Last month, I made my first visit to the Amex stadium since before Covid, to see Brighton taking on Bournemouth. In the time since my last visit, plenty had changed at the club but very many things remained the same. An already excellent stadium had been improved, the matchday experience and the facilities had been enhanced, and the quality of the football was significantly better. And yet, many of the people in the boardroom, the friendliness of the welcome, and the community spirit were all very much the same as when the club was in League 1 back in 2011.
Brighton and their owner, Tony Bloom and CEO, Paul Barber are rightly lauded for the way they are running the club, but in my view, the success is not about the quantum of the investment (which has been considerable in Brighton’s case) but the quality of the investment. As Manchester United prepare for a post-Glazier world, and as the likes of Chelsea, Newcastle, and Bournemouth adapt to life under new owners, it is clear that there are lessons to be learned that are consistent irrespective of your owner’s financial means.
Lesson 1: People matter
The first and most important lesson is that people really do matter. Brighton have hired good people. They are hard-working, passionate about the club, and knowledgeable. Tony Bloom has brought in people who complement his own expertise ,and he has listened to them. He surrounds himself with a board who make considered decisions in a collaborative way. They debate their options, they apply data and logic to help them to what they consider to be the right outcomes, and they are prepared to sacrifice short term wins for longer term sustained successes. It is easy to overlook the fact that the club spent six years in the Championship getting the club “Premier League ready”, losing three times in the play-offs before securing promotion in 2017. In that time, they built a state-of-the-art training ground, developed their academy, and invested wisely in the transfer market to build a squad with depth and balance. They’ve hired intelligent, strategic directors of football, built impressive internal recruitment teams and scouting networks, and grown their revenues and capabilities across their finance, commercial, and operations departments.
Lesson 2: Evolution is critical
The second lesson is that evolution is critical to building sustained success. In a hugely competitive industry, long term success cannot be bought with a single cheque nor can it be taken for granted. Brighton’s squad and playing style has evolved considerably over the years under Hughton, Potter, and now De Zerbi. Each time they have made a managerial change, they have done so with a desire to take the group forward. Hughton’s importance in helping to get the club to the Premier League will always make him a critical part of Brighton’s success today, but it is hard to argue that Potter was instrumental in moving the club to the next level. Evolution is sometimes deliberate, sometimes forced by other events – in Brighton’s case the catalyst will often be a bigger club coming after your manager or your best players – but they always give the impression that they are constantly planning for succession. There is a restlessness about the club to keep improving and learning that comes from the very top and is now embedded across the DNA of the business.
Lesson 3: Invest in fans & community
Finally, investment has to be made in the fan base and the wider community. How much of the anger directed at the Glaziers is aimed at their lack of interest in developing the stadium and their links in the community? The same can be said for Mike Ashley at Newcastle or Marcus Evans at Ipswich. Fans feel that this approach lacks respect for them and their communities. Brighton’s proactive work in the community, their willingness to engage with their fans, and the leadership team’s passion for the club can be seen by anyone who walks around the ground on matchdays or spends any time in the city. This means that even if results tail away and Brighton suffer the same fate as many clubs of their size and return to the Championship at some point in the future, their fans will still have a respect and admiration for their ownership.
With so many foreign owners coming into British football, it’s easy to stereotype “nationalities” or “types of owners”, but this is a lazy analysis. There are good and bad owners of all nationalities and backgrounds up and down the football pyramid. However, the best owners share many common traits: they all appoint good people and listen to their advice, they look to evolve and develop existing structures and systems, and they engage and connect with their fan base and local communities. By contrast, the worst ones arrive in a blaze of publicity with an entourage of advisors who are often arrogant, naïve, and self-interested chasing short term success with no plan, no strategy, and no empathy. They are compulsive gamblers betting that their success in other walks of life will be easily replicated in the football industry. It is these owners that football needs to stop from becoming custodians of our clubs, because either their chips eventually run out leaving clubs in jeopardy, or they fall out of love with the club and leave them broken and neglected.
As Manchester United explore their options in the weeks ahead, their fans will be hoping they get lucky on the ownership roulette wheel! And let us hope that in the process, there is a strong focus, not just on the financial means of the new owners, but their vision, their values, and their plans for how they will run the club.