For any Liverpool supporters that still questioned John W Henry and New England Sports Ventures’ bona fides as an owner’s group willing to put its money where its mouth is, last week should have put some of those concerns to rest.
Henry’s Boston Red Sox went into baseball’s annual winter meetings in Orlando knowing they needed to make a splash after missing the play-offs for just the second time in eight seasons, not only to try and regain the upper hand on hated division rivals and AL East champions the New York Yankees but also to reassure fans worried that Henry’s purchase of Liverpool would lead to a financial drain on baseball operations.
Red Sox Nation can rest easy, though, after general manager Theo Epstein, with the backing of Henry, came away from Florida having committed almost $300million to two massive acquisitions that set the Sox up to compete for the best part of a decade.
First, big hitting first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, a long time target, arrived in a trade from San Diego that cost the Sox three of their most prized youth players. Gonzalez has one year left on his current contract for just over $6m, but there can be little doubt that the Sox would not have pulled the trigger on the deal without knowing they had an extension, reportedly for $154million over seven years, in place.
The expected acquisition of Gonzalez caused only minor ripples among MLB execs, but Boston’s next move stunned the league as they agreed another seven-year contract, this time worth $142m, with Tampa Bay free agent Carl Crawford, stealing the best hitter on the open market out from under the noses of the Yankees and several other interested parties.
To put those figures into perspective, they would represent the ninth and 11th largest contracts in the history of baseball (the Yankees are responsible for four of the top five), the equivalent of Chelsea shelling out £100m to sign David Villa and Steven Gerrard on transfer deadline day.
Most amazingly, given the huge sums involved, is that these giant outlays actually fit in with the Red Sox’s current financial structures. More than $40m has come off the Fenway Park wage bill this offseason, with another $50m or so due to drop away at the end of next season. Praise must go to Epstein and his colleagues, but also to Henry and NESV, not only for their commitment to investing in the team on a continued but sustainable level, but also for knowing when to go the extra mile.
Boston management has long maintained a policy of not giving out seven-year deals to players based on the inherent risk that the deal will turn into an albatross around the team’s neck in its latter stages, but it has emerged that Epstein made a late call to Henry and new Anfield chairman Tom Werner, who were ironically in England on Liverpool business, to gain approval to strike while the iron was hot and increase their six-year offer to Crawford and the deal was tied up hours later.
This is all heartening stuff for Liverpool fans, who finally hope their team is in good hands following the disastrous Hicks/Gillett era, but makes for a most unflattering comparison with Manchester United’s American owners, the Glazer family.
Their US sports interest centres on the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who are having an unexpectedly good season in spite of, rather than because of, the Glazers.
This season has seen the expiry of the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement, a partnership between owners and the players’ union which dictates things such as season schedules, contract and player movement regulations and, most importantly, the percentage of NFL revenues that go to players.
With many team owners feeling the economic pinch (or at least claiming to), they exercised an opt-out clause from the old agreement, meaning the current season is being played out without a salary cap as negotiations take place over a new deal for 2011. While some teams have shaken off the financial restraints to go all out in a bid for a championship, others, including the Buccaneers, have instead taken the opportunity to cut spending well below the previous minimum salary stipulations.
Indeed 10 of the league’s 32 team’s opted to reduce their wage bill to below the previous floor of $112m, but none more so than Tampa Bay, who shed more than $30m to $80.8m, by far the lowest in the NFL and less than half of what has been doled out by big spending Dallas and Washington.
But with the Glazers’ First Allied Corporation, which owns and operates more than 60 shopping malls in the US, in dire financial straits (several of the malls have been labelled insolvent with others not far behind), there is little hope United – or for that matter Tampa Bay – fans will suddenly see the Glazers investing large sums in their on-field resources. Instead, it seems more likely that the massive revenues of both United (£278m in 2009) and the Bucs ($246m) will continue to be used to prop up the Glazers ailing business and pay off estimated debts of $1.6billion across the family’s sports and business ventures, according to Forbes magazine.
This debt burden and the accompanying interest left United boss Sir Alex Ferguson having to gamble on unproven talent in the summer transfer window (Javier Hernandez looks to be paying off, Bebe not so much yet) and despite their recent rise to the summit of the Premier League, few would argue that United’s squad is as threadbare as any Ferguson has marshalled since the early days of his Old Trafford reign.
Despite being linked to most of Europe’s big names since the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo last summer and United’s insistence that his £80million transfer fee is available to spend, there has been no big outlay, and United fans may well be right to be concerned that Wayne Rooney’s fat new contract may only be a stopgap measure as the Glazers eventually hope to cash in to the maximum on their star asset.
At the opposite end of the East Lancashire Road, Liverpool supporters are eagerly anticipating the January transfer window, however much their new owners and manager Roy Hodgson try to lower expectations. If NESV and John Henry’s Red Sox record is anything to go by, they will put their trust in Hodgson and Damien Comolli, to whom they have entrusted the running of their club and spend big if the right opportunity presents itself. Equally though, the Anfield faithful should not get too dispirited if little happens next month. In this case, a lack of activity will not equal a lack of ambition, just a desire to avoid making any rash moves that could prove costly in the long run.