How strategy and data can offset 'the madness of European football'
“Clubs should have a general idea of who will buy their players and even worse is those clubs using agents to buy players. It’s crazy. We do everything directly. We identify our own targets.”
That was the message from American Paul Conway, whose investment group has stakes in five European clubs, to delegates at TransferRoom’s Virtual Summit, as he criticised clubs’ over-reliance on agents to strike transfer deals.
The leakage, as he calls it, is the “madness of European football” that almost helped lead to the bankruptcy of one of the clubs in his portfolio, Belgium’s KV Oostende.
When Conway bought into Oostende last year the club had gone close to going out of business. Making a loss of €7m, it had spent some €2.5m on agents fees. In his keynote address, he told the TransferRoom Summit:
“It’s crazy. All clubs should be confident enough to do everything direct when buying and selling players and your platform here at TransferRoom is a good tool for clubs to do that... That is one simple way of cutting leakage from a club.”
“We got the (agent fees) number down this year to €400,000 and even in a pandemic we’ll be close to break even. That is the number one goal for all our clubs. We have to balance the budget and we grow that budget each year partly through commercialising the club and partly through transfer profits. We wish more clubs had that perspective.”
Also in Conway’s portfolio is England’s Barnsley, Denmark’s Esbjerg, AS Nancy of France and FC Thun of Switzerland.
Five clubs in five different countries all with plenty in common: A commitment to young players; a high press playing style; using data-led recruitment; and doing it all while balancing the budget.
By using data and talking to clubs directly through TransferRoom, the investment group’s mantra is “searching out for undervalued players in Europe.”
Conway is nothing if not focused. Whatever the team, whatever the league the recruitment principles stay the same.
He explained: “We are looking in general in 10 or 11 countries in Europe. There are some groups that look around the whole world, but we don’t have the people or resources to look that broad. So we’ve already cut down the world dramatically by having a focused look. Next there’s a youth screen, and in general we are signing players aged 23 or below and then we have a certain style of play, a high press. So again it screens a lot out.”
What does that process look like? In the 2019-20 season Barnsley sold three players for a £7m profit, which was promptly reinvested in 12 players. To get to those 12 players, the club made bids on 50 players having looked at an original pool of 4,000 players.
“We are serial bidders on talent,” Conway told delegates. “Data is a tool to make clubs more efficient and we are 100% dedicated to it.”
That dedication to data means the old school method of scouting is strongly rejected.
“We are really high-volume acquirers of talent and we don’t have the time so we’d rather have one of our analysts spend time watching five or six games of a player in a day rather than drive 2 or 3 hours into the country and see a half of a game,” Conway said.
“We are catching every time a player touches the ball with the data and there’s tremendous biases in the sport. If the scout has a bad day or has an argument, that may taint their view. The analytics is picking up every time a player touches the ball over years. That screens out any bias.”
Strategy, strategy, strategy
It all adds up to having a uniformed strategy. And if clubs want investment, there needs to be 100% buy-in. Conway explained:
“You don’t see many investors going into clubs with huge operating losses. There has to be a strategy for balancing the books. Most clubs don’t have a strategy. They say ‘we want to get promoted’, or ‘win the league’, or ‘get this coach’. That is not a strategy. You have to have a very clear definite strategy: Here’s how we grow, how we balance the budget and this is our style of play. Without that, it will be very hard to raise capital.”
“We are trying to find clubs with a similarity in targets. Barnsley, for example, were already into data, balancing a budget and using younger players. We recently invested in Nancy and they’ve historically had a great academy but just weren’t using it for the last few years. That made no sense.”
“You have to find a match.”
A smaller Europe
A multi-club model looks set to become the norm through the continent as clubs battle to attract and retain the top playing talent.
Conway talked of the “significant consolidation of European football,” citing a number of strategic investments in clubs across Belgium, France and Denmark. He continued:
“Countries with no restriction on foreign ownership, that is where you’ll see consolidation first but even big countries like Germany you will see more clubs with strategic arrangements, starting with minority investments. There are so many synergies, both on the football and commercial side.”
“Most clubs would rather have their young players who are not quite ready for the first team playing in a system in a professional league with a similar style of play rather than being loaned out to another club or play in the Under-21.”
“It’s not just their growth individually, it’s the growth in their value. You want to be highlighting these players in competitive leagues. This will not stop. You’ll see more consolidation.”