Where Is Barnsley? Moneyball Guru Billy Beane Just Bought an English Soccer Club

Barnsley, a large-ish town in the north of England surrounded by larger, more famous towns and cities, doesn’t seem like the most likely place for one of the more significant thinkers in the modern history of U.S. sport to turn up in.

But the town’s soccer club, Barnsley F.C., has just become Moneyball guru Billy Beane’s newest project. Beane, the 55-year-old Oakland A’s Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations who popularized the use of sabermetrics in scouting players for Major League Baseball, completed the purchase of a ten percent stake in the English Championship team on Tuesday, according to The Times of London, as part of a consortium.

The Times reports that the other members are Chien Lee, a Chinese billionaire investor, U.S. businessman Paul Conway and his Pacific Media Group partner Grace Hung and Indian technology entrepreneur Neerav Parekh are the other members of the consortium.

Over the past few seasons English soccer has been slowly adopting the principles of sabermetrics, or "Moneyball" theory as it is more popularly known thanks to the 2003 book by Michael Lewis and 2011 film of the same name. Brentford F.C., the west London-based club, uses analytics to find soccer players from the lower leagues of the English game as well as overlooked players from Europe. The strategy has enabled a club whose ground, Griffin Park, seats 12,300 people to compete and hold its own in the second tier of English soccer.

Beane’s investment, though, is the most significant intervention yet by a proponent of analytics in English soccer. The A’s made the playoffs four seasons in a row under Beane from 2000 to 2003, although they never made a World Series. English soccer, evidently, represents a very different challenge with no clearly demarcated structure from high school to college to the pros. Sheffield’s Star newspaper described “a time of optimism around Oakwell” [Barnsley’s ground] in September, when news of Beane’s consortium first broke. The newspaper added a note of caution. “But the sale also brings about an air of uncertainty,” Neil Goulding wrote.

English professional soccer has tended to shy away from experimentation due to the quasi-existential structure of its leagues. Barnsley, which already uses analytics, currently sits 20th in the Championship, two places and four points above the so-called "relegation zone." A bad season doesn’t mean a high draft pick, rather a drop into the league below with the accompanying loss of television money.

Post-industrial South Yorkshire may appear an incongruous place for Beane to carry out his next project. But the stakes are arguably higher for Barnsley F.C. than they ever were for the A’s. Beane’s consortium will have a long-term plan but it needs short-term success to keep Barnsley afloat in the Championship. The potential reward—a place in the English Premier League—is vast and lucrative.

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