent responsible for the ’03 win was either accrued through trades before he acquired the team or through the draft/trades after he had already sold them.

Once it became obvious that the people of south Florida were not going to foot the bill for a new stadium for the team, which would have undoubtedly driven the value of the team up by hundreds of millions of dollars, Mr. Henry began searching for greener pastures elsewhere.

He got in, he didn’t see a reasonable chance at a profit and he got out.  Case closed.

In the end, and no one can truly criticize the man for this so please just consider this for it’s informative value I guess, the man is in it for a profit.

He most certainly has always shown himself to be a follower of the credo “be true to thine own self” in terms of how he handles his ownership of sports franchises.

I see no reason to expect him to change that part of himself anytime soon.

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