“When I think of Arsène Wenger,” says Billy Beane, general manager of the Oakland A’s baseball team, “I think of Warren Buffett. Wenger runs his football club like he is going to own the club for 100 years.”
Beane may be the world’s most influential sports executive. Using previously ignored statistics, he found new ways of valuing baseball players. This data revolution – documented in Michael Lewis’s book Moneyball – is now reaching other sports, even hidebound soccer. Brad Pitt is about to play Beane in Moneyball, the movie.
However, Billy Beane’s own Billy Beane works in another sport across the globe. Arsenal’s manager Wenger is “the sports executive I admire most”, he says. “Does that sound like an American, to be both a Spurs fan and a Wenger fan?” Where others see Wenger’s stubbornness, Beane sees business sense.
For background: Beane is a soccer nut. On his cell phone from the A’s spring training camp in Arizona, he says: “Though I can’t watch all Arsenal’s matches live because of my day-job, I’ll go back and watch them. As we’re speaking I’m updating my pod with new soccer podcasts.”
Beane tries to learn from Wenger. “When he does things, I understand them,” he says. “As much as anything I enjoy watching Wenger’s demeanour on the sidelines. He’s viewed by some as an ‘academic’, but what you see on TV is this incredible will to win combined with superior intellect … a winning combination in any business.”
He considers Wenger a rare sports coach who husbands his club’s money for the long term. He says: “When you think of the structure of most sports teams, there is little benefit to the person running the team on the field to think years ahead. The person who has access to the greatest expenditure … has no risk in the decision-making.” Beane means that a coach is typically judged on winning games now, not on keeping the club solvent over time, and spends accordingly.
Wenger, however, usually signs cheap youngsters. “Nothing strangulates a sports club more than having older players on long contracts,” explains Beane, “because once they stop performing, they become immoveable. And as they become older, the risk of injury becomes exponential. It’s less costly to bring [on] a young player. If it doesn’t work, you can go and find the next guy, and the next guy. The downside risk is lower, and the upside much higher. It’s almost like he is managing a mutual fund.”
Like Beane at Oakland, Wenger knows he must pursue a different strategy from richer rivals. Beane explains: “If Arsenal and Man U and Chelsea want a striker, well, Arsenal will get the third-best striker. So they will probably develop a striker.”
In trading for players, Beane explains, “you’re basically paying for past performance. I think what Wenger tries to do is pay for future performance … it’s an inexact science, so you’re not going to get it right every time.”
But then Beane says, “I love watching Arshavin play.” Hang on: Andrei Arshavin is an established star, Wenger’s most expensive signing at about £15m. Beane retorts: “Yeah. That’s the biggest misconception of what we’re about in Oakland: it’s not just about paying the least amount … If you buy a player for £20m, you might have significant information that he’s worth £30m. When [Wayne] Rooney went from Everton to Manchester United [for about £27m], I’d say he was worth every penny and more.”
Beane suspects that, like the A’s, Wenger evaluates players using innovative statistics. He is not sure, he adds, because Wenger probably uses proprietary stats and models. Still, “the way he makes decisions leads you to believe he’s using objective data to resist the noise that surrounds those decisions”.
One day Beane hopes to meet Wenger. “For now,” he say, “I’ll just be an admirer from afar.” So his hero works in a distant universe? “No longer. That’s the beauty of the world today. It makes it a far more interesting place.”