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While football the game was suspended, football the business continued

Inside the business of football, those who had jobs to perform tried as best they could to keep going.

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MIAMI, Fla. — (9 June 2020) In mid-March, most football leagues and competitions were suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the football world was flash-frozen in unprecendented circumstances. While the Bundesliga has now returned, and this week sees LaLiga resume, followed a few days later by Serie A and the Premier League, there clearly is some light at the end of the tunnel, even if the conditions are far from the norm.

Pereceiving the football world as being stopped in its tracks would, of course, be viewing things from the fan’s perspective. Inside the business of football, those who had jobs to perform tried as best they could to keep going.

The Sporting Director

Such was the case for Rámon Rodriguez Verdejo — better known as “Monchi” — the Sporting Director of Sevilla Football Club. For Monchi, there was as much work to do as always. The games might have been suspended in time, but items like recruitment still had to get done. This meant reviewing a great deal of data and videos. He spent time talking with agents, just as he would ordinarily do, going over potential transfers and salary discussions. His staff met using Zoom meetings, adjusting their shortlists of potential recruits.

Sevilla | Monchi: "El Leicester es un rival complicado ...

“The only difference is that meetings take place on video calls,” Monchi said. “So you do not have to wear a suit.”

That wasn’t enough, however, for the Sevilla sporting director. With a track record of success — including turning a €200m profit in a decade at Sevilla and capturing nine trophies along the way, he came up with the idea of making a documentary consisting of thirteen, 13-minute videos explaining “how it’s done.” Though club executives were doubtful at first about the idea, fearing Monchi would give away too many secrets, he was able to quell those fears. The series has been a large success and increased traffic to the club’s YouTube channel on the order of 200 times the normal traffic.

Using the entire array of technologies — Zoom, FaceTime, Microsoft Teams — executives were able to continue to interact. The one advantage of these virtual meetings is that they allowed more people to discuss strategy or help to make a deicison, not to mention the time savings of not having to always be travelling.

In Europe, most clubs in the top leagues remained operational in the area of player recruitment despite the absence of live matches. That was also the case at Sevilla, where the sporting director said recruitment continued “with a certain normality, with our focus on the future.” Teams were able to go through their target list of players and identify priorities, aided by subscription services such as Wyscout and Instat, which allow subscribing clubs to stream games in order to view possible signings. Another football-specific app called Hudl reveals even more data for a deeper insight.

An Agent’s Work During the Shutdown

Agents, too, were severely impacted by the pandemic. I had the opportunity to catch up with Nathaniel Matthews-Leader, the CEO of Leader Sports Management Group to ask him about how the pandemic affected his life as an agent. 

Nathaniel Matthews-Leader

Matthews-Leader is based out of Toronto, Ontario, Canada, and heads up a full-service, multinational agency with a strong emphasis on scouting and development, helping talented younger players to be discovered and guiding their progression to the professional ranks. The Leader Sports Management Group also brokers transfer or loan deals for other agents, leveraging their good relationships with many clubs. Their in-house resources include financial and legal advice as well as sponsorships.

Matthews-Leader told me that when the leagues were suspended at first his job seemed a bit like a travel agent. As borders were being closed and airlines cancelled flights, he was asked to lend assistance to some of his clients struggling to get home. One player, for example, who plays in the Canadian Premier League, was in Spain preparing for the season that was set to begin in April. Another client who plays in Belgium needed to get home to Senegal. It was not easy work but his assistance eventually paid off for his clients. But Matthews-Leader was also quick to point out that as an agent, “I work for my clients.”

Networking is a critical aspect in the agent’s success, and the suspension of play allowed many to continue to work on their networks. This is exactly what Matthews-Leader told me when we spoke. “I’ve been doing a lot of networking via apps like Zoom,” he said. Indeed, video calls and conferencing have been a forced substitute for his agency with travel currently not an option. “I’ve even had players sign using a zoom call.”

“All of my trips for the rest of this year have been cancelled.” Matthews-Leader says this presents a problem, since he has clients based in Europe, Africa and North America, and had trips planned to Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire, Portugal, Spain, England and several destinations in the US and Canada. Scouts working with his agency in places like Miami, New York, Texas, England, Germany and Gambia have also been similarly affected. 

The stoppage in leagues across the globe has however also provided player representatives with time to catch up on other aspects of their business or take on new challenges. Matthews-Leader said he has begun to learn Spanish in his free time. He also developed The Inside Agents podcast which he presents with Maggie Ntim, a New York City-based business partner with experience in high profile sponsorships and partnership deals. The pair talk about their experiences as agents and businesspeople while they discuss relevant, hot topics in football, and sports in general.

Matthews-Leader shared with me his thoughts on how the COVID-19 pandemic will continue to have lingering effects on football, which will impact agents as well. For one thing, he believes the transfer market will be largely limited – with teams looking for free transfers and only spending on transfers for key players. He says the market for middle of the road players has dropped significantly and estimates the losses in the transfer market worldwide could be in the billions of dollars. He foresees a greater focus on local talent within a club’s geographical region, sensing that many clubs need to cut costs.

With some European leagues extending their seasons beyond the normal date when contracts expire (June 30), Matthews-Leader said some players will not want to extend their contract if it could impact their ability to complete a more lucrative transfer to a new club. Obviously many teams’ budgets will have been altered. That reality, combined with the delay in ending the seasons in Europe, will also affect North American leagues like MLS. Teams that might have been planning to bring in a big-name European player over the summer might need to hold off due to their own financial issues and the availability of some European players, whose contracts in some cases could be extended through the end of August.

One positive note that Matthew-Leaders pointed out involves his clients who were hoping to make an Olympic team. With the Tokyo games being pushed out to 2021, the additional year may help some of those players make their country’s teams. Also, with youth national teams having had their events cancelled and the cancellation of youth domestic leagues, players who were on the verge of making the first team in MLS might make the jump faster since it’s likely they would now be training with the first team players. 

A club president maintaining connections

“It’s been a trying time for smaller clubs,” says Paul Dalglish. He is the President and General Manager of The Miami Football Club of the USL Championship. Before being named to this dual position, Dalglish was the club’s second manager, suceeding former storied Italian defender Alessandro Nesta. He knows the job from both a sporting and business side. I asked him about how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected his club.

The Miami FC (“The” is part of their official name for legal reasons) had just begun their first season as a USL Championship side, a welcome place for the club after a couple of seasons of lower-league play following the collapse of the North American Soccer League. Unfortunately the virus caused the USL to suspend its season just three days prior to Miami’s first home game as a USL Championship side versus in-state rivals Tampa Bay Rowdies.

On the football side of the club, Dalglish said the suspension has been a difficult time. “We had one of the stricter lockdowns in the country here in Miami-Dade, which caused the team to have to suspend all our training,” he said. Their training site, Florida International University in Miami, like all fitness centres, closed it doors in mid-March.

Keeping the players fit was a challenge. Dalglish said that the team’s coaches worked with the players via zoom chats to run through various exercises. Dalglish himself said he had been running and doing body weight exercises at home. “We’ve all done as much as we can under the circumstances to keep ourselves and our players fit.”

At the time of our conversation last week, Miami FC was not able to return to full training. “Our facility (Florida International University) is closed until July 1st. So that would be the earliest when we might be able to think about group training,” Dalglish expressed concern about the ability of the club to restart training as quicly as possible, saying that it risked putting Miami at a competitive disadvantage vis-a-vis other USL clubs elsewhere in the country who were able to go back to small group training.

In the days that have followed, good news has arrived on this front: the club received the green light to resume training, which they gladly restarted in earnest on June 8th:

On the business side, Dalglish said the front office concentrated on trying to manage the budget. He admits the lack of games was a hit financially – “It’s been a trying time for smaller clubs [that depend on gameday revenue and merchandise sales.]”

To their credit, Miami FC was able to keep their small front office staff paid. The players were also paid pursuant to their contracts. Talks between the league and its players association continue, however, over the issue of a salary cut, a contentious issue in a league where salaries are far lower overall than MLS or European leagues.

One of the major components in creating The Miami FC’s identity has been establishing bonds between the club’s First Team squad and the Academy program. The club puts an emphasis on creating events that provide opportunities for the academy kids and first-team players to interact. Miami FC sees its academy as the pillar of the club. Dalglish and the front office thus took steps to redirect the interactions between the first team and the kids to ensure the relationships that were already forming would be nurtured and new opportunities to connect could continue to thrive in the online space. For example, they set up video chats with the club’s academy players, hosted by first team players including forward Miguel Gonzalez and El Salvador international Tomás Granitto.

The first team coaches put together a six-week training program on video for the academy kids to follow in the absence of practices. “Exercises they can do at home, core workouts they could download from the internet, just as many ways to keep fit as possible.” Dalglish also mentioned the work done by Anthony Hazelwood, who heads Miami FC’s Sports Performance program. He hosted online fitness training three times a week via Zoom from his living room, with programs that included movement, dynamic stretching and technical ball-work.

The club has reached out to the Miami community, with Golazo, the team’s highly-popular mascot, making numerous appearances via videoconference with school children across Miami-Dade County. The team’s players and staff also personally donated to COVID-19 relief efforts; moreover the club donated fifty percent of merchandise sales to relief efforts.

A sporting director. An agent. A club president. Three of the many thousands who have stories to tell about their experiences during these unprecedented times. On their laptops and their cellphones, their lives in the business of football continued.

Cover Photo: KE Russo

Note: Another top executive at a European club was also interviewed for this story but his comments could not be included here due to a change in employment.

By Ken Russo

While my background is in the legal industry, the skills acquired and fine-tuned in law practice are now applied to focus on the sport of football. Russo Soccer aims to inform, educate and engage on news and relevant issues in the game.

Um advogado por formação, concentro meu trabalho nos negócios, comunicações e operações de equipes no futebol mundial. | Abogado con fundación avanzada en comunicaciones, enfocado en los negocios del fútbol y las comunicaciones. | Je suis un avocat experimenté dans les affaires de football.