Why Are the Red Sox Buying a British Soccer Team?



Thanks to this morning's English court ruling, it looks like the sale of Liverpool's soccer club to a new set of Americans will go through. In the days since it was announced that the owners of the Boston Red Sox planned to buy the team, the media on both continents have pretty much been falling all over themselves proclaiming it a match made in heaven. What John Henry and his minions did for Boston, we have been told repeatedly, they will do for Liverpool. To be sure, there are surface similarities. Both teams are brand names in their sports, with illustrious histories. Neither is in the media capital of its country, but each boasts perhaps its nation's most zealous fans. At the time of purchase, both franchises were also looking for a savior.

But not so fast. The truth is that American baseball is not European soccer and Boston is not Liverpool. As successful as New England Ventures has been running a sports franchise in the New World, it's likely to fall flat on its face in the old one. To understand why, one needs to appreciate one key difference between American and European sports: In Europe, the players have far more power. For starters, they get to decide virtually where they want to play continent-wide, since there's nothing like a college or free agent draft. Contracts aren't worth the paper they're written on, since once a player decides he wants to move elsewhere, he's now almost always allowed to go, even if there are years left on his written agreement. Finally, players are only exchanged for money, not other players. No one gets "sent" to Blackburn, unless he's ready and willing.

This means that in the new Europe, the strong teams get stronger, since once a player gets good, he usually wants to play for one of the powers in the sport. The opinion of its fans notwithstanding, Liverpool is not really one of those powers anymore. In England alone, at best it now sits fourth in the pecking order behind Chelsea, Arsenal, and Manchester United.

And it's likely to sink further for the same reason it fell behind. Liverpool's great run of English championships came a generation ago—when players rarely traveled across national borders. Today, in a world in which players can go anywhere in Europe, the best prefer to play in a congenial place—especially when they bring wives, families, or girlfriends along. The soccer capitals of London, Milan, Barcelona, Munich, and Madrid are world-class cities. On its good days, Liverpool isn't Barca or Boston; it's Detroit. On its bad ones, it's Newark, with no Gotham across the Mersey.

The only way around this state of affairs is to somehow make the team a magnet. Paying higher salaries is one way to do it, but thanks to the new UEFA fair play finance rules—which more or less require teams to break even—Liverpool won't be able to outbid its international competitors. The other way is to attract a coach who will attract the players. That's actually what an old regime tried when it brought in Spaniard Rafa Benitez, who managed to persuade a number of his countrymen to try out the charms of Liverpool. Eventually, however, both he and many of his compatriots such as Javier Mascherano wanted to live and play elsewhere.

The locale was only part of the story. The other was that Benitez couldn't fulfill the impossible dreams of Liverpool's fans because no one can. Though observers in recent days have likened the sports traditions of Liverpool to Boston's, the two have major differences. When John Henry and company took over in New England in 2002, they were inheriting a team that hadn't won anything in over 80 years. When the Sox went on to win two World Series within a few years, the fans were ecstatic.

In contrast, Liverpool isn't exactly a basket case. The laments of their fans notwithstanding, in the last ten years alone, Liverpool has won the League Cup twice, the FA Cup twice, the UEFA Cup once, and has reached two Champions League finals—winning one in what may have been the sport's greatest comeback ever. You'd have to be among the biggest whiners in sports to look at that record and complain that it's deficient because there are no Premier League crowns. But that's exactly what's happened.

Yes, the prior Liverpool ownership regime of George Gillett and Tom Hicks was tone deaf and debt-ridden. But on the field, it probably overachieved. Ten years from now, Liverpool will have a better-run team—even a profitable one. But its owners are unlikely to have nearly as good a record as any of their predecessors. Which means that just like their precursors, these Americans will eventually be run out of town too, wondering what the hell they were thinking when they bought Liverpool FC.