Tom Werner has been talking to The Athletic:
Red Sox, Liverpool chairman: LeBron’s ownership stake will confront ‘complicated’ race relations in Boston, let him ‘weigh in’ on strategy at Anfield
Joe Vardon, Simon Hughes, James Pearce
Three-quarters of a billion dollars had just changed hands. LeBron James was officially part owner of the Boston Red Sox.
Two global brands, the Red Sox and LeBron, formally bonded through a partnership a decade in the making.
This is not just an American sports story; for it has massive implications in the United Kingdom. On Wednesday, RedBird Capital Partners invested $750 million into Fenway Sports Group, the controlling company of not just the Sox, but another iconic franchise, Liverpool F.C. Coinciding with that transaction, LeBron and his longtime friend and business partner, Maverick Carter, traded in their 2 percent ownership of the English football club to join the Fenway ownership group at large.
Three hours after the deal was finalized, the chairman of both storied franchises, Tom Werner, spoke with The Athletic to discuss what it would mean to have LeBron, 36, and Carter, 41, onboard like this. At one point, Werner was asked, specifically, how Liverpool had already benefited from being associated with an NBA legend like LeBron? Unprompted, this is what Werner said:
“We want to feel that the Red Sox are an inclusive place where everybody feels welcome. And while that may seem like an obvious notion today, the Red Sox have had a very complicated history when it comes to race relations. We work very hard to create a more diverse and inclusive organization from top to bottom. And I’m excited that LeBron and Maverick are owners of the Boston Red Sox because I believe this helps provide better representation of baseball to our fans.”
A revealing statement by one of the majority owners of the crown-jewel of Boston, one that is indeed dotted with a checkered past of racist epithets spewed toward players at Fenway Park. The Red Sox were owned for many decades by Tom Yawkey, whose racism led to the team being the last in all of baseball to integrate — 12 years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers. LeBron James and Maverick Carter, two African-American entrepreneurs, from Akron, Ohio, will help bring the kind of inclusive atmosphere to the Sox that it has lacked in the past.
What does that mean for Liverpool? This is a move that could change the landscape of sports in the U.S., and will certainly have an impact on Liverpool. Werner clearly thinks LeBron and Carter could transcend all of Fenway Sports Group, including the defending Premier League champs.
Nothing will be off-limits to them.
“I will be surprised actually if they don’t weigh in (on management decisions of either team), I would welcome their thoughts,” Werner said. “I think that the relationship that the consumer has with a sporting team is an emotional one. I consider Maverick to be one of my closest friends, and I’ve spent hours with him talking about strategy, coaching, the lessons that I’ve learned from (Liverpool manager) Jürgen Klopp, and the lessons that he’s learned as an astute observer of basketball.
“We have a very collaborative relationship, so I would actually say that their wisdom and their experience is going to be hugely helpful to us going forward.”
This is a transaction with many moving parts. Two teams in entirely different sports, in countries on separate continents, with two massive, global fan bases that may not have much crossover. Perhaps some Red Sox fans are wearing Liverpool Salah jerseys, unless they’re sporting a Manchester City or Chelsea shirt; Liverpool faithful don’t care about Boston ace pitcher Chris Sale’s arm injury.
In the middle is a basketball superstar, who plays for the Los Angeles Lakers, chief rival to the Boston Celtics, with no real attachment to either baseball or soccer. But LeBron’s brand is global; he owns a media company, he’s a movie star and he is Nike’s primary pitchman. And he wants to own an NBA team one day. Being on the inside for two pro teams — Maverick manages every aspect of LeBron’s businesses, don’t forget — will prepare them for that.
“I think being team owners, and now multiple team owners, is really interesting to them,” said Paul Wachter, a financial adviser to LeBron and Carter, as well as Werner, who plays a central role in all of their business deals. “LeBron has been very vocal that he wants to buy a basketball team when he retires, I think getting insight into team ownership and league rules, I think there’s learning involved. I think also they’re very aware that it’s historic for them as African-Americans and (in LeBron’s case) active athletes, they’re groundbreaking.
“When you do things like this, new roads open up that you don’t imagine.”
How did Werner meet LeBron, and Carter, 10 years ago?
Werner: Paul Wachter helped engineer it. He was the person who introduced us.
Wachter, 64, of Main Street Advisers in suburban Los Angeles, met Werner, a TV magnate and owner of the San Diego Padres, in 1993. Wachter is a financial adviser to the stars. His clients, to name a few, include Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bono.
Wachter aided Werner in selling off his majority stakes in the Padres, and then helped Werner, along with John W. Henry, and Larry Luchinno, purchase the Red Sox in 2001 and Liverpool in 2010.
By the time of the Liverpool purchase, Wachter had also begun advising LeBron and Carter. The two of them, along with two more of LeBron’s close friends, Rich Paul and Randy Mims, started their own marketing firm, LRMR, and Wachter arranged for Fenway to essentially buy the firm. As part of that deal, back in 2011, LeBron and Carter received a small share of Liverpool.
“LRMR was a valuable company, it had cash flow,” Wachter said. “We negotiated a deal, we had to come up with a price, and during that process, just the idea of LeBron and Mav being a part of something like Liverpool was so unusual, and one thing the three of us has always shared — we just love doing something nobody else is doing.”
The relationship between Werner, LeBron and Carter only strengthened. Together, they financed and produced a hit TV show, “Survivor’s Remorse.” Werner invested in two of the media companies LeBron and Carter started and now sits on the board of SpringHill Company, the umbrella organization that houses all three of LeBron and Carter’s businesses.
“I think LeBron is a very smart investor, and I think given the opportunity to acquire equity in an enterprise rather than just be someone who is a spokesperson or who gets a high pay day for being somebody who is a sponsor, he saw that this was a long-term strategic partnership that he’d have and that he could add value to the football club,” Werner said. “And in fact, he’s done so, so I think it’s just an example of his business acumen.”
LeBron and Carter’s original Liverpool stake was worth a reported $6.5 million, and after Liverpool won the UEFA and Premier League titles in 2019 and 2020, their stake ballooned to a reported $43 million. That’s the stake they traded back to Fenway Sports so they could become part of a broader ownership group, overseeing both franchises, in addition to Fenway’s racing team, sports TV network and real estate company.
So, what has LeBron’s and Carter’s presence with Liverpool meant to the club over the last 10 years, and what could it bring in the future?
Werner: Maverick and LeBron provide an intellectual perspective that’s extraordinary. The two of them, through their media company SpringHill, also have relationships that could prove helpful to FSG, from GM and Nike to Amazon and Disney. These two partners are really bright people who obviously have a deep understanding of sports and media. … Maverick is an alumnus of Nike. We have ideas that haven’t yet hit the market for a way to have LeBron be involved in products that are made by Nike for Liverpool. … I will tell you that the number of times that (Carter and I) have analyzed the knowledge and the strategy of Jürgen Klopp is hours and hours. … I know that Maverick was at the UEFA Champions League final in Kiev with me. … I know Maverick has a very good relationship with, just to be specific, Virgil van Dijk. I wouldn’t be surprised that there’s a lot of texting going back (and forth) that I’m not aware of.
The Liverpool hierarchy has long been keen to strengthen its ties with LeBron in the knowledge that his immense global appeal can help reach new audiences, especially in the Far East.
When Liverpool won a legal battle with New Balance in October 2019 over the right to enter into a new kit deal (for American fans, this means a uniform sponsorship) with Nike, LeBron’s name was cited in the ruling. LeBron, Carter and Wachter played a sizable role in getting the deal done.
New Balance’s claims that it had matched its competitor’s offer was thrown out on the basis that it couldn’t offer “three non-football global superstar athletes and influencers of the calibre of ” LeBron, tennis legend Serena Williams and the musician Drake.
The global pandemic has so far prevented Liverpool from really capitalizing on the five-year Nike deal. They accepted a lower base fee of £30 million per season ($41.5 million, U.S.) as they felt that 20 percent royalties on all net sales of merchandise (5 percent for footwear) would be more lucrative.
In terms of running football club operations, not much will change at Liverpool. New investment does not mean the club is suddenly awash with cash designated for major transfers. The strategy will remain exactly the same with all revenues being pumped back into the club.
While Henry remains the principal owner of Liverpool, Werner has the second-highest number of shares. RedBird’s investment means it now has the third-biggest stake in the club, ahead of Mike Gordon — who effectively serves as Liverpool’s general manager.
Neither LeBron nor Carter will suddenly be providing input on the balance of Klopp’s midfield or who should be targeted as Georginio Wijnaldum’s replacement this summer. But they will have a significant role in the direction of the club’s commercial strategy, and their contacts will at some point benefit recruitment — which impacts on-pitch strategy.
So, how about the Red Sox? What kind of impact can LeBron, a basketball player, and Carter make there?
Werner: Nike obviously has an important relationship in baseball. I don’t want to be too specific about some of our ideas, but they’re already in my mind very exciting. … It’s no secret that the relationship between baseball players and owners is somewhat fractious. I think that Maverick has some thoughts on that.
LeBron stopped playing American football in high school, and yet his signature Nike brand includes cleats (boots, in the U.K.) and other gear for multiple programs, including Ohio State University, a Nike school. It’s easy to imagine some sort of foray into baseball gear (Michael Jordan’s brand, under the Nike umbrella, makes baseball and golf equipment, shoes and apparel), given LeBron’s relationship with the company and Nike’s role as uniform provider for Major League Baseball.
The current collective bargaining agreement between MLB and the players’ union expires in December, and as Werner said, relations between the two sides are terrible. There is relative peace between NBA owners and the players’ union, of which LeBron is a vice president. Carter, as his chief adviser and someone who is friendly with numerous NBA owners, and many of the players, could indeed have some suggestions to help smooth over relations.
Baseball players from opposing teams have reported for years being called racial slurs by Boston fans. In 2019, there were at least seven reported incidents of racial slurs toward players at Fenway Park, and the Red Sox acknowledged it in a tweet.
Adding two African-Americans to the ownership group is in many ways a significant culture shift in Boston. Whether or not it brings more fans to the Red Sox is another matter.
LeBron has not been kind to the city’s beloved basketball team, the Celtics, on the court. Dating to his days on the Miami Heat, his teams have routinely bounced the Celtics from the NBA playoffs, usually behind historic individual games from LeBron. He and Carter may represent the change the Sox seek, but it’s yet to be seen if LeBron can generate any added warmth toward the ball club.
What does this mean for LeBron’s desire to own an NBA team, or for Fenway’s desire to own one?
Werner: It’s no secret that we’re interested in acquiring other assets, perhaps an NBA team or an NHL team, a team in a different league, so of course they’re going to be helpful in our thinking as we think through these things. … We certainly look forward to conversations with them, but look, LeBron can find any number of different partners who would be thrilled to partner with him.
Two years ago, LeBron told The Athletic: “Ain’t no maybe about it, I’m going to do that sh*t,” when it comes to NBA ownership. In the same story, Wachter helped outline precisely how he would do it. The key was assembling partners.
Fenway Sports Group surely counts. As does RedBird, which also wants in on an NBA team. But LeBron cannot own an NBA team until he retires, and, despite this being his 18th season, he has no immediate plans to step away from the Lakers, whom he led to an NBA championship last season. He just signed a contract extension that would keep him on the Lakers through the 2022-23 season.
It’s opening week in baseball, and the Red Sox’s opener (postponed Thursday) is Friday. So we’ll see about them. Liverpool, meanwhile, is struggling this season. There have been injuries and also an inactive period during the transfer window. As chairman, what do you think of Liverpool’s season?
Werner: I would say we’ve certainly not exceeded expectations this year. I would have three comments. One is that in my experience, it is extremely hard to be a repeat champion, no matter what the sport. You climb Mount Everest and you get to the top, and then somebody says ‘you have to do it again.’ And so it’s challenging under the best of circumstances. Secondly, I think that, I don’t want to make excuses, but I do think this pandemic has affected Liverpool and the Red Sox in the way that these are very loyal and supportive fan bases, and people used to think that it would be very difficult to win a football match an Anfield, because it’s a fortress. And this year we’ve seen a number of matches that Liverpool has not played up to its capability, and I think a lot of that is the absence of our loyal supporters. So, I think the pandemic has perhaps affected us a little bit more, but I also don’t want to make excuses. Injuries are the third point. And again, that’s a part of sports. When the Everton goalkeeper took out Virgil van Dijk for the season, that was a blow because he was not only such a critical part of our defense, but a leader. But you know, I’ve been doing sports for 20 years, and I’ve seen a lot of, it’s very difficult when you have multiple injuries to constitute your team. If Chris Sale goes down, it’s not as simple as ‘OK, well your No. 2 starter becomes your No. 1 starter, and your No. 3 starter becomes your No. 2 starter.’ It really changes so much, and yet, (Liverpool is) still fighting for success in the Champions League this year. There’s only eight teams still left in the tournament and we’re one of them, and we’ve got some world-class players who are capable. At its best, Liverpool is as good as any team in European football.
The factors that Werner cites are all, largely, beyond FSG’s control and it is certainly the case that Liverpool have missed the vocal backing of the Anfield crowd, where a 68-game unbeaten run turned into a record-breaking losing run. It is hoped a restricted crowd will be allowed in for the final game of the season as the UK’s lockdown eases and the situation will look far better next season.
Injuries have also been a significant problem for Liverpool this season and that is clearly not lost on the hierarchy — nor has Werner forgotten the controversial challenge by Jordan Pickford that sideline Van Dijk. The Dutchman’s absence has been a significant blow but there has also been criticism of FSG for its failure to strengthen the squad last summer or early and significantly enough in January. Klopp has been forced to play either midfielders or fringe players in the heart of his defence who have been exposed at times.
As revealed by The Athletic on Monday, FSG will act and Klopp plans to bolster his defence this summer with the signing of Ibrahima Konate from RB Leipzig. He also plans to improve his attacking options, with an upgrade on Divock Origi likely to arrive. Meanwhile, several fringe players will leave and create more space on the wage bill, though Werner’s belief that Liverpool are as good as any team in European football supports Klopp’s comments that Liverpool need evolution not a revolution this summer.
As for LeBron, he won’t be joining the pitch for the Champions League, even though Liverpool are down some men in the middle. The Lakers, and healing his sprained ankle, are his primary focus. Nor will he, when the playoffs end, grab a bat and go play center field at Fenway.
But, in his own right, he’s a three-sport star now.