Big Data model helps London team win soccer’s richest game
A sporting strategy engineered on the west coast of America has helped a small community club in the west of London win the richest game in world soccer.
Brentford Football Club beat Swansea City AFC 2-0 on Saturday in a playoff final at London’s Wembley Stadium, both goals coming early in the first half. The win secures the club a place in the English Premier League and potentially hundreds of millions of pounds in new broadcast and sponsorship revenue.
For Brentford, it breaks the curse of nine previous playoff failures and returns the team to the apex of English soccer for the first time in more than 70 years. It also caps almost a decade of ownership under data-driven entrepreneur Matthew Benham.
The University of Oxford-educated former Bank of America Corp. employee transformed Brentford’s fortunes by using analytics to unearth talent missed by traditional scouting methods. His dealings kept the club competitive through the regular sales of star performers and drawn comparisons to Billy Beane, the ex-US baseball player who pioneered a similar model during his time managing California’s Oakland Athletics -- a story later retold in Michael Lewis’s 2003 book “Moneyball”.
“Matthew’s ownership strategy has been an inspiration for people like myself, who are trying to change and modernise the way people look at club ownership,” said Jordan Gardner, majority shareholder in Denmark’s FC Helsingor.
Deloitte LLP estimates the winner of the playoff final can generate about 280 million pounds ($397 million) in revenue over five years if it survives a first season in the top division. This has led to the game being dubbed the richest in soccer. Brentford’s revenue for the year ended June 30, 2020, was 13.9 million pounds, excluding player sales, according to accounts for the period.
Saturday’s win is reward for Benham after years of personal investment in Brentford, nicknamed the Bees. A fan of the club himself, Benham emerged as a potential owner in 2009 when he entered into a partnership agreement with the Supporters’ Trust that was then in charge. He purchased the controlling shareholding in 2012.
Since then, he’s plowed more than 100 million pounds into the club, accounts show, and seen it develop a reputation for exciting, attacking soccer -- a marked change from its more labored style in the decades before his arrival.
A representative for Brentford declined to comment and a request to contact Benham through the club was declined.
“Benham told fans when he took over that he had a strategy and asked them to come on a journey with him and urged them to have a great time,” Kieran Maguire, a lecturer in soccer finance at the University of Liverpool. “Apart from the team’s playoff record, they have done well.”
Backing it all up is a statistics-heavy approach that’s already worked for Benham at Danish Superliga team FC Midtjylland, which he’s owned since 2014 and turned into three-time champions. At Brentford, he recruited mathematics graduates to analyse the data behind players across the world that were slipping under the radar. This helped identify talents such as Neal Maupay, Said Benrahma and Ollie Watkins, who were all sold on for big profit to Premier League clubs.
“The fans see him as a fan first and a smart, successful businessman next,” said Maguire. “Brentford fans have realistic expectations and know that the player development model can help the club punch above its weight.”
Benham’s methods have their roots in banking and bookmaking. After a brief stint at Bank of America in the 1990s, he entered the gambling industry with Matchbook, a sports betting exchange, and Smartodds, which describes itself as a privately-owned company providing statistical research and sports modeling services.
“Much of Matthew’s philosophy of football club ownership comes from his other business, Smartodds, which is a very successful betting company,” said Gardner, who is also a minority investor in Swansea City.
Brentford is managed on a relatively tight budget. At about 26 million pounds, its wage bill ranks 14th out of the 24 Championship teams, according to Maguire. This figure still dwarfs club revenue, with the impact of stadium lockdowns during the pandemic dragging it to an operating loss of 9.2 million pounds after player sales in the latest financial year.
One way Benham sought to redress the balance prior to the onset of Covid-19 was by moving Brentford to a new 17,000-plus capacity arena with thousands of premium hospitality seats. The club has started welcoming fans back to games in limited numbers.
After the club’s final game at its old Griffin Park stadium last year -- a 3-1 victory over Swansea City that ensured Brentford’s place in the 2020 playoff final -- Benham was serenaded by fans who’d gathered outside to celebrate the win and bid farewell to their home of more than a century.
It was a rare sight in an era of strained relations between supporters and club hierarchies, something that has only worsened this season following the Super League fiasco.
“You won’t find a single fan who would say a word against him, and that’s unusual,” said Greg Dyke, chairman of Brentford between 2006 and 2013.