“Moneyball” and Football Clubs’ Financial Sustainability
Moneyball is a commonly used expression – while formally originating from Billie Beane’s baseball recruitment strategy, its ramifications have also been felt in football, and felt no greater than by Brentford FC.
What is Moneyball?
Statistical analysis can polarise people - traditionalists believe that the game cannot be scrutinised by data to the point they bear fruit to its fluidity, while others feel something can be learned by the numbers if critically interpreted. Moneyball is exactly what those traditionalists oppose – finding market value using data and using that to determine players that cost less than they should. This concept is vital to prevent overpaying for big-money signings that have already peaked (no greater exemplified than FC Barcelona’s signing of Antoine Griezmann’s costing in the region of £110million). The aim is to maximise profits by both minimising costs and selling players at their peak market value.
While the field of data-led recruitment is exploding, clubs often have tunnel-vision, explained by the availability heuristic: the more easily you can call something to mind, the more weight you give it. This means that scouts often value recent performances over long-term trends. Thus, to create a more sustainable model of buying and selling, clubs like Brentford have a more joined-up method where they scout players over long periods, studying their “numbers” (such as xG, xA and other comprehensive statistics) looking for undervalued players that they can develop and sell for a healthy profit. This profit can be reinvested and cycled back into the club to gradually build both value and revenue streams.
Brentford is a London-based club currently fighting for promotion into the Premier League. This, however, was not always the case. In 2012, Brentford was in the third-tier of English football, and were, in hindsight, extremely fortunate to be taken over by Mathew Benham, a boyhood fan who made his millions through Smartodds, a team of statisticians that calculate outcomes of football matches to gain an edge over bookmakers. This is through using mathematical methods to evaluate performances that create algorithms much more sophisticated than basic xG models. These details about the man behind the takeover show how there could feasibly be a data-driven campaign to the illustrious Premier League.
Their fortunes changed almost instantly in the 2013/14 season when Benham’s investment and change of recruitment structure spurred them into the playoffs. This structure was based on Moneyball principles - buy low, sell high. The difficulty is finding underperforming individuals with high potential, known as whispering talents.
It is important to keep in mind Brentford’s objectives as a club: to not only provide profit to shareholders but to provide persistent measurable improvements in league position. So, after eight years since Benham’s investment, there should be measurable progress, and there is. Brentford finished 3rd in the Championship in the 2019/20 season (a league that is undoubtedly more competitive than in years past), unfortunately losing out to Fulham in the playoff final. Moreover, statements released by the club regarding the 2018/19 season show a pre-tax profit of £24.3million (mostly coming from substantial player sales). Additionally, the Bees have the fourth-lowest paying budget in the Championship, which doesn’t correlate to their league standing whatsoever. The club is currently building a new 17,800-seater stadium which looked like a pipe dream pre-Benham when the club was in a bankrupt state, with £500,000 worth of debt.
Benham’s revolutionary analytics culture has been ingrained into the club. The club has resisted fans and coaches’ input and let go of traditional methods of scouting. When Brentford look for their next attacking acquisition, they will analyse the quantity and quality of chances that the player has historically created. This is produced via models like xG (expected goals). Its purpose is to limit the luck factor in football by measuring the quality of shot taken based on variables such as shot angle, distance, assist type and whether it was a headed shot. In principle, this will measure a player’s true performance throughout a season, regardless of their short-term (and sometimes misleading) form. This is to breakdown the “David vs Goliath” narrative plaguing teams like Brentford have, whereby they have to try to find alternative methods to compete with teams with superior budgets.
When Brentford study a player, they keep analytical and traditional methods separate. Rasmus Ankerson (the Director of Football), acts as the coordinator, understanding when the objective and subjective information has weight and their respective limitations. These are often used in tandem to present a clear picture of a player.
Looking closely at Saïd Benrahma, for example, a player that spent the 2017/18 season on loan at LB Chateauroux from OGC Nice. He had a representative sample of 33 games, coming in as the 26th top goal scorer. Benrahma overperformed his xG slightly by 1.68, however, Brentford identified that this came from taking a high volume of shots with a relatively low success rate. Therefore, if Brentford coaches could potentially improve his shooting ability by 15 per cent, he would become more prolific. This is exemplified by his current shot percentage of 38, meaning he improved his tactical awareness or technique. Moreover, he was of a prime buy age of 22, showing room for improvement before re-sale, coupled with reports stating his desire to develop. Benrahma was bought from OGC Nice for £900,000 back in 2018 before being sold to West Ham in 2020 for £25 million.
Brentford has a recent history of buying outside the British Isles, with 32 purchases coming from the U.K. in 2013/14, compared to 11 in 2019/20. This is largely because local talents usually have inflated values. This is paired with their approach of buying young: average age of arrivals has fallen progressively since 2014/15, from 22.6 years to 21.6 in 2019/20. Therefore, allowing the club to mould players into their attacking, free-flowing style of football that focuses on fast vertical movements. While they do utilise younger players to omit a more effective press, Brentford squeeze minutes out of older players to provide maturity (as Billie Beane stated, older players can still have talent that can be used efficiently).
In 2017 Brentford made the unorthodox decision to no longer running a full academy system. They have instead run an elite squad of 18 players aged 17-21, which has helped to reduce the gap to the first team. They have chosen to specialise with one development age group to improve the calibre significantly, rather than spreading scarce resources over the whole development spectrum. At roughly £2 million a year, it was simply too much of a risk that their academy (in the competitive London environment) would produce worthwhile players revenue-wise. Primarily because Premier League clubs would ‘cherry-pick’ their best academy players before Brentford were due compensation for the transfer. It was therefore perceived as a more sustainable method to recruit young players released from Premier League academies as well as exploiting undervalued overseas markets.
Benham’s total commitments to the Bees’ has been £100.1m. This is markedly less than other clubs across the football pyramid and while the construction of the new ground has been scaled back because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the club will benefit from future revenue streams. Over the past five years the club has made over £90m purely from player sales – this as stated throughout is the club’s main business agenda. Brentford profited £15.2m in 2018-19 from sources such as lucrative TV rights, match-day tickets, commercial and retail operations. While this is substantial, distribution of TV rights across English football is not linear – top clubs earn a disproportionate amount. This only incentivises Brentford to push for the top tier, for example Liverpool earnt £248m in broadcasting revenues in the 2017/18 season, and the number is exponentially larger today.
COVID-19 has put into question the ability of so-called smaller clubs to close the gap with the bigger clubs as those that are more powerful will recover faster. Why? Not only are match-related revenues shrinking, there is uncertainty about the volume and scale of player trading. For some smaller clubs this is the difference between profit and loss. Clubs spending extortionate wages will struggle finding suitors that are willing to pay their wages as even for footballers, wages are sticky. This will lead to clubs following Brentford’s sustainable model. Which can both benefit the Bees’ since other clubs will value their players more highly when it comes to re-sale, and be a disadvantage as there’s an increased demand for said whispering talents.
Limitations in Analytics:
While conceptually simple, is it easy in practice? There remain limitations to xG. For example, the model is only as good as the factors being input into the calculations – other factors, such as whether the goalkeeper is unsighted, or shot power/curl, are not considered in most xG models. Therefore, xG should be used to aid decision making and generate opinions rather than to give a finite answer to player performances. xG should be used in the analytics world as either a tool for finding undervalued talent or for supporting the case for player recruitment. It is clear however that these metrics have a future in the game (to be indicative) but will not take away the analysis of in-game situations to provide further context.
Brentford FC has inspired the football analytics community over the past 8 years – creating a sustainable business model, allowing them to punch above their weight. Whilst recording staggering profits, the club also looks set to challenge yet again for Premier League football. Holding firm with their moneyball principles, despite the demanding COVID-19 landscape and in the intense London football scene, Brentford continues to prosper.