The manner in which the manager of Premier League football club Brighton & Hove Albion, Roberto De Zerbi, has outperformed predecessor Graham Potter on the field of play is remarkable.
When Potter departed in September 2022 for Chelsea, currently the most expensive club on the planet, with the promise of unlimited funds to spend, it looked like a no-brainer. Chelsea have lavished a dazzling £488million in the transfer market since the start of the 2022-23 season.
Chelsea’s new owners, the Los Angeles Dodgers baseball proprietor Todd Boehly backed by West Coast private equity group Clearwater, represent part of a private equity revolution in sport.
Keeping score: Brighton and Hove Albion owner Tony Bloom (pictured at the Amex Stadium) founded specialist online sports betting analytics firm Starlizard
Premier League clubs and rivals in Serie A in Italy and La Liga in Spain, as well as Six Nations rugby, all have been targeted by public to private investment groups.
The belief is that by applying modern financial disciplines and cutting-edge data to sporting enterprises, value can be released.
That certainly proved the case for private equity group CVC at Formula 1 motor racing. Major European sports have failed to embrace the cutting-edge statistical approach adopted with enthusiasm in America.
The profit opportunity offered by ‘analytics’, social media, streaming services, strengthened franchising, smarter accounting and much else, if skilfully embraced, could be enormous.
Chelsea already have found new ways of accounting for transfers or human capital.
Instead of paying for the new talent out of current income – the conventional approach – takeover fees, like any other investment, are amortised or written off over the period of the contract.
It was not an accident that Chelsea chairman Boehly chose to include commentator Danny Finkelstein when he put together his board of directors at the football club.
Finkelstein, who is a lifelong Chelsea supporter, was an early adopter of the statistical approach to football analysis through a sports column in The Times newspaper.
The contrasting performances of Chelsea (who have struggled) and Brighton since Potter’s departure are of intense interest to me personally. Growing up I was an enthusiastic Brighton supporter.
My season ticket, at the old Goldstone Ground, now a dismal shopping centre, was in sight of the directors’ box then occupied by among others Harry Bloom, the vice-chairman.
He was the grandfather of the current owner, maths genius and gambling entrepreneur Tony Bloom.
Best-seller: Moneyball author Michael Lewis
The Blooms were family acquaintances. I bought my first car from Ronnie’s (Tony’s father) second-hand dealership.
His brother Ray was a few years above me when I was at the Brighton, Hove & Sussex Grammar School.
As a student, the Blooms were kind enough to provide me with a holiday job as room service waiter at the Metropole Hotel in Brighton, which they then owned.
Over the last 30 years, as a resident of south-west London, I have been a Chelsea season ticket holder, drawn in by the enthusiasm of my two sons. It has been an amazing ride and I never really guessed that the fate of two clubs would be closely intertwined.
As the fortunes of the two teams has switched over the course of the current season, with low-budget Brighton moving into the top half of the league table and the quarter-finals of the FA Cup, I have become convinced the difference of performance is about ownership.
The newly installed Boehly team doubtless are huge believers in ‘Moneyball’ – the hidden value in sports franchises which can be released by advanced analytics, as first recounted in the 2003 best-selling book of that name by Michael Lewis, which was also a 2011 movie.
Initially, there was frustration as the digital approach to players and winning spluttered.
Eventually it was seen to work, most famously at the Oakland Athletics baseball team. It was also independently embraced by the Boston Red Sox (owned by Liverpool FC’s main proprietors the Fenway Sports Group) and Boehly’s LA Dodgers. Each of these teams powered to better futures using the magic of data.
When the new £4.25billion owners of Chelsea chose Potter as their manager they were almost certainly guided by analytics. Data had assisted Brighton’s ascent from almost extinction into the football elite, most recently under Potter’s guidance.
The real story of the Potter, and De Zerbi, brilliance at Brighton is not just the chief coach, player management and tactical inspiration, but the owner inspiration.
As the founder of Starlizard, a global leader in specialist online sports betting analytics, Tony Bloom is streets ahead of fellow proprietors in the Premier League in the embrace of data and what it tells you about players, managers, the opposition and the expected outcomes of games.
It employs 160 data engineers and number-crunchers in swish Camden Town headquarters in north London.
It uses the most sophisticated maths, data, AI and statistical models to forecast the outcome of sporting events for Asian and American clients.
The main objective of Starlizard is to provide online sports betting advice. A by-product is the most comprehensive soccer data base analytics around.
It has been a long learning curve but leading clubs increasingly have subscribed or invested in their own teams of data analysts, experts and services, as recorded in Rory Smith’s recent book ‘Expected Goals’.
Traditional scouting operations have been supported or sometimes displaced by number-crunchers and analysts from Prozone, Opta, Scisports and many others.
The technological support is transforming coaches who stand on the touchlines reviewing tactics on their ipads or taking their own copious notes to feed into the machine.
Brighton and Brentford, two Premier League upstarts, are teams which have outperformed all expectations by smart use of data.
Teams are constructed by assembling undervalued players – those yet to make it and those considered an injury risk or past their best. Managers, coaches and staff are identified in the same way.
There will always be football genius on the pitch and the touchline which defies what the data says about passing and tackling skills, set pieces, speed of delivery and shooting prowess.
Tony Bloom built his empire by outsmarting the sports betting odds.
He has demonstrated that building the highest quality and most comprehensive database is a great business model and dramatically changes the chances of success.