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foormusique.biz: QA Ipswich Town Phoenix Rising owner Brett Johnson on investing in soccer on both sides of the Atlantic

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In April, Ipswich Town became the latest club in Europe to welcome new American ownership. And in this case, that ownership has experience owning American clubs as well.  

Alongside Berke Bakay and Mark Detmer, Brett Johnson has overseen a dramatic surge to relevance by the USL’s Phoenix Rising after taking over the club (then known as Arizona United) in 2016. Having established the side among the most respected clubs in the USL, he’ll now hop the ocean, supplementing ownership in the USL Championship and League One (FC Tucson) with a club in the original League One. 

The English third division boasts a surprising number of clubs with proud histories which have fallen on hard times. In 2021-22, former UEFA Cup winners Ipswich Town will face historic foes including Sunderland, Bolton, Wigan, Portsmouth, Charlton and Sheffield Wednesday — each with legacies they look to live up to. As Ipswich’s summer transfer window has just opened and the USL seasons are underway, Johnson spoke with The Athletic about a bounty of topics pertaining to the lower leagues on both sides of the Atlantic.

Answers have been lightly edited and condensed for clarity. 

What motivated you to specifically invest in soccer?

I played growing up like a lot of people did, but I recognized that my athletic talent lay elsewhere. It was really five years based in London in my late 20s. The company I was running was a phenomenal springboard to give me access to the entire world. I was traveling all over the world; I oversaw Europe, Middle East, Africa and Asia Pacific, so everything outside of the Americas. I saw very quickly that (the sport) was a phenomenal icebreaker. Sometimes in business settings, meetings can be a little awkward at first. I’d have a habit of saying ‘aren’t you all excited that the U.S. is going to win the World Cup next year?’ And then automatically, you know, the German guy would be like ‘are you crazy?’ Three minutes later, you know everyone knew each other and what their favorite teams were.

Along the way, I had an epiphany in 2014: Phoenix was one of the best and biggest markets without pro soccer, certainly without an MLS team. I turned to my wife and said I’m gonna buy an MLS franchise, and I’m gonna call them Phoenix Rising. And then lo and behold, I realized there was a USL team there called Arizona United. Then we invested in a stadium and Berke brought in (Rising co-owner) Didier (Drogba). 

The first half of it was very difficult and painful for me, it was tough playing in a baseball stadium in USL division three. From there, I’m really blessed today with the springboard that it’s allowed now with Ipswich Town and Rhode Island and a host of other things.

How would you describe the state of Ipswich Town as you were looking at taking over the club?

What we loved about Ipswich in League One is that it’s a great project to bring it back to its rightful place in the pecking order — which, in our definition, is ultimately the Premier League. I love taking such a phenomenal club, the history and pedigree, the gravitas as I refer to it, and restoring it to its glory. None of it is easy, but I’d far rather do that challenge than, you know… I think I’ve told people we were looking at Newcastle. You’ve got a lot of risk with Newcastle — you’re sitting up in the Premier League, you get your congratulations having bought Newcastle, but so quickly it can become Newcastle in the Championship. I’ve got to be careful because we coveted the opportunity with Newcastle. I do believe it could be a big seven club, if you will. If there’s any team that would break into that in those ranks, it would be Newcastle, but things happen for a reason. When that didn’t come through, Ipswich really stood out. Again, what we wanted to do was get out of a situation where we were in a competitive bidding environment and couldn’t control the process. We really studied Ipswich for a host of reasons, reached out to (previous Ipswich Town owner) Marcus Evans, and we had the capital behind us. There are a lot of people that kick tires on these things and waste a lot of owners’ time. I think what really differentiated us with Marcus is he knew, once we got over the due diligence hurdle and agreed on valuation, he knew we would close.

From an outside perspective, League One is fascinating when you look top to bottom because there are so many clubs, like you said, that are more of those legacy clubs within English football that have fallen by the wayside. Do you relish the inevitable arms race that’s going to be coming here? 

We absolutely relish it. I’ve always said that if you’re in this sport, there’s no better country to be in than England because that’s the epicenter of the entire sport. There are some phenomenal teams with some phenomenal ownership groups, but what I’m encouraged by is what I hoped and expected: that in a short period of time within getting our hands on a club, it would start to change the trajectory. That players and agents, managers and clubs would start to look at Ipswich and say that club is going in the right direction now. There’s more talent in the game than a lot of teams know how to deal with, so as a club we want them to see us as a place they would loan someone to and know they’re gonna do well and be taken care of. 

The added connectivity that is sort of nascent, but I really believe is going to be a huge part of it: I’m very, very bullish on USL as a phenomenal asset to foreign clubs to put young talented players on loan and to accelerate their development and, in many respects, accelerate their value. They’re going to be well taken care of and they’re going to get some phenomenal minutes that they’re probably not getting in the academy systems. We’ll see if I’m right in that regard, but that’s a massive, massive upside.

With Paul Cook being appointed as manager late in the season, fans are going to have a lot of questions about how he’ll be supported. How are you approaching this transfer window? 

We’re making wholesale changes. We had long calls with Paul and we have a lot of faith in him. He was the manager that we were intending to appoint, and Marcus Evans reached out to us because (Cook) was appointed before we closed the deal, but that he was on our very, very short list. Paul showed up and there were something like 43 players on the extended roster; I think we’re keeping about 10% of them. The question is how quickly you can bring in so much talent and get it to click. 

What we all want to do is take a sober approach to how quickly the turnaround starts to happen. You need a little time to gel and in a lot of environments, you’re not given a lot of time. We have to be pragmatic relative to the fact of how competitive the league is when you’re starting with a base that needs to be completely overhauled.

The club finished ninth last year, five points out of the promotion playoff places. Is there a target year in mind, in terms of pushing to return to the Championship? 

We’re completely impatient, but we’re also completely committed. It’s not like there’s an expiration date on it, but (our ownership group has) been spoiled with a fair degree of success and in these early days, I’m beyond encouraged relative to the quality and caliber of talent that we’ve already started to sign and a bunch of talent that’s sitting in the wings. While there are some phenomenal clubs that we’re competing against, I also think given the dislocation that’s been happening in the global sport, there are a lot of clubs that are probably suffering right now. I think we’re well positioned to make sure that we can bounce out of this whole surreal period, in a very strong position.

Let’s switch gears from EFL League One to USL League One, where you own FC Tucson. Earlier in June, we reported on MLS’s plans to launch a third-division league in 2022. It’s the third year for USL League One; the pandemic likely changed the calculus, but where do you see USL League One going in the coming years?

I’m bullish on it because I’m bullish on the USL, full stop. To their credit, they kind of traded through the pandemic which was no easy feat for the owners in that league. I know that there’s a robust roadmap of additional franchises that are coming on, in particular in the West like Fresno and Spokane. It has highlighted to a lot of communities this development and the idea of using the USL as a driver for economic impact and change. 

I don’t lose sleep over sort of MLS now with that (report) — I think that’s a different model. I think the objective will be different than what I believe is the long-term objective of League One owners and USL is going to be. I think (USL president) Jake (Edwards) referenced it, but what I love is the potential prospect of promotion and relegation at some point. I view Tucson as a Championship market, not as a League One market. In the meantime, I’m not in a rush. I want to figure out a great stadium solution there, and a host of other boxes that I would check similar to what I’m checking in Rhode Island before we even contemplate that.

How would you personally like to see promotion and relegation in the USL ecosystem?

I think the beauty of this system is that you don’t have a scenario where you turn to David Tepper and say ‘congratulations, you’re in MLS’ but after a season if they lost, they’re going down to MLS B, right? I think USL has the opportunity to sit there and say that to qualify for Championship, you might need to invest in your stadium. You’re certainly gonna have to think about your roster differently, but it’s not a huge leap to try to figure out what that looks like economically. Conversely, I think it’s a lot easier to say to a Championship team that goes down: here’s how we may cushion that a little bi.

The corresponding question is what does it mean in terms of potential media rights, what does it mean in terms of ancillary things that might come about relative to sports betting and overall global interest in North American soccer. I think it’s not a bold statement to say it’s being held back because we don’t have to pro/rel.

I understand if we can’t use real numbers, but in terms of League One scaling up to the Championship: is it around 70 cents on the dollar? What is that ballpark?

I think for USL League One now, the franchise fee is $2 million, and I think the Championship is $10 million but I think it’s going up to $15 million because there’s a bit of supply and demand starting to come into effect right now. I don’t think I’m saying anything out of turn. That gives you some of the arbitrage, if you will. I know I’m not alone among USL owners in seeing the merits of pro/rel. We should all be investing to make sure our product is the best it can possibly be. I love the Darwinian nature of pro/rel. To me, it’s what America is all about—which is the irony when we don’t have it.

Earlier, you referenced your upcoming Championship club in Rhode Island; my understanding is there still is a federational rule that owners can only have one club per tier of the pyramid. What is your plan with Phoenix once Pawtucket comes online?

I’m not the principal of Phoenix, so the good news is that I can comfortably be the principal owner of Rhode Island and can remain the principal owner of Tucson. That being said, I’m blessed with an identical twin brother, so I could probably turn to him and say “congratulations, I got you an early birthday present.” I just have to teach him what offside looks like. 

What do you see as the future for Phoenix? MLS is determining its 30th expansion location, and some people think it’s going to go to 32 teams eventually, but what does the future hold if MLS isn’t in the cards for Rising?

We couldn’t be happier, more committed, to our leadership role in USL. We feel really blessed and very proud of the role we play on and off the pitch. I’d also say, as someone who’s now been in the USL camp for seven years, that I’m blown away with the trajectory of the league. I’m giving kudos to HQ in Tampa and I’m giving kudos to all the other owners across the league. There are a lot of really committed ownership groups that are putting unbelievable products on the field, so we’re proud to be associated with all of that. As a result, that makes it such that it’s not a huge reason for us to look to get out of the league. It just makes it easy to be patient or committed to the USL. 

I also try to caveat that with the utmost respect to MLS, but the reality is that MLS is a very, very different model. That’s a 300 plus million dollar franchise fee for Phoenix, as well as a 300 plus million dollar stadium? You put the two together and then take the added overhead of your average MLS franchise, and t doesn’t take a financial genius to sit there and think about when that might be the right move for us, especially in an environment where there’s some other markets that might not have to invest as much in the stadium as we would have to.

What is it that people outside of the market maybe didn’t understand about Rhode Island as a potential destination for a professional soccer club? What are people overlooking about Rhode Island that you saw as an opportunity?

A very simple thing that stood out to me was that it was consistently in the top 10 for media ratings for the Premier League. When you go down the list, nine of the 10 had professional soccer teams. I had the fortune of going to Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, so I have connections to the state. I also did the math in terms of their iconic baseball team picking up and moving to Massachusetts. Put all that together with my interest in opportunity zones and anchor developments and it became a perfect opportunity. It’s been two-plus years of working on the entire vision of the land and winning an RFP, but now we’re going to start to accelerate in terms of building. 

We’ve sort of talked about this gradually over several questions here, but how do you choose the club that you’re taking on? Is there something strategic where Ipswich specifically makes sense because there could be some connective tissue to Rhode Island?

One hundred percent. I have to be sensitive to my partners in Ipswich, but I’m keen on seeing if there’s a young coach that oversees the academy that would make sense to move to Rhode Island, have him or her bring five to seven of the best and brightest, and put them into that market because he or she’s been working with them for years now. Surround them with a phenomenal additional cohort of great USL talent and see what that looks like. I don’t believe it’s a bold statement that the way I see that potential partnership, I think a lot of other foreign clubs are starting to wake up to that being a huge advantage of USL. Because of the independence of USL you can own and control — in the most positive sense — the player development side of the equation. If you’re in a deep-pocketed academy like Ajax, Benfica or countless clubs, you’re only starting 11 players; only 18 dress. There’s a ton of talent that aren’t getting the quality and caliber of minutes that I think both Championship and League One clubs are gonna afford some of these clubs,

You said ‘he or she when’ talking about coaches. Is that something where you’re keeping a deliberate focus on potential hires?

Completely. I mean I’m blessed with Amanda Powers, who’s my president for FC Tucson and I think was the second club president in North America. I would love to have a female coach, and that being said: I’m completely committed to the women’s game. We’ve been talking a lot about the Ipswich women’s team. I will launch a women’s team in Rhode Island, we will do one in Phoenix and I’m pleased that USL has launched the W league. But also, I’m very impressed with how Lisa Baird is building and navigating very pragmatically the NWSL. We will be equally committed to the women’s game, but that’s not to say I’ll launch a women’s team and that will be where female coaches work. I’d love to sit and discuss if they want the keys to the men’s team.

I’ve got the utmost respect for coaches that ply their trade every single day because I recognize that it’s brutal. You are literally only as good as your last match.

(Photo: Pat Greenhouse / The Boston Globe via Getty Images)