Bringing A-game to Premier League

BILLY BEANE, the man behind the Moneyball phenomenon, has dismissed the notion that the principles which brought him success in baseball cannot be adapted to other sports.

’Moneyball’, first published in 2003, documents the early part of the last decade when Beane’s Oakland A’s found a way to compete against teams with much bigger budgets by finding undervalued players through groundbreaking statistical analysis.

The book was a worldwide success and recently has been turned into a film, with Hollywood star Brad Pitt playing Beane, making the latter famous in more places than the general manager of the A’s would otherwise expect to be.

And the 49-year-old bats away suggestions sports like football, rugby and cricket are immune to Moneyball’s benefits.

“Every business has metrics that correlate to success,” he told Press Association Sport.

“It’s just finding them and which ones are the most valuable and which ones do you invest in and which ones you get a return on.”

In particular, Beane is fascinated by European football. He is a friend of Damien Comolli, a Moneyball proponent and director of football at Liverpool.

The Merseysiders share an owner, John W Henry, with the Boston Red Sox, the Major League Baseball team who have perhaps been most successful in applying the lessons of Moneyball — winning two World Series in the last seven years, the first after an 86-year gap.

And he identifies a growing appetite among club owners for investment in players to be backed with science.

Beane said: “People who buy franchises, whether it be in the Premier League or an NFL football team... they want rational reasons for why things are done and the old gut-feel approach in business is no longer going to sell.”

If Beane knows the kind of statistics which will help spot what he calls “inefficiencies” — important undervalued qualities in footballers — he is not telling but he predicts the breakthroughs have already been made by the kind of people who made similar discoveries in baseball.

“There’s a group of people out there that probably aren’t in the game, or are dying to get into the game, or have somebody sponsor these ideas,” he said.

As evidence for the existence of this army of geeks, he points to the example of Bill James. James was a pioneer of the new baseball statistics in self-published books which have proved more accurate in predicting performance than the traditional measurements which featured on baseball scorecards for over 100 years.

He added: “For some fans, their passion for their team comes out in the investigation of the sport, trying to make their team better by virtue of mining this data.

“I guarantee that all through England, Europe, the US, there is a group of people who are doing these things like Bill James and they’re just waiting for a sponsor.”

Listening to him talk, it is hard to disagree with Michael Lewis, the financial journalist and author of Moneyball, who has predicted a future in football for Beane.

According to the New York Times, Lewis claimed Beane’s dream would be for the A’s organisation, in which he has a stake and who already own San Jose Earthquakes of Major League Soccer, to buy a European football club.

His friendship with Comolli and his frequently-stated admiration for Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger point to an ambition to make Moneyball pay in football.

Asked about his future he said: “It’s hard to say. I’ve got a lot of interests — one of the reasons why I’m over here is I love Premier League football. I love European football. I love the business of it as much as anything — it’s the biggest sport in the world.”

However, that ambition outlined by Lewis, if it exists in Beane, remains undefined and long-term. What drives him for now is establishing a better future for the A’s.

He is a victim as well as a beneficiary of the Moneyball success — teams with better funding are now armed with the knowledge which helped the A’s defy their low budget by reaching the play-offs five times in eight seasons.

Now they are grounded — literally — the limitations of sharing the outdated Coliseum stadium with the Oakland Raiders meaning no matter what airy benefits they garner from metrics, they will struggle to compete.

For four of the last five seasons, they have lost more games than they have won and injuries to four frontline pitchers in 10 days this year proved unsustainable without the money to replace them.

It is a problem for which Comolli must have sympathy as a new stadium is high on the agenda for Liverpool too.

The plan for Oakland is to move to a purpose-built stadium in a new city, with San Jose seeming an attractive prospect. “We’re never going to be the Yankees no matter where we are,” he said.

“Baseball teams are just like any business, you like having a three or four-year plan and when you have no idea what you’re revenue is going to be, it’s difficult.”

He added: “The next generation of executives with the A’s will probably reap most of the benefits but as long as we’re part of that process, I’ll be happy. I don’t think I’ll be completely comfortable leaving ever — unless that stadium’s in place.”

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