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Big Data Model Takes Brentford to the Brink of Football’s Premier League

A sporting strategy engineered on the west coast of America has given a small community club in the west of London a fresh shot at the richest game in world soccer.

Brentford Football Club will challenge Swansea City AFC on Saturday in a playoff final that grants the victor passage to the U.K. Premier League and the potential to pocket hundreds of millions of pounds in new broadcast and sponsorship revenue.

For Brentford, it’s another chance to break the curse of nine previous playoff failures and return to the apex of English soccer for the first time in more than 70 years. It would also cap almost a decade of ownership under data-driven entrepreneur Matthew Benham.

Brentford v Reading - Sky Bet Championship - Griffin Park

Photographer: Adam DavyEMPICS/PA Images/Getty Images

The University of Oxford-educated former Bank of America Corp. employee has transformed Brentford’s fortunes by using analytics to unearth talent missed by traditional scouting methods. His dealings have kept the club competitive through the regular sales of star performers and drawn comparisons to Billy Beane, the ex-U.S. baseball player who pioneered a similar model during his time managing California’s Oakland Athletics — a story later retold in Michael Lewis’s 2003 book “Moneyball.”

“Matthew’s ownership strategy has been an inspiration for people like myself, who are trying to change and modernize the way people look at club ownership,” said Jordan Gardner, majority shareholder in Denmark’s FC Helsingor.

Rich Rewards

Deloitte LLP estimates the winner of the playoff final can generate around 280 million pounds ($397 million) in revenue over five years if it survives a first season in the top division. This has led to the game being dubbed the richest in soccer. Brentford’s revenue for the year ended June 30, 2020, was 13.9 million pounds, excluding player sales, according to accounts for the period.

A win on Saturday would reward Benham for years of personal investment in Brentford, nicknamed the Bees. A fan of the club himself, Benham emerged as a potential owner in 2009 when he entered into a partnership agreement with the Supporters’ Trust that was then in charge. He purchased the controlling shareholding in 2012.

Since then, he’s plowed more than 100 million pounds into the club, accounts show, and seen it develop a reputation for exciting, attacking soccer — a marked change from its more labored style in the decades before his arrival.

A representative for Brentford declined to comment and a request to contact Benham through the club was declined.

“Benham told fans when he took over that he had a strategy and asked them to come on a journey with him and urged them to have a great time,” Kieran Maguire, a lecturer in soccer finance at the University of Liverpool. “Apart from the team’s playoff record, they have done well.”

Backing it all up is a statistics-heavy approach that’s already worked for Benham at Danish Superliga team FC Midtjylland, which he’s owned since 2014 and turned into three-time champions. At Brentford, he recruited mathematics graduates to analyze the data behind players across the world that were slipping under the radar. This helped identify talents such as Neal Maupay, Said Benrahma and Ollie Watkins, who were all sold on for big profit to Premier League clubs.

“The fans see him as a fan first and a smart, successful businessman next,” said Maguire. “Brentford fans have realistic expectations and know that the player development model can help the club punch above its weight.”

Numbers Game

Benham’s methods have their roots in banking and bookmaking. After a brief stint at Bank of America in the 1990s, he entered the gambling industry with Matchbook, a sports betting exchange, and Smartodds, which describes itself as a privately-owned company providing statistical research and sports modeling services.

“Much of Matthew’s philosophy of…

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