Lille owner Gerard Lopez is pushing the limits of how tech, data can influence a club
Gerard Lopez is many things. He's the majority owner of Lille, but he's also a Spanish entrepreneur who grew up in a soot-covered house next to a steel mill in Luxembourg. He was recruited to Miami University in Western Ohio to play basketball on a partial scholarship in 1998, but quickly found out that being a high school hoops phenom in Luxembourg was a bit like being the tallest elf. An early investor in Skype and a former Formula One team principal at Lotus, holding degrees in both Asian art and expert systems (basically what we know as artificial intelligence), Lopez says both played a key role in getting him to where he is today: at the nexus of sports, technology and entertainment.
ESPN caught up with him recently for a wide-ranging conversation about how his pursuits intersect.
ESPN: Why did you get involved with a Ligue 1 club, especially one like Lille that seems far behind Paris Saint-Germain in terms of resources?
Gerard Lopez: It's true, I entered at a time when the gap is one of the biggest ever between the haves and have-nots around Europe. But at the same time, the French league is a little different. Next year, the TV rights deal will be 60% higher. Also, France is the No. 1 continent in the world at developing talent. Why do I say "continent" and not country? Because France has most of Africa [in terms of historical ties and language]. Ligue 1 is the Premier League of the African continent. ... That's a huge advantage ... a bit like Portugal has with Brazil, though to a lesser extent.
Much has been written about the model at Lille, and how you scout and develop young talent before selling them on to finance the next wave of gifted kids. But don't most clubs outside the elite claim to do that? What makes you different?
We're doing things differently in several ways. For a start, we have really talented guys working together, and we know they're really talented because other clubs are constantly trying to hire away our coaches, scouts, analysts and executives. (Just last month, after the appointment of Jose Mourinho, Tottenham hired away two Lille coaches, Joao Sacramento and Nuno Santos.) I bet on the talent of my team. Where we act really differently is the tools they use. That gives us an incremental advantage: They have access to technology that nobody else has. We're one of the leading investors in artificial intelligence, for example, so you can assume our use is way ahead of the competition.
What sort of stuff do we do? Well, we look at associative effects. Take a player with certain characteristics and the way he'll perform will be impacted positively or negatively by the characteristics of those around him. So we use it to help us crunch data because when you think of the sheer quantity of players scouted, the data points and the combinations of players, it can play a key role. We look for associative values, rather than just talent. And it's repeatable, though obviously, having the talent helps, too.
Yet you need a combination of the two. Technology and analytics can give you an incremental advantage, but statistics can also hide the truth and miss things. Plus, others might catch up technologically over time. It takes talented humans to interpret it and spot things that numbers might miss. The combination of the two -- talent and tools -- is what gives us efficiency.
You said competitors try to sign away your talent, whether players or executives. So even if you're successful, you're constantly replacing people and not retaining them. That's not what fans want to hear ...
It's true. Simply put, if we do poorly, we get rid of people. If we do well, they get rid of us and move to a higher-paying job, or a bigger club, or better opportunities. But that's why the model for us has to be incremental. We find talent and we know we can't keep it too long at the beginning, so we try to sell at the right time and make sure we get enough back to grow our club.
We're already advancing, too. I could have sold at least six players last summer for a lot of money. I didn't. I could afford to keep them and buy for a record amount; only PSG spent more than us. Whoever says our model is only about selling hasn't looked at the numbers. Guys like Yusuf Yazici, Renato Sanches and Victor Osimhen are guys we want to keep not for one year, but hopefully for two or three. And eventually, if I have a truly marquee player, the next [Eden] Hazard or [Nicolas] Pepe, and the club are where I want them to be -- a contender to qualify for the Champions League every year, and I think we're pretty much there -- I'll keep him. But today I can't. I'm still in the building phase.
You mentioned Pepe, it took him a while to get going at Arsenal ...
I think Pepe is a winger who is also a world-class finisher. This is a guy who played goalkeeper until he was 13. He understands them like few others -- that's why his finishes, even from long range, are rarely blasted and always placed. I say this because it's one of the two factors that, I think, have slowed him a bit. We played Pepe in a 4-3-3 in a very specific position: He was wide, with freedom to come inside and a full-back behind him who always covered for him. Now he's in a new team, his teammates don't know him and he has to jell. That takes time; the same thing happened when he joined us and it took about six months for him to be very productive. In fact, we were almost relegated.
He can't control that [period of integration at a new club]. What he can control is his confidence. He has to be confident. There is so much pressure on him that sometimes, it gets to him and as a result he's a less selfish player than he was when he was with us. He'll pass sometimes when maybe he should have the confidence to finish. But I think he'll get over both those factors. We're already seeing glimpses of what he can do.
You were involved with Formula One at Lotus and now football. What's the main difference from a business perspective?
The "David vs. Goliath" story in Formula One almost never works. Unless all the top guys crash into each other or there's extreme weather, it's statistically impossible to beat the wealthy teams. You can't have surprises, but it doesn't matter because if you watch Formula One, it's because you know and appreciate what makes those cars go: 700 people working behind the scenes to create as close to perfection in terms of speed on four wheels as you're going to get.
In football, the underdog theme works really well. It happens every year, all over the world. You don't have engineers creating the perfect machine; you have a bunch of imperfect human beings. And that means you will always get upsets regardless of how much money is spent.
OK, but we had many more upsets in the past, many more cases where smaller or midsized teams won not just the odd cup, but big trophies, too. You don't think audiences might yearn for more parity?
I love the way it was in the past, the players with the tight shorts and they look as if they're moving in slow motion and the fouls are atrocious and there's chaos in the stands. But I love the present, too, and I recognize players are getting better and better, too. We have two GOAT candidates playing right now. I'm a huge Lionel Messi fan, but imagine if Messi were 6-foot-3 and 200 pounds and ran the 100-meter dash in 10 seconds ... that will happen. Maybe soon. Everything is accelerated today, players are stronger and faster.
Think of a 21-year-old today ... he's like a 25-year-old a decade ago in terms of experience. Watch the Under-17 World Cup: The top teams from there would probably beat a top-flight European club side from 20 years ago. Because of that, we see goals today we would have never dreamed of in the past, we see things happen we've never seen before, tricks and skills we've never seen before.
I'm not going to say we have a better sport, but we have a more compelling, faster-paced sport and everything is pushed by that. Just look at the flow of money.
OK, but some fear the money, especially when it comes to broadcast rights, is slowing down. The Premier League media rights actually declined in value domestically, and some analysts think they're flattening out.
The traditional broadcasting model might be under threat, but the reality is that content matters. Look at Amazon and Netflix. They need content, and even at a super-high premium, football is the cheapest [content] around. A good Netflix show will cost you $250-300 million, give or take, with a run time of maybe six months, and every year you're paying that much again. If you find your hit, your stars are going to want more money, so you either kill them off or you give them raises, which means your costs go up further, to, say, $400 million a year.
But if you acquire Premier League rights, let's say, you don't have to pay the artists, you don't pay for the set and you don't pay for post production. On a cost-per-minute basis, it's still no contest. And you acquire new customers who might not necessarily be watching Netflix today. Plus, it's a global language that everybody speaks. I know "Game of Thrones" was a big deal, but in three years' time, is anyone going to still be watching it now that it's over? No. But they'll be watching the Champions League and Premier League ...
What about the perceived wisdom that young people don't have the patience to sit through a two-hour game, or that they don't watch sport in general but if they do, they don't want to pay for it?
The perceived wisdom is wrong. Wrong. It's just that kids today have more choices. You want to talk about patience? Kids will sit and watch somebody play Fortnite for six straight hours. I think the problem is that football is competing with other platforms, but it's being run by people who don't necessarily even know what Twitch is. They will eventually, and they will also find a different way to get people to consume football.
Why? Because it has two big advantages. One is the same reason kids consume Fortnite: You don't know what's going to happen every time. You might get killed, you might build something, whatever.
The other factor is the "associated effect." It's the motion, the family ties, the regional ties. It provides identification. You're not going to get that with "Game of Thrones." It's more a question of how we market the sport.