Premier League wealth influences title races abroad
This first meeting told Alex Muzio everything he needed to know. Shortly after he and his business partner, gaming mogul Tony Bloom, bought the Royale Union Saint-Gilloise, a Belgian football team, Muzio spoke to the club’s coach. He wanted to discuss potential recruits.
Muzio had never been a footballer. He had never been a scout. He had spent his career working for the consulting firm Bloom’s Starlizard, the company many consider the largest betting union in Britain.
Starlizard’s business model uses data to find an advantage. It contains information on tens of thousands of players around the world. Its bespoke algorithms are designed to scan it and spot opportunities first, then talent. Starlizard’s plan for team ownership was to do the same.
Bloom already had a team in England: the club he always supported, Brighton, were transformed into a mainstay of the Premier League thanks to Bloom’s money and methods. But he and Muzio wanted to see what else their “PI” could accomplish. “We wanted,” Muzio said, “to win a title. “
In May 2018, when Bloom finalized his purchase of Union, Muzio was eager to get started. The club, which last celebrated a title in the interwar period, was at the time mired in the second tier of Belgian football. It was largely made up of volunteers. Its training center in the Brussels suburbs did not have showers. Muzio still cannot say for sure that there was a toilet.
He didn’t intend it to stay that way. The first step was to be promoted to the Belgian first division within three years, and in order to do that, Muzio knew, the team had to be reorganized. He presented the club’s seasoned manager, Marc Grosjean, with a list of potential signings, all selected and assessed by Starlizard data.
Grosjean was not impressed. He used an expletive to describe Muzio’s suggestions, then came up with his own alternatives. “He told me he much preferred signing a group of Belgian players, players he knew,” Muzio said. It didn’t take long to find out what Starlizard’s metrics were doing with it. Grosjean was gone at the end of the month, his abrupt, albeit mutual, departure heralded as “a difference of opinion on the club’s sporting development”.
“We have ways of doing things,” Muzio said. Resistance would only slow things down.
Three years later, his ideas were justified. Union hit their goal of being promoted last summer. Just over half of this season, he will spend Christmas at the top of the Jupiler Pro League standings, six points ahead of Club Brugge. The way Belgian football is structured, with a traditional league schedule followed by an end-of-season game, means that a first national title for the Union since 1935 is only a distant possibility. But it’s still a possibility.
This, of course, would not have been possible without the arrival of Muzio, who is the president of the Union, and Bloom, although the latter is not involved in the daily management of the club.
It’s not entirely fair to describe their presence at Union as fluke. The team was acquired because it met the strict criteria established at the start of the research: the right club at the right price in the right place. The wider Brussels region, where Union has been based since 1897, has over a million people and just one big team, its traditional rival Anderlecht. It was not just a coincidence.
Muzio, Bloom, and Starlizard have reviewed teams in a multitude of leagues. Others might have different priorities, different demands, different ideas. As it turns out, Union is exactly their project, and so it’s Union whose existence has been transformed, a suddenly revitalized club envelope.
This is a version of a story that has unfolded across Europe with increasing regularity in recent years: teams either adrift in mediocrity or who have gone through difficult times, uplifted, apparently overnight, by some outside force. On the surface, clubs have little in common. Below, they are linked by a single thread, which goes back to England.
There is no doubt that European football has, over the past decade, been shaped by the Premier League. The wealth of the English elite has long exerted a gravitational pull on the rest of the continent. English clubs are the most reliable market for players, driving up prices in the transfer market and driving wages up. Players are acquired across Europe with an eye on future sales in England, and often bought with cash which is a downstream consequence of the Premier League’s seemingly pandemic-proof broadcast deals.
In recent years, however, the nature of this impact has changed. It doesn’t exist all at once; instead, the English clubs – or rather the international ownership groups behind them – have invested directly in foreign teams, giving them unfiltered influence over the leagues in Europe and around the world.
The reasons vary. Two of the Union’s rivals in the Jupiler Pro League have English-inspired ownership: OH Leuven is owned by King Power, the Thai company that controls Leicester City, and Ostend is part of a group of clubs owned by Pacific Media Group. , among which the French side Nancy; FC Den Bosch in the Netherlands; and a second tier England team, Barnsley.
While Leuven has at times served as something more akin to an agricultural team – a place to send young players to gain experience – Pacific Media Group believes its approach helps improve performance and reduce costs. of its network of teams. “We don’t need to duplicate all staff in all markets,” Paul Conway, the group’s founder, told the Unofficial Partner podcast.
Ostend, Nancy, Barnsley and the others not only share employees but knowledge. “We have a bigger knowledge base than most,” Conway said of his clubs recruiting services. This helps prevent “leaks” as he put it. “You spend a lot of money on a player and then, at the end of the contract, that player leaves,” he said. “Because we have a consistent style of play as a group, we can spend our life with these players. “If a club does not need a player, that is to say, we can find a place for him elsewhere.
A similar approach helped Estoril, long a heavyweight in the Portuguese Premier League, compete for a place in the Europa League after coming under the aegis of a group of teams backed by David Blitzer, the Blackstone executive who is part of the consortium that owns Premier League club Crystal Palace.
Danish champion Midtjylland shares an owner – another gaming mogul Matthew Benham, a former colleague of Bloom – and a philosophy with Brentford FC, a data-driven organization newly promoted to the Premier League.
And then, of course, there are the clubs that form part of the City Football Group network, which is centered around Manchester City. The group’s record is mixed at best: although it has enjoyed success in Major League Soccer and Australia – where New York City FC and Melbourne City are the defending champions – its European businesses have been more complex.
The group’s Belgian club Lommel remain mired on the wrong side of the Second Division despite having a budget well above many of their peers, and Girona, their Spanish outpost, was demoted from La Liga in 2019 and is not income. Troyes, the French team that City owners bought last year, were promoted on the first try but are currently battling immediate relegation.
Union’s relationship with Brighton is not so hierarchical. Starlizard’s depth of knowledge of the game means his methods are beyond the reach of most of his rivals – “They are impossible for other teams to do,” Muzio said – but Muzio dismissed the idea that the Union either all or part of the food. , sister or partner club.
“We’re so independent,” he said, before referring to Bloom: “Tony is the majority owner, but he’s so little involved in Union. He doesn’t interfere. We have the freedom to do it as we want. “
Much of the methodology at Brighton and Union is inevitably the same, he said, rooted in how Starlizard has always worked, but the clubs share nothing beyond that. So far, it has proven more than enough to have restored the Union – for the time being – to the top of Belgian football with expertise designed, honed and polished in England.