John Henry faced the ire of some fans when he attended Fenway Park on Monday night.
As John Henry walked through the stands of Fenway Park to take his seat on Monday evening his presence was met with a chorus of boos.
Henry was at Fenway, the home of Fenway Sports Group -owned Boston Red Sox, to watch the annual NHL Winter Classic between the Boston Bruins and the Pittsburgh Penguins, the latter a team that FSG purchased for $900m back in November of 2021.
The ire of some Red Sox fans present was directed at Henry for what has been a bitterly disappointing off-season for the Red Sox as they gear up for their 2023 season, one where they saw their star player, Xander Bogaerts, depart for the San Diego Padres and where they failed to land their major targets after being outbid by their rivals. On the back of a last placed finish in the American League East last season it was a bitter pill to swallow for Red Sox fans.
Those fans have become increasingly irate at FSG’s more recent tenure of the team, accusations of being too tight fisted when it comes to releasing the kind of funds needed to compete something that has been mirrored across the Atlantic at FSG’s most valuable team in their portfolio, Liverpool.
There have been numerous low points for Henry and FSG during their ownership of both the Red Sox and Liverpool. In Boston there has been anger in the past over the exit of their All-Star player Mookie Betts and former general manager Dave Dombrowski, while in Liverpool there has been ire directed the way of the Reds owners after plans to raise ticket prices, attempts to furlough staff during the pandemic and, most notably, the decision to push for a European Super League. In the case of the Reds, all were decisions that were reversed after fan pressure.
Red Sox and Liverpool fans are now on the same page, however. It is the perceived lack of desire to spend money on the on-field product that is the cause of the anger. FSG have always, quite openly, operated with the aim of being the most efficient in the market, and when the unwritten fan contract that exists is satisfied, i.e. the teams are winning and are competing with their biggest rivals, then it has been a model that has been accepted. After all, it is the owners who cut the cheques, who drive the growth of the business to a point where it can maintain competitiveness despite the ever-increasing burden of payroll and the arms race that the transfer market has become.
The issue is, certainly in the case of Liverpool, that the business side of things, even considering the impact of the pandemic, has been remarkably robust. According to predictions from analysts at football business website Off The Pitch, the Reds are expected to see record revenues of £602m when they post their 2021/22 financial results in the next couple of months. In those results Off The Pitch predict there will be a profit of more than £70m.
From where Liverpool were in 2010 when FSG took over to where they are now, when looking at the success that has been achieved and how there has been investment into the infrastructure relating to both the stadium and the new training ground, there is no cogent argument that can be made against them not having been, in the main, good custodians of the club. The issue is that the club now faces a problem that hasn’t manifested itself before for FSG during their time at Liverpool and one that only investment can solve.
Liverpool’s current crop have hit their crescendo, the issue that they now face is the diminuendo that comes next. There are pieces of the puzzle who were so important to success in recent years that can’t operate at the levels they did, and there are those whose natural shelf life with the club is nearing expiry. Liverpool were so good for so long at adding bits and pieces along the way, the view being that there would be some kind of seamless transition from the old to the new, one that would allow them to keep the pedal to the metal and jousting with the likes of Manchester City year after year and keep them going deep into the Champions League every season.
In the early years of the FSG reign at Liverpool it was all about process, building towards something. The hiring of Brendan Rodgers offered some clues as to what they were trying to achieve with more modern thinking, but it wasn’t until Jurgen Klopp was hired in 2015 that the plan kicked on. The data pipelines were functioning, the Reds being early adopters, and Klopp was afforded time to mould a Liverpool team in his image. When it hit its peak, between late 2018 and mid 2020, there wasn’t a team on the planet that was better.
Two years is a long time in football and their rivals keep spending, while Liverpool have missed opportunities in at least two transfer windows to make some of the changes that would have slowed the decline that has been seen this season and ensure that kept humming along, notwithstanding the odd bump in the road.
The obvious differences in the sports noted, there are also major differences in how stewardship of North American sports ownership and European sports ownership works. The Red Sox have flatlined for a few seasons in between periods of success. They last won the World Series in 2018, their fourth in 20 years of FSG ownership, a feat that no other team has managed in the same period, but it is the way that they have fallen away, especially last year, that has been of concern. In losing key players from an already disappointing 2022 season it has become hard to make fans believe that all will be well for 2023, and that has led to a turn in the mood against FSG at Fenway, one that became audible to Henry on Monday night.
In European football there can be no fallow periods for the biggest teams. Manchester United thought they could muddle on through but have been left, despite the heavy spend, decaying for long periods in a stadium doing the same. This season under Erik ten Hag, and with the backdrop of the Glazer family wanting to close a deal to sell the club in the early part of 2023, has given some reason for hope to United fans again.
Manchester City are typically relentless, but in the Premier League the old ‘top four’ has made way to the ‘big six’. There has been resurgence and emergence, with Arsenal’s start to the season throwing them back into the Champions League mix, while Newcastle United have had a remarkable start to life under Eddie Howe and haven’t yet had to rely on the full force of their enormously wealthy owners, the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund. Chelsea have had new owners and an open wallet policy, although their start to the season, the sacking of popular Thomas Tuchel and the struggles of his successor Graham Potter have demonstrated the challenges of trying to implement a new regime and new ideas once the starter pistol has already been fired.
Taking away the ‘FIFA Ultimate Team’ mentality that can exist around the transfer market and fans imploring their teams to spend more, more and more, a playing field where all teams tried to be efficient and grow using more typical business techniques to back up healthy balance sheets and sustainable growth as opposed to relentless excess is something that would probably be welcomed. The problem for FSG is that the model that got them to where they are with Liverpool does have change, at least to some degree.
The signing of Cody Gakpo was a lift, a good deal for a great player with the right profile. But there has to be more spent in the transfer market to address the issues that Liverpool face for the second half of this season, issues that will derail their Champions League plans for next season which could cost them some £100m and hobble their attempts to land some of the major targets they have been pursuing, such as Jude Bellingham.
There has been the notion presented that a lack of activity in the market is down to FSG looking at the exit door, the owners open to listening to offers for the club. From well-placed US sources that the ECHO has spoken the commitment to being majority shareholders of Liverpool remains for FSG, with Henry in particular not overly keen to sell his company’s biggest asset. Investment is being sought, although at the right price, and that means well in excess of £3.3bn, they would be willing to listen to what those wanting a full takeover had to say.
There is, though, little in terms of “real” interest that has been presented, sources tell the ECHO, with regards to the latter, and the plan for 2023 for FSG will be, as chairman Tom Werner told the Boston Globe in November, “business as usual”. But for Liverpool and their owners a failure to make the Champions League and to address the deficiencies that exist within the squad will mean that business as usual will be very hard to achieve, especially when success both domestically and in Europe has been such a major lever to growth.
FSG don’t need to spend with abandon in January, but they do need to spend. Hinging their hopes on the summer has been a well worn line, and in missing out on Aurelien Tchouameni last summer, putting their eggs in one basket, they can ill afford the same again. A premium has to be paid for bringing in recruits mid season, but it’s one that FSG must bear.