SBJ/May 22-28, 2017/Franchises

In Wales, a Yank learns the fear of relegation

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Chris Pearlman woke up May 6 facing the likelihood that his dream job would soon be radically altered, not six months after he uprooted his career and moved his family across the Atlantic Ocean for it.

Eight tense days later, Pearlman could exhale. His dream would keep going.

Chris Pearlman is COO at Swansea City, which narrowly dodged falling to a lower division.
Photo by: SWANSEA CITY AFC
He wasn’t in jeopardy of being fired by Swansea City AFC, whose new American owners had made him the Premier League club’s first chief operating officer in October. But after a frustrating season, relegation to the second-tier Championship League seemed probable. That would turn his position into a minor-league gig overnight, not at all what he left New York for.

Only a surprise loss by Hull City above them in the standings, followed by heroic back-to-back wins over Everton and Sunderland, saved Swansea. By nightfall on May 13, the club was officially safe.

“While I have intellectually understood the potential for relegation, obviously, one of the things you really can’t truly get until you go through it is just the stress and excitement of the matches themselves, when you’re in that position,” a relieved Pearlman said by phone.

The turning point was when Hull City lost to last-place Sunderland on May 6, opening the door for Swansea shortly before it took the home pitch for the last time, against Everton. A television brought word of the result during a pregame meal with executives from both teams, a Premier League tradition, and “a massive, collective gasp of excitement” rung out in both the private room and around the stadium grounds, Pearlman said.

Relegation is a strange concept for Americans accustomed to permanent franchises that are always guaranteed another shot. But it’s hard to overstate the business implications — if Swansea went down a level, it’d lose more than half its revenue in one year, and 80 percent over three years if it stayed in the lower tier, Pearlman said. Fans know this, too, and as Swansea nursed a 1-0 lead in the final 15 minutes, tensions rose during a furious last-minute Everton push. It “was among the most stressful moments you could imagine,” Pearlman recalled.

Formerly executive vice president at Van Wagner Sports & Entertainment, Pearlman saw a life-changing opportunity in Swansea when offered the COO job by its new owners, D.C. United managing general partner Jason Levien and Memphis Grizzlies co-executive chair Steve Kaplan.

Pearlman is a huge soccer fan, and the trio all believe British soccer clubs outside of the “Big Six” have underperformed as businesses, leaving the elites to take more than their share of the global audience.

“Their supporters are just as loyal as the supporters of Manchester United, in some ways more loyal than they are for the bigger clubs,” said Pearlman, who’s in his first job with a team. “And the global exposure they’re getting is broad, but they’re not getting a proportional amount of commercial money.”

So in late October, Pearlman, his wife Laura Flynn and sons Padraig (11) and Malachy (10) left Pelham, N.Y., just north of the Bronx, for Swansea. An industrial town of about 242,000, it’s the second-largest city in Wales but one-sixth the size of the Bronx. He traded the Metro North commuter train for a short drive — on the left side of the road, of course — to work, crossing over a cattle grate in front of his home.

For Swansea, he oversees everything except football: marketing, media, public relations, sponsorship, merchandise, stadium operations, legal and finance. He’s also lead liaison between the owners and the Swansea City Supporters’ Trust, the local group that owns 21 percent of the club and has objected to some of ownership’s early moves.

Pearlman has spent most of his time on building an infrastructure to sell more sponsorships and to renew current deals at a higher price. Also, he’s working on a deal for the club to take over the stadium, currently owned by a joint venture with the city and the local rugby side.

But the team’s struggles often took center stage. As the losses mounted in the early going, the local supporters grew upset. In December, the club fired American coach Bob Bradley.
As the club’s top businessman, Pearlman quickly came to appreciate why the lower-tier clubs struggle to build a commercial business. If you’re facing relegation, it’s hard to justify spending on anything other than talent and wins.

But under Premier League rules, teams can only spend on players what they generate in club revenue. Effectively, that means ManU has a “salary cap” five times larger than Swansea’s. Pearlman’s job is to shrink that gap.

“If we’re on the edge of the relegation zone, we’re not going to hire 15 people to sell sponsorships,” he said. “But we’d be foolish to not begin to put together some kind of infrastructure to begin to do it.”

After the coaching change, Swansea won four out of six matches and got out of the danger zone, but then fell back into 18th place in March (the bottom three of 20 go down). In that situation, every business conversation considers one of two scenarios, and a lot of them stop altogether as the mood grows more desperate. “There were a handful of times when we were talking and the person says, ‘Let’s pick this up when you know for sure where you’re going to be playing next year,’” Pearlman said.

It’s easy to forget after the season’s drama, but Pearlman’s still new in town. He’s still getting used to the quieter life, the walks to the beach and the fact that every person he meets is personally invested in his success. His son Malachy has started to practice with the club’s youth academy. That community passion is a big reason why it was a dream job to start with.

What if the worst had happened?

Pearlman didn’t sell his home in New York. He still has a business network in the U.S. And he admits the job never would have lured him overseas if it wasn’t in the Premier League. But he had committed to the team, regardless of the league.

“Every person in Swansea is a Swansea City supporter,” he said. “To work for the club in that environment is special.”
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