A phrase I use (too much) when talking about football investment is “buy the vineyards not the wine”.
A fully developed Premier League level footballer will cost £25m + £100k a week in wages. A 5 year total cost of £50m. The single player purchase, in this tortured metaphor, is “buying the wine”.
Buying the vineyard means looking at how you can build capacity to have an ever lasting supply of wine, keeping the best for your own use, and selling the excess.
And the crazy thing about football economics is a vineyard with a great history of grape production can often cost less than a single bottle of wine. Yes, you may have to be patient and wait for the grapes to grow, and the wine to mature, and to employ some winemakers, but you can be pretty sure you will end up with some good wine soon enough.
A great example of this would be Toulouse, a club traded for £20m, with the 8th most productive youth system in France (the world’s best talent producing country) with Sangaré, Koné, Diakité, Amian, already established in the first team and the likes of Antiste, and other French youth internationals, coming through.
How can a club with perhaps £50m of value on the playing asset side of the club, a thriving youth system, a stadium, and a training ground be worth less than a single average Premier League footballer?
There are of course extra costs, complexity, and risks that come with owning a club. There are ownership rules to navigate, and if you are buying a football club as an already incredibly wealthy individual you are probably looking to have fun. Buying and enjoying wine is fun, growing grapes less so.
What this does is leave a gap in the market for smart investors.
If vineyards that produce great wine are undervalued then how do you find out which ones just had a great vintage and which have the perfect “terrior” (growing conditions -to really stretch the wine theme), to continually produce talent.
Where talent meets opportunity
To understand this we have to consider the question where does talent come from? Is talent a God given gift, coded into each child’s DNA at point of conception? Or is it deliberate practice, earned through sweat and application? Or is it cultural in that the child from the USA dreams of playing quarterback whilst the Indian child dreams of scoring a century for their country on the cricket pitch?
Probably all three.
Wayne Gretzky is a great example, the most dominant player in the history of his sport. He had unbelievable natural talent for the sport AND had a hockey rink in the back garden where he played for hours AND had a hockey obsessed family and lived in a hockey obsessed culture.
I have no doubt there are children born every day with similar levels of “genetic potential” for ice hockey brilliance but they are probably hitting baseballs, kicking footballs, serving tennis balls, or most likely just struggling to survive the day in most of the world.
One of the most interesting things I’ve recently heard was someone from Right to Dream, the owners of Nordsjaelland FC in Denmark, who run a football academy in Ghana. They were asked how they went about selecting players to join their academy and told a story of how they ran their first trial in a neighbourhood of Accra. The coaches assessing the players had worked in Europe and had a good idea of the ability a player needed to show to be accepted to join a football academy in the UK. The talent was abundant, they had to turn down many players who they would have liked to have taken on, and who if they lived in the UK would be attending professional academies.
Now if they had been looking from a previous productivity point of view would they have gone there? There was no great history of consistent production. Sure talent had emerged, the likes of Abedi Pelé and Tony Yeboah found a way. They were world class talents and as they say “talent always finds a way”.
But does it?
How many potential Abedi Pelé (or Mohammed Kudos) level players are out there with no opportunity?
Ghana has all of the three building blocks for success. Demographically it is great, a young population, there is also a football culture, that means children have the opportunity for hours of practice and get to learn from each other.
But until the likes of Right to Dream came along the passion for football had no opportunity to lead to a professional career. If you have to earn an income to survive from a very young age then a small chance of athletic success has to be sacrificed. Having a great quality free education with accommodation and food provided allows this talent to develop.
And is this relevant to the UK or European football market?
Surely everyone there with talent is picked up and has a chance to fully develop?
Let us imagine a scenario where you have 2 possible areas to invest in.
Each has a population of 1.5m people.
Demographically both areas are similar in terms of population age profile.
One has very big competition for talent from existing rival clubs. The other has almost no real competition for talent.
You’d pick the area with no competition wouldn’t you?
The problem is the two areas were Merseyside and Kent.
There are more footballers from Liverpool whose surname starts with the letter B than have been produced by Kent in total.
Why should that be? Kent has plenty of football pitches, amateur teams, a professional club or two. Why are they so bad at producing footballing talent?
And why is Merseyside (Liverpool and surrounding areas) so good?
Obviously in Everton FC they have one of the founding clubs of the football league, with storied players and sides over 130 years of history. There is another professional club in the city who have enjoyed some success too.
Do we need the lure of playing for the hometown club as an aspirational and motivational tool? If we do in the UK then how come they don’t in Ghana? Or is it more cultural? The very first thing most Scousers are asked is Red or Blue? Nobody asks people from Kent if they support Gillingham or Dover Athletic as an opener.
Perhaps just as there are better areas to plant grapes there are better areas to be based to look for the right combinations of factors to produce a regular supply of football talent.
If you ever visit Africa you find that you are asked about football almost immediately. But this is also true of places like Cambodia or Vietnam. The main difference between these groups of equally passionate football fans seems to be participation. The informal, unstructured hours kicking a ball around. Makeshift football pitches around in Africa but seem far less common in other regions of the world. I see far more kids playing football in Liverpool and South London then I do in Cambridgeshire or Kent.
So it is passion + participation = potential?
And potential + opportunity = success?
A good example of this equation is Paris.
A football crazy young population mainly living in densely populated areas, good facilities, a footballing culture, and a big football club on the doorstep.
And yes PSG has the best youth system in France according to research by the French Football Federation.
What they also have is a massive oversupply of talent. Every French academy is stuffed full of Parisian talent. PSG can only realistically have 20 boys a year in their youth system. But there are probably 200 a year being produced. And to get into the PSG side you have to be world class so many great players leave for other opportunities. Parisians dominate youth football yet PSG are the only top division club in Paris. A huge anomaly for a city of its size.
Unsurprisingly scouts flock to Paris in huge numbers, and recruit to residential academies all over France. For those who don’t want to move, or aren’t picked up early, there are solutions with amateur clubs from Paris participating in the national U17 and U19 leagues against pro clubs, often very successfully.
Turning grapes into wine
So as a football investor you have either purchased an existing club with a productive youth system, or have invested in providing opportunity in a high potential area.
How do you ensure that the young players you are producing actually develop properly?
This is where the approach of the ownership group is key.
It needs to be clear from the start what the aim of the ownership is. Is it a fun purchase where they want to win and are happy to spend inefficiently? Are they looking to build up the capacity of the club to compete in the long term and sell on a club in a strong position for a profit? Is it a standalone investment or part of a network of investments in different types of club?
There are so many examples of club networks that don’t manage to gain the maximum benefits from the arrangement. They seem to run as “silos”, stand-alone entities that happen to have the same ownership.
Why should this be?
If you look at a successful group, Red Bull, you will see something interesting. The primary production of players (the wine making) takes place in Salzburg. Talent is gathered from around the world but is given the opportunity to play in competitive games at an early age at the Liefering team playing in the second division.
Crucially though the Liefering players train with the Red Bull Salzburg players, they use the same facilities, they are under the eye of the coaching staff every day. Coaches aren’t reliant on occasional visits to partner clubs, scouting reports, match video, or conversations for updates on their progress. They don’t have the same concerns about them being able to cope with the step up to senior football as they work with them every day.
Once the players have proven themselves at Liefering, then at Salzburg they are ready for “export”. Either sold to RB Leipzig (which can be looked at as drinking your own wine) or sold elsewhere.
As a company who works heavily in data based recruitment we spend so much time going through video of players to see how confident we can be that a player will fit into our client’s style of play. We do this because you can’t just bring players in on trial to see if they fit in. Yet every coach we speak to says getting a player in and working with them for a few weeks is the ideal.
So how can smart investors ensure they are following best practice?
- Where are your primary player development markets going to be? Local area, Europe, Africa etc. Groups need to consider work permit regulations across the whole network.
- Will you scout for talent in emerging markets (as Red Bull do) or grow your own (Right to Dream) or a combination of the two?
- Build development pathways in from the start. Geographic clustering of clubs and a variety of levels for players to compete at are key to success. Co-location of training facilities for geographically close network clubs will allow coaches to continually assess player progress.
- Consider the value chain. Each move up in level a player makes adds significantly to their value. How much of that value can you capture?
- Different styles of football lead to different player valuations. Norwich City finished bottom of the Premier League with a poor defensive record but individual defenders increased hugely in value. The style they were coached in is regarded (rightly or wrongly) as being more transferable to a higher level than a more defensive style.
- Just as with wine the culture is key to the end product. You need staff throughout the organisation who are committed to helping everyone maximise their talents.
Get everything right and Champagne corks will be popping each time a young player develops in your network.