On Oct. 9, the Wall Street Journal reported that “Moneyball” star Billy Beane is in talks to take billionaire John Henry’s Fenway Sports Group public. The transaction would bestow Beane a significant stake in Henry’s firm, which counts big-name sports franchises such as the Boston Red Sox and Liverpool F.C. as holdings.
Beane, an Oakland Athletics executive, is known for bringing statistical analysis to the forefront of baseball player valuation, a strategy nicknamed “moneyball” which has allowed the As to overperform relative to their small budget. If completed, the deal would end Beane’s 26-year tenure with the team but raises the possibility of bringing moneyball to new sports.
Fans of Michael Lewis’s book and subsequent movie “Moneyball” are all too familiar with the Beane-Henry relationship. The then-Athletics general manager had turned down Henry’s $12.5 million offer to join the Red Sox, opting instead to remain with the A’s to this day.
“My parents were 60, my daughter was 12 at the time … I didn’t want to be in a time zone three hours away from my entire personal life,” Beane explained to MLB executive reporter Mark Feinsand in an interview.
Unhappy as a player in baseball’s minor leagues, Beane made an uncommon transition to the Athletics’ front office where he worked his way to general manager in 1998. Alongside his assistant Paul DePodesta, Beane honed in on player statistics that were strongly correlated with winning yet overlooked and undervalued by other teams, such as on-base percentage.
Beane’s possible departure from the A’s marks a new era for his moneyball strategy; in the past he has hinted at his interest in soccer. In 2017, for instance, Beane joined a group of investors in purchasing Barnsley F.C., a soccer club in England’s second division. Last September, he purchased a minority stake in Dutch club AZ Alkmaar.
“Quite frankly, I can’t get enough of soccer. I tell my jingoistic friends in the United States there’s a reason why it’s the world’s number one sport. The rest of the planet can’t be wrong,” Beane told The Guardian in 2014.
Beane’s critics would cite his inability to get the A’s to the World Series — or even the American League championship since 2006 — as evidence against moneyball’s effectiveness. Yet such an analysis risks missing its brilliance entirely; the strategy was born from the need to overperform given a tight budget.
Since 2000, the A’s have won the third most regular-season American League games, trailing only the high-budget Yankees and Red Sox. In comparison, Beane inherited responsibility for the team with the second-lowest budget in the league at the time.
If the deal goes through, Henry will likely deploy Beane’s expertise in European soccer rather than baseball, the Wall Street Journal suggested. After Fenway acquired Liverpool in 2010, for instance, Henry was in contact with Beane, whom he believed could transform player recruitment across the Atlantic just as he did with the Athletics.
Henry’s assumptions are not unfounded; Beane has disrupted baseball like few others. Now, over two decades since the “Moneyball” star became general manager of the A’s, nearly all of such positions go to individuals with backgrounds in math, science and economics. Beane’s new stake in a multi-sport group suggests a diaspora of that trend to more sports around the globe.