Soccer’s Moneyballers Happy to Share Spoils of Richest Game

The American owner of the U.K.’s Barnsley Football Club is open to sharing the takings from the so-called richest game in world soccer later this month -- if his team can clear a last hurdle and contest it.

Barnsley is one of four clubs competing in an end-of season mini tournament that will culminate in the annual Championship play-off final. The winner will be granted passage to the English Premier League, the world’s wealthiest soccer division, and about 170 million pounds ($240 million) in new broadcast and sponsorship revenue, according to previous estimates from Deloitte LLP.

On the flip side, the unsuccessful teams will be left nursing wounded pride and the monetary cost of having had to stage and compete in extra games at the end of a pandemic-ravaged season that’s already hit club finances badly.

For Paul Conway, who controls Barnsley through his Pacific Media Group Inc. investment vehicle, that’s a raw deal. He confirmed in an email that if Barnsley reach the final at Wembley Stadium on May 29, he’d consider a deal to ensure the losing team gets compensated.

Pacific Media owns a stable of European soccer clubs and is a believer in the data-driven approach to sports management and performance popularized by Billy Beane, the U.S. baseball executive who featured in the 2003 book “Moneyball” and is now an investor in Barnsley.

Conway said Barnsley will lose more than 500,000 pounds competing in the play-offs. The club will tonight host the first game of a doubleheader against Swansea City AFC, which will play out in front of a greatly-reduced crowd because of coronavirus restrictions. Should Barnsley emerge victorious from the games, it will challenge either Brentford FC or AFC Bournemouth in the final.

While the winner of the showpiece will easily be able to claw back losses accrued along the way, Conway said the other teams will receive no form of solidarity payment from the English Football League, the governing association for the three divisions below the Premier League.

“As you achieve success in the English Football League you actually lose money, which is a complete violation of sporting integrity and goes against the entire spirit of football,” Conway said. “We have to absorb significant costs.”

Impossible Pressures

Conway said he would prefer to follow in the footsteps of Dean Hoyle, the former owner of Huddersfield Town AFC, who did a deal ahead of his team’s Championship play-off final with Reading FC in 2017 for the winner to compensate the loser.

Hoyle told the podcast “Looks Goods On Paper” in March that, with the approval of relevant authorities, he agreed with Reading that the loser would receive around 6 million pounds, comprising a solidarity payment and all gate receipts, as a buffer for the defeat. Huddersfield won the game on a penalty shootout.

A representative for the EFL said its current rules only allow clubs to agree on how to distribute gate receipts from a play-off final. Any other form of payment or benefit from one club contesting the match to the other is prohibited.

Soccer finances have been under strong pressure as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, with shuttered stadiums robbing clubs of millions of pounds in match-day sales. At the same time, falling revenue from broadcast rights has exacerbated the problem.

Earlier this month, the Premier League agreed a renewal of a domestic broadcast deal with Comcast Corp.’s Sky, BT Sport and Inc. In a statement at the time, the EFL said the extension didn’t go far enough with solidarity payments to clubs further down the U.K.’s soccer pyramid.

“Championship clubs in particular face impossible economic pressures, seeking to gain promotion to the Premier League, which has in turn led to untenable financial speculation and irrational behavior,” the EFL said in a May 13 statement.

The Premier League supports the EFL with more than 140 million pounds per season in solidarity payments and grants for youth development, according to its website. Conway said the Premier League’s sharing of its media revenue with the EFL needed to be brought more in line with leagues in the rest of Europe.

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