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Unread 06-10-2010, 08:30 PM
fred tissue
Default John W Henry: Soya bean trader who transformed a team of has-beens

Anfield's prospective owner understands baseball and its traditions but will he get football?

"In every transaction you must attempt to lower your risk and increase your potential to succeed. Every deal, every decision at this level has risk. You cannot shield yourself from risk. You cannot win with a long-term, conservative tone."

So said John Henry; not about the soya bean futures market, in which as a 25-year-old he successfully invested his family's money, and not about the losing bet on various commodities which cost his investment company many millions five years ago, but about a baseball club he and his business partners bought in 2002 for $700m (about 480m at the time).

The club were the Boston Red Sox, and Henry's words unsentimental and detached, cold even served only to heighten the suspicion that one of the most beloved "franchises" in all of American sport had fallen into the hands of a Wall Street vulture interested only in making a buck and making it fast.

Two years later, the suspicions were gone, washed away in the euphoria that greeted the Red Sox's victory in the 2004 World Series the club's first since 1918. Since then, another World Series has been won and if this year's failure to reach baseball's play-offs has been a disappointment it has done little to diminish Henry's popularity among the club's vast fan base.

"There is a general acceptance that he [Henry] has been an extraordinarily successful owner of the Sox, not least because he has invested money in player personnel and in the club's structure at a scale that has been untypical of most other owners," says Professor Andrew Zimbalist of Smith College, Massachusetts, who has written extensively about the finances of baseball. "But that is the way he is; he believes that the best way to achieve success at a sports franchise is to put a winning team on the field."

Zimbalist's assessment of Liverpool's putative owner and his financial methods might go down well on Merseyside but, even more encouraging, perhaps, will be news of his low-key personality. While Tom Hicks, in particular, is bluff and often confrontational, Henry is a more reflective figure.

He does not shun the media in Boston in fact, he has occasionally written and published blogs about the team but he has never viewed his ownership of the club as a means of self-promotion. "There is no way he would go into Liverpool saying: 'Look at me, I'm a big shot and I am going to prove it by buying one of the most famous soccer clubs in the world. This is not about his ego," says someone who knows him well.

Maybe so, but in trying to buy one of the most famous football clubs in the world what exactly is Henry's ambition and what are his qualifications? After all, he grew up in Arkansas and southern California, the son of a farmer and a baseball fanatic who one day dreamed of owning the St Louis Cardinals, the club he supported from boyhood. According to a friend, he took a keen interest in this summer's World Cup and his recent reading has included Soccernomics, Simon Kuper's book on the use of statistics in football.

Henry's hopes of owning the Cardinals were never fulfilled but, having made his fortune through the 1980s in the stock market and in foreign exchange dealings, he bought a small share in the New York Yankees. Then, in 1999, he bought the Florida Marlins for a reported $158m.

Frustrated by the club's relatively small fan base (and income stream) and a failure to get public money to build a new stadium, he was on the lookout for another club. In 2001, the Red Sox were put up for sale and in early 2002 Henry, this time as part of a consortium, placed the winning bid.

Like Liverpool now, the Red Sox then had a storied past and a troubled present: a rickety stadium (at least in comparison to the modern standards of many of their rivals) at Fenway Park; and a devoted fan base, both locally and around the world. Yet if there are parallels between the two, there is one obvious difference: one is a baseball club, the other a football club.

Henry was steeped in baseball and its traditions. He understood the game, as he proved with the astute hiring of 28-year-old Theo Epstein as general manager and Bill James the father of Sabermetrics, a method of evaluating baseball players that had been shunned through the years by the sport's old guard. Rather than build a new stadium, the Henry consortium refurbished Fenway Park, making a virtue of its age. Ticket prices went up steeply but that did not seem to matter so much to fans as performances on the field improved, and it mattered even less when a World Series victory was secured.
Lawrence Donegan

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