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American owners toiling for success

STRIKING OUT
Owning a Premier League club and a stateside franchise doesn't always work.
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Leander Schaerlaeckens

Leander Schaerlaeckens has written about soccer for The New York Times, The Guardian, ESPN The Magazine and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter.

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Like the aging of a loved one, the decline of a big sports team is hard to watch. The name still resonates, the stadium remains historical. The hard-won trophies and the songs and memories are still there, but something is fundamentally changed. The performances never get better, only worse.

Fenway Sports Group has two of these situations to deal with, and now must wonder if it’s spreading itself too thin. In America, the Boston Red Sox have fallen after recent success. Meanwhile in England, Liverpool F.C. yearns for a return to glory.

The teams’ plights shed a harsh light not merely on its managers and front office, but on its American ownership too – the Fenway Sports Group, which also owns the Red Sox. An unflattering pattern is emerging.

Liverpool has arguably been in decline since its late-70s and 1980s' dominance, when it won the European Cup (now the Champions League) four times and the First Division (now the Premier League) 10 times. But the club long remained relevant, attracting world-class talent and managing to remain competitive, even if it was no longer a powerhouse.

Like Liverpool, the Red Sox are faltering. In spite of a $173 million payroll, the third-highest in baseball, this mutinous bunch is eight games out of the playoffs with less than 40 games to go – a near-impossible proposition in the suffocating American League East. Manager Bobby Valentine, once lauded for his ability to keep the peace in the clubhouse, is forever on the verge of being fired for allowing the season to descend into chaos.

This isn’t so dissimilar from Liverpool, which has spent extravagantly on new players but whose controversial Uruguayan striker Luis Suarez has kept the club in the headlines for all the wrong reasons over the past year. Both iconic red-clad harbor town clubs with their beloved old stadiums and incomprehensibly loyal fans live on the brink of mayhem. Liverpool’s season may be just one game old, but it already threatens to turn into disaster.

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Judging by the way most other American ownership groups who have also controlled major sports franchises stateside have fared, yes, Fenway has spread itself too thinly. The evidence suggests that the energy and ability required to make both a Premier League team and a US franchise perform well at the same time is elusive.

The disaster at Anfield has been some time in the making. Two years ago, Roy Hodgson, an über-English manager who preferred a workmanlike and badly outdated 4-4-2 system, replaced Rafa Benitez, whose tactical savvy and modern approach won the club its last piece of serious silverware, the 2004-05 Champions League, and got it to the 2006-07 final. After posting an intolerable 7-9-4 record, which had the club languishing in the bottom half of the standings and even dropping into the relegation zone for three weeks, Hodgson was relieved of his duties in January.

'King' Kenny Dalglish, who led the club to three English championships in the late 1980s, replaced him. Dalglish hadn’t managed a club in more than a decade, and somewhat understandably went back to doing the stuff he’d done in his last spell with the club. It worked for a little bit — salvaging a sixth place for the 2010-11 season — until it didn’t, the game having long since surpassed his notions of it. Liverpool placed eighth in 2011-12. Humiliatingly, even its little brother cross-town rivals Everton did better.

This season, Brendan Rodgers was hired to reverse the aging process, to modernize and reinvent. Under his watch, newly promoted Swansea had been sensationally sprightly last season and came in 11th. But in his Premier League debut with Liverpool last Saturday, the Reds looked like an even worse version of their old selves. West Bromwich Albion, a modest opponent, won 3-0 and might have doubled that score if it had taken its scoring chances. Dauntingly, Liverpool faces defending champion Manchester City on Sunday (10:30 AM ET, Fox Soccer.)

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But Fenway Sports Group is hardly alone. Since the Glazer family bought Manchester United in a heated hostile takeover in May 2005, the club has performed well, winning four league titles, three League Cups and the Champions League — but the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, also the property of the Glazers, have sunk from playoff regulars to making the post-season just twice since the United buyout.

Randy Lerner gained control of Aston Villa in August 2006. Since then, the club has tumbled from three consecutive sixth-place finishes to ninth place in 2010-11 and 16th in 2011-12 while its squad has steadily deteriorated. His Cleveland Browns of the NFL never once made the playoffs in that span, and he is on the process of selling them.

Stan Kroenke became Arsenal’s majority owner in September 2008. In that time, the club has slipped from perennial contender to underfunded outsider. His Denver Nuggets and Colorado Avalanche have performed acceptably. But the Saint Louis Rams have been abject, losing 14 games in 2008 and 2011 and 15 games in 2009.

Rather painfully for the Fenway Sports Group, their stewardship of Liverpool has been less successful on the field than that of its predecessors, fellow Americans George Gillett and Tom Hicks, who were wildly unpopular, racked the club with debt before they were finally ousted by creditors.

In Liverpool’s first two and a half years under Gillett and Hicks, the club finished third, fourth and second in the league and made the Champions League final. FSG, which was hailed as a savor, has a record that, almost two years in, reads: sixth place, eighth place and a League Cup.

But then again, Hicks didn’t do very well in his other ventures while involved with Liverpool either. His Dallas Stars NHL team went bankrupt, as did the Hicks Sports Group, forcing it to sell both the hockey club and its share in the Texas Rangers, which promptly went on to reach back-to-back World Series.

Gillett, meanwhile, remains the lone American whose Premier League club performed well – on the field, not financially – while also running a thriving franchise in North America. His Montreal Canadiens played well during its owner’s involvement with Liverpool.

The only Americans whose ownership of an English club was an unbridled success were the ones who didn’t own any other sports teams. Ellis Short has owned Sunderland since December 2008. Since then, the club has solidified into a respectable mid-table Premier League team. John Berylson bought Millwall in March 2007. He stabilized the reeling club and got it promoted to the Championship.

The sample size may be limited, but the data nevertheless suggests that so long as the Fenway Sports Group is involved with both the Red Sox and Liverpool, it is unlikely to get either of them right.

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