September 18 – The £20 million takeover of Championship club Barnsley looks likely to complete in the next two weeks when the English Football League complete their integrity tests on the proposed new ownership group of Chinese billionaire Chien Lee and US businessman Paul Conway.
Together with ‘Moneyball’ guru Billy Beane, they will hold 98.5% of the club, their first English club acquisition though Lee has previously shown acquisition interest in a number of Championship clubs including Hull City, Reading, Queens Park Rangers, and Sunderland.
What makes Barnsley particularly interesting is the relatively low acquisition price – £20 million plus £5 million of debt – for what could be a realistic shot at the Premier League if the data-driven philosophy gives the team a competitive edge.
That remains to be seen but current owner Patrick Cryne has already established a stats and analysis based approach within the playing side of the club that makes the new owners, and Beane in particular, an interesting fit.
On the commercial side Barnsley are well run, having made a profit of £13 million last year and having stated that their intention is to buy the other half of the Oakwell Stadium owned by the council. The stadium requires investment in a facelift but is certainly serviceable at the current level.
For his part Cryne is keen to sell the club, though the negotiations appear to have been protracted. Cryne, suffering from terminal cancer, has said he does not expect to live through the end of this year, though he will retain a 1.5% interest in a club.
Two weeks ago chairman Maurice Watkins, a sports industry and sports law veteran, stood down from the position. With him leaves a wealth of football experience and contacts that can’t be replaced by data alone – even with the newest of the self-learning AI algorithms.
For Lee and his co-investors Barnsley will be their second European club, having taken over at OGC Nice in France’s Ligue 1 last year. That takeover has generally been viewed as a success. The punt on Barnsley will likely only be viewed as a success if they can take that giant step into the Premier League. It looks like also being a test of how successful the data driven approach can deliver performance goals in football – a very different game with a greater set of variables than Baseball where Billy Beane made his name with the Oakland Athletics.
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