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Henry Seeks to Repeat Red Sox Success at Liverpool

Commodities Hedge-Fund Billionaire John W. Henry
John W. Henry, a commodities hedge-fund billionaire, seen here left, bought the Red Sox in 2002 and the team won the World Series in 2004 to end an 86-year wait between baseball championships. Photographer: Jon Mahoney/Bloomberg

A record of winning is the biggest asset John W. Henry’s Boston Red Sox holding company brings to its pending purchase of Liverpool, according to the chairman of England’s most-successful soccer club.

Compared with the championship drought that Henry faced when he bought the baseball team, the Reds’ 20 years without a domestic league title is nothing.

When the group took over the Red Sox in January 2002, the team hadn’t won the World Series since 1918. Since then, they’ve taken the title twice, restored baseball’s oldest stadium and built a television network to feed a fan base known as Red Sox Nation.

“In the end, it was really the track record that New England Sports have in delivering,” Liverpool Chairman Martin Broughton said in an interview yesterday. “There’s a fairly close parallel. The Red Sox, long famous, traditional, not performing at the right level. They came in and made them winners. That’s what we want to see.”

The Liverpool board accepted the New England Sports Ventures’ offer of about 300 million pounds ($476 million). The club’s American co-owners, Tom Hicks and George Gillett, called the offer too low and vowed to fight the sale in court.

Hicks, through spokesman Mark Semer, later said the board vote was illegal, and that the co-owners had followed the rules.

Hicks and Gillett bought five-time European champion Liverpool in a 291 million-pound leveraged buyout in 2007. According to Liverpool, NESV’s offer wipes out the debt.

Tradition, Innovation

Henry’s ownership of the Red Sox has maintained the team’s traditions such as preserving Fenway Park, while exploring new ideas such as the statistical-analysis tools developed by Bill James and hiring then 28-year-old Theo Epstein as baseball’s youngest general manager. The team accumulated the second-highest payroll in baseball this season with about $170 million, behind the New York Yankees’ $207 million, according to ESPN.

The Boston-based company owns the Red Sox, Fenway Park and the New England Sports Network. Henry, a commodities hedge-fund billionaire, has headed the group since it bought the team. The Red Sox won the World Series in 2004 and 2007.

“We have a proven track record, shown clearly with the Boston Red Sox,” the company said in an e-mailed statement. “We will bring the same kind of openness, passion, dedication and professionalism to Liverpool FC.”

Henry, 61, entered Major League Baseball in 1991 by acquiring one percent of the Yankees. In 1999, he bought control of the Florida Marlins for $158 million from Wayne Huizenga, who owned football’s Miami Dolphins and co-founded Blockbuster Inc.

Marlins Sale

After failing to convince politicians to back taxes to finance a new stadium, Henry put the Marlins up for sale in 2001 and joined with Larry Lucchino, former chief executive of the Baltimore Orioles, and television producer Tom Werner to pursue the Red Sox. They won the team with a $660 million offer to the Yawkey Trust in December 2001 and said they’d assume $40 million in debt.

From then through 2009, the Red Sox had the second-highest regular-season winning percentage in baseball, at .581. They’ve qualified for the postseason in six of the last eight years and won more playoff games and World Series titles than any other team.

The club has spent on free agents such as designated hitter David Ortiz and pitcher John Lackey, while raising stars such as second baseman Dustin Pedroia, the 2008 American League Most Valuable Player, within its system. It also hired James, who had designed statistical tools to analyze the game, as a senior adviser.

Oldest Park

Henry also respected tradition, restoring Fenway, opened in 1912, instead of replacing it with a new, more lucrative stadium, said Michael Cramer, director of the sports and media program at the University of Texas.

“I would grade them an A on operating the team and using their assets,” said Cramer, former president of the Texas Rangers and hockey’s Dallas Stars, which were owned by Hicks. “I think the people of Liverpool should expect that the approach will be the same.”

Broughton said Liverpool would continue plans to build a new stadium or refurbish its current home, Anfield.

“We will have a stadium of more than 60,000,” he said. “I don’t want any hostages to fortune, but the owners want the new stadium ready within a short time frame.”

Coach ‘Delighted’

Liverpool won the most recent of its 18 domestic league titles in 1990 and hasn’t picked up a trophy since the F.A. Cup in 2006. This season it’s won one of seven games and is 18th of 20 teams in the Premier League. The bottom three are demoted to the second tier at the end of the season.

“It’s very positive and of course I’m delighted,” coach Roy Hodgson said of the sale agreement, in comments on the club website today. “It’s been going on a long time and I know how hard the board have worked to set things up. I know it’s not easy for them because the owners have other ideas in terms of the sale of the club and what is achievable.”

Hicks, 64, and Gillett, 71, have been among a group of U.S. owners of Premier League teams, including the Glazer family with Manchester United -- who have also encountered fan dissent -- and Randy Lerner with Aston Villa.

Bernie Mullin, a Liverpool native and former chief executive of the National Basketball Association’s Atlanta Hawks, said the new owners need “the right approach” with English fans, “really looking into the differences with the U.K. market, understanding not to call it a ‘franchise’ at the press conference, because it’s a one-of-a-kind brand.”

Broughton said fans should “keep the faith.”

“There’s nothing wrong with being American,” he said. “These guys understand about investing. They understand about building the team. They’ve got a budget. They’re all about winning.”

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