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Oct 6, 2010

Liverpool hoping for an American dream

Liverpool fans will be praying that prospective new owner John W Henry can replicate the impact he had at Boston Red Sox - by quickly winning the Premier League title to end a drought which seems certain to stretch up to at least 22 years.

• Civil war over Liverpool sale
• Broughton: Deal done in a week
• New owners to stick with Hodgson
• Brewin: Out of the frying pan

The Red Sox had gone 84 years without winning the World Series when Henry and his partners - former CEO of the San Diego Padres Larry Lucchino and TV producer Tom Werner - bought the team in 2002 for a record $690 million. Henry was the principal owner, Werner the chairman and Lucchino again the CEO. New England Sports Ventures was established as the holding company, which owns 80% of the Red Sox, and it is now 10th in Forbes' list of the most valuable sports brands.

Within two years that drought was over as they won the World Series for first time since 1918, success which was repeated in 2007.

"Win a World Series? That's not my choice, it's my role, it's my obligation to New England," Henry said when taking charge. "That's what I've been charged with. When you bid on the Red Sox, the challenge you're undertaking is nothing short of winning the World Series."

Henry made his fortune in hedge funds and the global futures market, and is chairman of John W. Henry & Company, Inc., with a reported wealth of $860 million (£540 million) in 2006 - before the credit crunch hit. His companies have hit problems in the economic downturn with huge loses reported by Bloomberg and the Wall Street Journal.

Henry - now one of the most powerful men in baseball who serves on MLB's Executive Council, various MLB committees and is on the board of MLB.com - and his team were originally seen as carpetbaggers, opportunistic buyers who would look to exploit the name of the Red Sox. But those fears proved to be false as both Henry and Lucchino moved to New England to lead from the front.

The Red Sox's greatest rivals are the New York Yankees, who are coincidentally tied in with Manchester United, and were once described by Lucchino as the "Evil Empire". Liverpool fans would be delighted if one of the club's new administrators referred to United in such terms. That the Red Sox toppled the Yankees' dominance provides another element of symmetry which Liverpool fans would love to see.

Henry, 61, was also careful to observe the traditions of the Red Sox, opting not to move to a brand new stadium and keeping the team at Fenway Park, one of baseball's oldest ballparks. The ground was completely renovated to bring it up to modern standards, fitting in more seats but also charging the highest prices for home tickets in the sport. The Red Sox enjoyed record attendances and television ratings, though their games were broadcast on their own New England Sports Network - a model which could not be replicated in the Premier League with its collective rights sold to Sky Sports and ESPN.

The Red Sox became the second most lucrative franchise in MLB and also had the second biggest wage bill behind the Yankees.

Henry set up the Red Sox Foundation, the official team charity, which has donated over £30 million to non-profit programs aimed at health, education, recreation and social service for children and their families in the local area. The Sox owners, staff, players and fans all support the scheme.

"He has been very popular in Boston," Peter Abraham, the Boston Globe's Red Sox reporter, told the Liverpool Daily Post. "The Sox have the second oldest stadium in baseball and he has fixed it up better than people thought he would. He spent more than people thought he would, I would imagine probably $50 million, if not more.

"Henry is a very statistics-minded man from his business. The people he has hired have all been young, very smart guys."

Sabermetrics, the analysis of baseball through in-game stats, was one of his key tactics for success. The Red Sox picked up under-valued players and turned them into stars and also stopped handing out long contracts to veteran players, something which is already common in football.

Theo Epstein was hired as general manager and was responsible for the trades and signings which made them champions.

Liverpool's new ground is expected to cost far more than the $50 million spent by Henry on Fenway Park, more like £400 million, and they are not in a position to pay the same respect to Anfield as they look to keep up with the revenue streams enjoyed by Arsenal and Manchester United. But in moving to a new ground as mooted, in Stanley Park, it is expected Henry will take the club's history and the iconic nature of Anfield into consideration.

"I certainly identify with the fans," Henry said when buying the Red Sox, "because I've been one my entire life." He may not have the same ties to Liverpool, but he should understand supporters better than Hicks or Gillett ever could. Henry regularly seeks the views of the fans on how to move the franchise forward.

However, he abandoned his first baseball team, the Florida Marlins, after he could not secure sufficient backing to move the team to a new ballpark. Considering Liverpool's troubles over their move to a new ground he will have to hope the same problem does not arise.

Henry - who once had a small stake in the Yankees in 1991 - also owns a 50% stake in the Roush Fenway Racing team, bought in 2007, with the NASCAR team winning their first Daytona 500 in 2009 with Matt Kenseth.

He married Linda Pizzuti in June 2009 and they are currently expecting their first child.

While Liverpool fans could be forgiven for being apprehensive at being bought out by another American after such a disastrous three years, the initial signs are positive. Any deal which removes the albatross of leveraged debt is a good start.

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