"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 that troubling the minds of the Red Sox Nation when John W Henry and his partners first arrived in Boston in 2002.
But over the course of the last eight years, a 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?
1. Henry is willing to spend big on new players... and keep 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 Ranaudo, a 21-year-old, much-coveted pitcher, a bonus of $2.55m, a MLB record. For this year's draft they paid a total of over $10m (£6.25m), 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 the New England Sports Venture 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, a far bigger club, pay higher salaries than the Red Sox. John Lackey, the Red Sox's best rewarded player, earns nearly double Steven Gerrard's annual £6.5m wage packet, but overall the total wage bill is pretty equal at around £100m each.
2. Anfield may be redeveloped, not rebuilt, to add corporate boxes
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 has 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 hospitality – an area where Liverpool languish behind the likes of Manchester United, bringing in £42.5m per season compared to United's £102m – despite the old ground's limitations. NESV has invested $250m in the ground and another $75m on a new state-of-the-art training ground in Florida.
3. The new owners are geared to selling out – the ground, that is
The numbers speak for themselves, as Bill James, the Red Sox man behind metrics, the radical statistical analysis of the game, would no doubt point out. 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. Ticket prices for Fenway Park vary hugely from under £20 to over £200; at Liverpool they surround the £40 mark.
4. Expect a commercial revolution as everything becomes sponsored
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 groups of fans even pay around $500 to stand on the field as the teams.
5. A board of directors who are committed to listening to the fans
For all the commercial drive of NESV, it does appear genuinely to consult Red Sox 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 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.
The result: a faltering sporting giant is spectacularly revived
To put it simply, the end product is 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 non-executive 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 US 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.Reuse content