Creating upside: Four lessons for Australian football from US investors in Europe

It is often said that the United States has the biggest and best sporting market in the world.

According to the latest number from Forbes, the average value of a franchise in the National Football League (NFL) is $3.48 billion USD, a 14% increase on 2020.

In the NBA, the average franchise value is $2.202 billion USD, having steadily risen year-on-year since 2015 which was the first year that the average value crept over the $1 billion USD mark.

Even in the much-maligned MLS, the average franchise value is a cool $550 million USD up from $319 million USD in 2019 – a remarkable 72% increase.

So, with such a booming sports economy on their own doorstep, why are American investors turning to European football?

That was the question The Athletic Football Podcast hosts, Mark Chapman and Matt Slater, sought to answer in the latest episode of their podcast.

In two revealing conversations with US sports investors Michael Kalt and Brett Johnson, there were some potentially interesting lessons for Australian football to learn.

Kalt, who rose to sporting fame as part of the investment group that helped transform the fortunes of the Tampa Bay Rays in the MLB, now leads consortiums investing in European football clubs with current investments in AS Nancy in France and Oostende in Belgium.

Johnson is co-owner of Ipswich Town and also the owner and director of Phoenix Rising Football Club, which plays in the second tier of US football.

So, what do they like about European football?

Why don’t they invest the same sizeable funds into MLS teams?

What can Australian football learn?

Below we highlight four key lessons.

Upside Counts

The majority of clubs that Kalt and his consortiums look at investing in are loss-making businesses.

They don’t make money.

So why, when you have significant investment capital and can invest in a booming domestic sports market, do you choose to take your money to Europe and put it in loss-making clubs?

For Kalt, there are three things a club has to have to prove its investment value.

  1. Asymmetric Upside via promotion or European qualification
  2. Room for commercial improvement
  3. Training profits (EG: Player Transfers)

On the first point, Kalt explains the uniqueness of promotion and relegation and continental competition created pockets of value in Europe that offered much lower costs of entry in Europe.

“Can you buy them when you’re up underlying your downsize risk, meaning you’re not paying full price for a club that is recently promoted or in the top league or coming off European competition and you’re paying full price,” he said.

“If you look at the clubs we bought, we’ve bought clubs like Nancy, historically a club that has been in Ligue 1 and bounced back and forth. It has the infrastructure of a Ligue 1 team. It should be a first division, mid-table club, so there’s headroom there and not a lot of downside risk.

“That’s the sort of situation we look for, where there is an asymmetric upside, either through promotion or European qualification in a smaller club where we think we can compete in the top four or five teams.

On what he termed, “Training Profits”, which most readers would refer to as player transfers, Kalt thinks it’s incredible that a club could generate a sizeable portion of its overall value simply by trading players.

“This is a massive mover in this,” he said.

“When you create that value in American sports, the only way to really monetize it on the player basis is to make like exchanges. To say, I have a player that has demonstrated his worth and the market will pay way more for him. He’s got three or four years left of club control … your only path to monetization is to keep that player and hope the club plays better and people show up and you generate more revenue in the stadium.

“Or you go and try and trade the player for younger, more controllable talent and hope that that talent does the same thing.

“In Europe, you create value, and the market comes to you and says ‘okay, today we’re willing to pay ‘x’ for that player, and, by the way, that ‘x’ might be some significant portion of what you played for the club!’

“That system, combined with analytics to create that value, which is how we started looking at this … is why it’s so intriguing.

“You reinvest some of that back into the club and you can reduce your downside.”

Europe’s football culture and ecosystem are, obviously, significantly more developed than that of Australia or the United States.

But what is interesting to take from the conversation is the factors that make for a worthwhile investment for Kalt and his ilk.

They want to invest in clubs that have room to grow.

None of this is to suggest that the incorporation of promotion and relegation in Australia is going to send a flood of overseas investors ready to throw their money at ‘B-League’ or National Premier Leagues clubs.

But it does inherently create potential upside in investing in the secondary tiers of Australian football, particularly for local investors.

We have already seen in the most recent round of A-League expansions that there was potentially a lot of money left on the table by unsuccessful bidders looking for a way into Australia’s top flight.

The implementation of promotion and relegation could unlock similar pockets of value in Australia.

The addition of a domestic transfer market will also go a long way to increasing the upside of clubs in the A-League and potentially below.

Franchises Limit Upside

When discussing MLS specifically, Kalt believes one of the major obstacles facing the growth of MLS was to be the American attitude of, generally, not being as interested in watching sports that are not “the best”.

But perhaps the most interesting thing Kalt had to say about the investment value of MLS franchises is that their value was largely being grown by the expansion of the competition and the prices being paid for new licenses, dragging the value of the existing licenses up by association.

“Valuations five, six, seven years ago you had a 50 or 60 million cost of entry, which – candidly – still seems a little high given the economics of these clubs,” he said.

“But when you see these club trading at 200, 300, 400-million-dollar valuations, it’s hard for me to get my head around and I know it’s hard for a lot of people in the business to get their head around.

“I think a lot of it, historically, was justified on, ‘well, you buy in now because the next expansion franchise is going to be worth ‘y’’.

“But you’re not going to have a league with 60 clubs, so you’re running out of the ability to do that.”

This sounds alarmingly similar to the A-League, where hopes for the growth of the sport are so consistently pinned on expansion.

They might equate to growth for the value of A-League licenses and the value for the investors who own them, but it’s not enough alone to drive true value in football.

MLS’ One Big Tick

It wasn’t all bad for the MLS. Kalt had to give credit to the MLS for at least one thing.


“The amazing thing that they’ve done is that they’ve created the infrastructure for soccer in the United States that never existed before.

“They’re not just sticking teams in and hiring a bunch of over the hill stars and having them play in football (NFL) stadiums and hoping they can sustain it.

“They’re doing the right thing and the league is sustainable, whether at half-billion-dollar franchise valuations is a more debatable proposition.”

This is a crucial lesson for the A-League.

Over 15 years into this journey and there remains embarrassingly little football-specific infrastructure.

There has been some good ground made in recent years by some clubs, but overall, after 15 years one gets the feeling there is very little to show for all the investment made in the A-League.

We’ve had some great seasons, some great matches and some great players grace the league…but if the league collapsed tomorrow, what proof would there be that the A-League and its clubs actually existed?

This has to be urgently addressed.

Gratification Bonus

Another reason cited as key for both Kalt and Johnson in their investment in European football was the sense of gratification of investment in clubs and their surrounding communities.

Now let’s not get carried away. No one is suggesting for a second that these investors aren’t backing in European football for humanitarian reasons.

They’re in it because they see value in their investment.

But can they make themselves feel good about making money in the process?

Well, that’s a bonus. The benefits for the community, however, can be very real and tangible.

Research from 2019 shows Manchester City’s involvement in the title chase with Liverpool was worth £220 million to Manchester’s economy.

According to the think tank Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR), spending on match-day tickets, merchandise, and hospitality can boost a city’s economic growth by 1.1 percentage points.

At the lower level, Ipswich Town co-owner Johnson felt there was a great sense of satisfaction to be taken from investing in the surrounding community.

“It’s critical to be engaged with the community,” he said.

“I view [these clubs] as beacons. In England, these communities live and die by the success of these clubs and it’s been painful for these fans have been watching this beautiful asset punch below its weight class.

“It’s not just enough to win, you have to try and make improvements broadly.”

A big part of Kalt’s model was being able to choose clubs with room for improvement because it would be easier to keep the fans onside as things improved.

“Coming into a club that is perfectly run as the next owner is not a situation I would ever want to be in,” he said.

“You want to come into a situation where there’s headroom … you want to have some goodwill built in.

“We’re going to stabilise this, and you know your club is going to be around in a year.”

The question for Australian football is, how do we create value and the feel-good factor around our clubs that encourage the investment they require?

Matthew Galea is a sports journalist with Soccerscene. He reports widely on football policy and industry matters, drawing on his knowledge and passion of the game.

Psychologist Christopher Shen: How the Matildas will achieve greatness


The FIFA Women’s World Cup has got off to a great start, where it is fantastic to see the Australian and New Zealand communities get behind their teams.

It’s exciting to follow the journey of the Matildas, who with Tony Gustavsson at the helm are sure to do the nation proud.

A tournament such as the World Cup does of course throw up some challenges, where the mental and physical wellbeing of players and coaches is of upmost importance.

In this article, I will explore the key talking points from the tournament so far and how to create a positive mindset.

Sam Kerr’s injury situation and teammate impact

It is very easy for an individual to be really impacted negatively by an injury, particularly on the eve of a competition or event. You can also be disheartened and very frustrated – affecting an individual’s mental health and causing the individual to ruminate about negative matters and issues – many of which are often outside of our control.

It will be very important for an individual such as Sam to to apply mental skills to overcome the setback of her injury and to maintain her dedication to her rehabilitation, whilst continuing to be a leader amongst the team and not become inwardly focused.

As a squad, Sam’s teammates  can also incorporate helpful mental skills and strategies to overcome worry and avoid disruption. Helpful mental skills include being able to purposefully maintain the positive culture and mood within the team by applying techniques such as mindfulness sessions, and positive psychology activities, including gratitude and savouring.

Teammates may also use cognitive reframing to overcome negative thoughts, feelings, and emotions – to foster positivity and to regain their focus upon the important things they need to do to be successful.

It’s key for them to draw upon the inner support network of coaches, staff, family, partners, their teammates, and others within the Matildas  to really foster positivity and to overcome negative rumination.

Other helpful techniques players could use are using affirming sounds, music, images and comforting statements. I’m also quite confident in surmising that the Australian team most likely has some group messages and themes to draw upon that they have devised in their camps leading up to this event. Having these ways to foster positivity will go a long way to overcoming the setback of injuries.

Pressure to perform as the tournament progresses

There’s pressure not only on the players, yet also the head coach, other coaches and staff, particularly because it’s a home event co-hosted with New Zealand and it can be overwhelming at times, especially as we saw in the lead up to the opening group stage game against Ireland with the focus on the expectations of the home fans that Australia that will do well.

The fact that Sam wasn’t playing at the last moment would have caused enormous pressure on everybody. However, helpful techniques that individuals in the group can use are relaxation techniques, which might include meditation, and mindfulness – which is what I particularly recommend for a group – which helps players focus their attention on what’s important and to let go and diminish distractions and non-essential matters. Other helpful techniques to create calm and relaxation might also include breath control, and imagery.

Mindfulness has been demonstrated by research to be especially good at diminishing and interrupting distractions and help individuals focus. For example, in my previous work with the Western Bulldogs AFLW team as their performance psychologist, we would always undertake mindfulness pre-game as a group.

Goalkeepers bouncing back when they make a crucial error

As technical specialists who have their own coaches, goalkeepers train away from the main group, so it is very helpful for goalkeepers to have a unique set of mental techniques to apply when things inevitably go wrong.

I’ve done a lot of work in AFL and AFLW football with the forwards when taking set shots, and it’s the same concept with goalkeepers to be able to regain and switch their focus rapidly back to those skills that help them be very successful and not to become mired or to be lost in negative thoughts, feelings and emotions when things go wrong in a match.

Thought stoppage techniques are particularly helpful, and an example of that is where at training and before a game, players practise a technique where they’re able to stop unhelpful thoughts and focus on important one, which is called anchoring.

This is a mental exercise which helps individuals cope with stressful events such as a goal being scored against them. At training and pre-game, what a player does is recalls the times where they’ve played successfully when they felt hopeful, optimistic, and positive. At the peak of that experience, they undertake a particular gesture such as clenching their preferred hand into a fist, or it might be touching their right boots.

Whatever that gesture or action is, they develop an operant conditioning association between that action, and the feeling of being positive, optimistic, confident, and hopeful. We build an association / connection between a particular experience, and a triggering stimuli.

There was a very famous Russian psychologist Ivan Pavlov, who conducted experiments with his dogs. Every time he fed his dogs, he’d ring a little bell, and then feed the dogs. Very rapidly, his dogs learned that if you rang the bell, that food was forthcoming and they’d start to salivate. We can deliberately create the same phenomenon by this technique of anchoring, which like a ship’s anchor, connects a triggering stimuli, that can help us recall a helpful psychological and physical state.

For example, if a player in the World Cup uses the gesture of clenching her/their preferred hand into a fist whenever they practise their helpful mental state – in the game when something goes wrong, and they recognise that they’re starting to get upset, what they can do is they clench her/their preferred hand into that fist. And that triggers the previously established helpful psychological state, which helps her/them refocus and diminish negative thoughts.

Being composed and thinking clearly during a match

Another tool that I find works successfully with the Men’s professional football players I assist is time managing worries. That’s where we tell ourselves that when a game starts, we’re going to defer any concerns or worries to before or after the game. During the game, if inevitably a worry comes into his head, what we do is we tell ourselves, “I’m going to worry about this before or after the game.”

This is a thought stopping technique, which allows us to stop negative thoughts, and defer them to a helpful and convenient time.

This is where focus and resilience skills become very important. One of the helpful skills that I use with players and sportspeople is being able to master their self-talk. At times, they may start becoming worried or panic, or even becoming disheartened, and outraged. Whatever the unhelpful emotion is, and unhelpful thoughts are, it’s helpful to master their self-talk and focus. That’s where cognitive reframing questions can be particularly helpful, where players ask themselves helpful questions to diminish negativity and refocus.

Here are some example questions below:

  • How can I face this current difficulty in a way that’s helpful for myself and my teammates?
  • How can I interpret this setback as merely being temporary?
  • How can I become a better player into the future by facing this current worrying concern?
  • What’s within my control and influence?
  • How can I draw upon the expertise of my teammates, my coaches and others?

What this reframing technique does is it helps stop and interrupt unhelpful thoughts, emotions, and behaviours, – replacing them with helpful thoughts, emotions, and behaviours through focusing on:

  • Our control and influence,
  • How we can help ourselves, our teammates and others through our actions,
  • Recognising that we can become better and more knowledgeable by facing this worry, and
  • Most importantly, the difficult worries that we’re facing will often pass and then we’ll get through them.

My general tips for anyone competing in sport

Here are my five main tips to overcome setbacks and boost your resilience.

  1. Mentally prepare for training and competition rather than merely just waking up on the day of the game.
  2. Set goals for yourself. Research consistently demonstrates when we set motivating and challenging goals to help, motivate and inspire us, it really helps us focus and perform.
  3. Build your resilience and mental toughness to face whatever challenge comes your way, for example using positive and affirming self-talk and having belief in yourself.
  4. Practise an activity to create calmness, relaxation, and focus – such as meditation, mindfulness, deep breathing or yoga – whatever your preference is to diminish stress.
  5. Create positivity and savour it. Surround yourself with positive and beloved people, undertake enjoyable hobbies, listen to music, be around animals, enjoy nature – anything and everything that creates positivity, and then really immerse and savour that positive thought, feeling and emotion to bolster your morale and mental health.






Christopher Shen is a Psychologist based in Melbourne, Australia. He can be contacted at:

It’s time for Craig Johnston

Craig Johnston

Since 2017, after spending many years in the U.S.A., Craig Johnston – our most decorated footballer with eight medals from his years at Liverpool F.C. – has been based in his hometown Newcastle.

The man who ventured to Middlesborough in 1975 at the tender age of 15 survived the harsh treatment of Jackie Charlton to make his first team debut at the age of 17 and was transferred for a record 650,000 pounds to Liverpool in 1981.

This was the example of his never say die attitude and created a lasting benchmark for many players who followed him.

Critically, Johnston has never lost his passion for the game and if ever there was a time for him to influence the course of Australian football, it is now.

In this interview with Roger Sleeman, Johnston espouses his views on the direction Australian football should be taking.


You’ve been back in Australia since 2017.

What was your plan to integrate your ideas into the Australian footballing landscape?


I spent a long time travelling the world and after 20 years living in the U.S.A., I wanted to return home to impact player development, coaching and merchandising.


How far have you succeeded in your intentions?


I’ve spent every waking minute trying to get kids to play football more often.

I’ve made a lot of progress but it hasn’t been an easy task because the same difficulties exist as before.

This is because we live in a wonderful country with so many options to educate and entertain our kids.

There is a perceived public opinion that football is the sleeping giant in Australian sport but I believe the Women’s World Cup will finally awake the sleeping giant.


There are a distinct lack of technical players produced in our country, evidenced by the quality of A-League and NPL competitions.

What are your observations?


It’s exactly as it’s always been, that if you can’t trap or pass a ball it’s going to be difficult to succeed in football.

Back in the day of the Golden Generation and before, you had sons and daughters of first generation immigrants playing every day in their backyards, as their parents did in their countries.

Therefore, we have to be more innovative to take the kids of today away from their PlayStation and modify their short-term span of concentration.

The kids have to be enticed out of their bedrooms from their PlayStation and shoot up games.

They must be touching the ball more often and it has to become the new toy in their life just like the previous generations.

Image credit: David Cannon /Allsport


Do we have the right people holding down technical roles to improve skill factors for youth players?


I don’t know these people, but whoever they are, have they got the data to show they’ve improved the skills of young players, or for that matter any data at all?


Our recent demise from the u/17 Asian Cup was largely attributed to lack of preparation.

Your comment?


Our Asian neighbours have improved so much that the biggest threat is from them, not Europe or South America.

The Asians have approached development in a scientific way by using global currency as a way of being recognised on a global scale while the Australian government ignores it.

In contrast, the Saudis, South Koreans and Japanese are going ahead in leaps and bounds.


You returned to Europe last May to watch Liverpool in the Champions League Final in Paris and stayed there a further five months.

What did you achieve in that time?


I was involved with a Belgium broadcaster who was producing a documentary on the Heysel Stadium disaster of 1985.

Ironically, there was a riot between the opposing supporters in Paris and despite all the money invested in security, they still haven’t got it right.

I also met officials from FIFA and UEFA about the proposed Super League and expressed my disagreement with the proposal.

Basically, I believed the big clubs were going to take the game away from the supporters and monetise it through a closed shop and franchise model which would’ve resulted in splitting the game in two.

If the Super League had gone ahead it would’ve resulted in 12 owners dominating the game in Europe, mainly from American roots.

What football means to a Mancunian or Scouser doesn’t equate with the perception of an American business tycoon.


You’ve been in talks with Northern NSW Football for some time.

Can you outline the progress of these discussions?


As a proud Novocastrian, I was involved with previous regimes and the Dutch coaches in raising $9 million dollars to set up an Academy

However, the Dutch never allowed me to get inside the gates because they claimed it was their job to coach skills, and not mine.

Finally, I have an opportunity because of the new Board and the new CEO.

I’m also talking to the Jets and Lake Macquarie club where I played in my formative years.

One of my biggest ambitions is to pass on the secrets of my success which enabled me to leave Lake Macquarie and play first team football in Middlesborough at the age of 17.


When will the powers that be engage you to make a significant contribution to the game by improving the development of youth players?


I’ve experienced the fame and recognition so its best to have your own clever thoughts to provide solutions.

They know I’m here and they’re all aware of my success so I only have to be tapped on the shoulder.


What is your take on the Women’s World Cup and how it can impact the game in Australia?


It’s the best thing to happen for Australian football, just as England winning the European Women’s Championship has boosted women’s football in their country.

I well remember when I was living in the States and Bill Clinton was running for President and he was asked who would decide the election victory?

He answered the “soccer mums” because they run round all the week organising their children’s sport and they are the backbone of the nation.

They are a huge audience and they spend the money which will contribute to football’s success.


Will you be speaking to Rob Stanton, the new Jets coach?


I’ve already had talks with the CEO, Shane Mattiske, to arrange a meeting with Stanton.


What is the progress of your concept of the Big Bash of Soccer?


Based on the Big Bash of Cricket, plans are moving forward to introduce a pre-season tournament before the A-League season.

We plan to have eight A-League teams and eight NPL teams playing in one-hour matches, consisting of four quarters.

The aim is to produce a new culture, skills and most importantly entertainment.

There will be high scores on a reduced pitch with six players per side.

Players will receive a yellow card if they play the ball backwards and a red card the second time.

On receipt of the red card, the player will be placed in the sin bin for two minutes.

The TV coverage will encourage young players to play Little Bash at school and on training pitches.

Ultimately, I believe this format can be successful like its cricket counterpart.

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