Where Sunderland's potential new owners invested in Miami - and what it could mean for Sunderland
John Phelan, Robert Platek and Glenn Fuhrman are set to finalise their takeover of Sunderland in the coming days - but it won’t be their first involvement in the sporting world.
The trio, who are all involved in Michael Dell’s investment arm, MSD Capital, played a key role as the company invested in the Miami Marlins - an American Major League Baseball side.
While their takeover of Sunderland will be different in terms of how the deal is structured, their approach to helping run the Marlins may hint at how they plan to operate the Black Cats once a deal is completed.
And we spoke to Ely Sussman, managing editor of Miami Marlins fan site, Fish Stripes, to gain an insight into how involved Phelan, Platek and Fuhran are in Miami - and how the club has changed since their involvement.
While MSD are the shareholders of the side, given their roles at the company, it's likely that Fuhrman, Platek and Phelan had a role in the investment.
But it’s important to establish that MSD Capital are not the majority shareholders in the Maimi Marlins. Indeed, they hold roughly a 7% take in the franchise after a capital injection of around $85.8 million in 2017, which formed part of a billion-dollar takeover deal alongside a consortium of other businessmen and sports stars - including Michael Jordan and Derek Jeter, who is now the franchise’s CEO.
Interestingly, the Miami Herald claim there is a clause in the investment deal which will allow MSD to withdraw their investment after five years if they so desire - with a guaranteed return.
Crucially, that small shareholding makes the operations of the MLB side drastically different to how Sunderland will be run.
First and foremost, it won’t be MSD Capital investing in the club - it will be FPP Sunderland Limited, a company established by the American trio to facilitate this purchase.
And secondly, they will likely have a much greater impact on the running of the club.
But there is still much to be learnt with their involvement with the Marlins and where they have prioritised investment.
THE PUBLIC FACE
The American investors are very much silent partners in the Miami Marlins. Instead, Jeter is the public face of the organisation, handling much of the day-to-day running and acting as a franchise spokesperson.
This isn’t unusual.
“Large ownership groups in American sports will typically designate a "face" of the franchise to represent their interests in front of fans and media,” explains Sussman.
“In the Marlins' case, CEO Derek Jeter—soon to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame for his extraordinary playing career—serves in that role despite his modest $25 million investment in the franchise. The total sale price was nearly $1.2 billion.
“Jeter speaks publicly on behalf of all of the minority owners, including MSD Capital.”
Parallels could therefore be drawn with Jeter’s role and the potential future involvement of Stewart Donald and Charlie Methven - both of whom will remain at the club following the takeover.
Much has been made of investment in Sunderland’s academy - and that’s certainly where money has been pushed in Miami.
The Marlins have rid themselves of high-earners and have instead invested in youth in a bid to try and become more sustained.
Sussman says: “By trading away several high-priced stars, most notably Giancarlo Stanton and his then-record $325 million contract, and avoiding any significant free agent additions, player payroll has dropped by tens of millions of dollars.
“In addition, the Marlins are constructing a new baseball academy in the Dominican Republic to train and house their youngest prospects.
“That is projected to open in early 2021.
“Lastly, the Marlins were lagging behind most other MLB teams in terms of quantitative analysis.
“Their analytics department has added a handful of full-time staff positions that did not previously exist.
“After two years of patience, the Marlins have amassed one of Major League Baseball's top ‘farm systems’ of minor league talent.
“The 2020 season will be a critical time for them to identify which young players can stick at the MLB level and who to use as trade bait and flip for established veterans.”
OFF-FIELD IMPROVEMENTS AND FAN EXPERIENCE
In an interview with the Athletic, Sunderland managing director Tony Davison claimed that improvements to the fan experience could be facilitated by a takeover.
And the Marlins have certainly put some capital behind improving their stadium and supporter experience.
Crowds haven’t improved as a result, but the Marlins’ key supporter base are arguably more engaged than ever before.
Fans were consulted on a change of badge which, while mooted in the past twelve months, doesn’t seem to be on the immediate agenda at the Stadium of Light.
Ticket prices were also reduced, while numerous improvements were made.
“For much of the franchise's history, the Marlins have been notorious for their extremely low home attendance,” claims Sussman.
“In 2018, Marlins Park drew 10,013 fans per game, the lowest announced attendance average for any MLB team in 14 years.
“In response to that, the franchise rebranded last winter, unveiling a new color scheme and logo inspired by fan feedback.
“Also, the Marlins introduced new low-cost seating options and made improvements to the variety and quality of their concessions.
“These changes have been generally well received across South Florida, but with the team still non-competitive at the major league level, there hasn't been any bump in attendance yet.”
Such crowd problems are unlikely to affect the American investors at Sunderland - with in the excess of 30,000 fans regularly backing the side.
But fans may well be excited by the track-record of investment from their potential new owners - with a deal now rapidly nearing.