NexGen Series is the closest thing to the Champions League which junior football can produce. The rapidly growing competition which amongst others boasts names like Inter Milan, Man City, Chelsea, Barcelona and Ajax has just finished its first season. The brain behind NextGen, Mark Warburton reveals the secrets of his success in conversation with Future Stars.
FS: NextGen Series is a very close concept to what we are trying to do in basketball. Could you talk us through the origins of your idea and why you came to the conclusion that the already existing systems are not sufficient to develop modern footballers?
MW: The key issue was how do you change a youth programme performer to first team performer and usually these guys are a long, long way from reaching this point. The idea was how do you prepare boys better for that transition. One of the key factors was the quality of the opposition which they face week in, week out, facing far bigger challenges makes them better prepared. This is still a huge jump, the difference between Liverpool or Man City youth Academy and their first team is simply humongous. In my previous role with Watford Academy we used to take our boys to Valencia, Lisbon and their reaction to games against international opposition was fantastic. That made a huge impact on their individual technique, ball movement, team formations, etc. That also gives a big boost of confidence, when you successfully perform against international teams it is so much easier to cope with a domestic game.
FS: But you can also argue that playing against seasoned veterans in a reserve league could be a very good preparation for the demands of professional career?
MW. Let’s face it, you are 18 and you are playing against a 28 years old defender. He is physically much stronger, probably has 300 games under his belt and sometimes upset because his manager just sends him to reserves as a punishment. Playing 18 years olds versus 28 years olds cannot be the right way, 18’s versus 21 years old perhaps, but not playing against people who are 10 years older than you. There is also no consistency of challenge in the reserves league, sometimes you see teams full of boys, sometimes there are senior players. A team has a bad result at the weekend and managers send them to reserves as a punishment! This kind of system is not beneficial to the development of young players.
FS: NextGen Series is growing quite rapidly. In the first season you had 16 teams now you are just about to make a decision whether to expand the competition to 24 or 32 teams. How do you see your further growth?
MW: We are very happy to be where we are now. The first year was a leap of good faith for us and we didn’t know really what to expect. However we were adamant from the beginning the quality of our delivery must be of the highest level. That of course includes the quality of accommodation and flights for the teams, arenas where we are playing and training and crowds which we attracting. Response from clubs was very warm and they embraced it enthusiastically. Now the word is spreading across the football village, you must remember that it is a very close knit community and when Barca, Liverpool and Ajax are happy very soon other teams will find out. We are very fortunate with the number of teams which are coming to us for year two.
FS: The international calendar for young footballers is very tight nowadays. How did you manage to find a space for your competition on the market which is tightly controlled by the governing body and also have quite a lot of competing groups of interest?
MW: We always knew that clubs operate in very complex domestic competitions, so we worked very closely with the clubs to find a window of opportunity when there are no domestic or international games. Certainly it wasn’t easy; I would say that was the most difficult part of the project. We had to convince teams that playing in our competition is beneficial to them. If Liverpool beats someone in youth competition 7; 0, this is not good to them. If they lose 6:0 to Ajax [how they lost in the semi-final] that gives them a reality check and allows them to measure against the best of Europe. They know when they stand against Ajax, Barcelona, Marseille etc and that what is truly important.
FS: The financial aspect of NextGen Series had to be such an important part of the persuasion process?
MW: You can’t go to any youth programme, no matter whether it is Barcelona, Ajax, Man City or the lowest team in Div 2 with a programme which intrudes their budget! Budgets are allocated to certain tasks and you can’t move them freely. We simply couldn’t go to them and say we have a great tournament which costs you 25,000 Euro to join it. It doesn’t work like that. We had to calculate the total cost of the project and go to sponsors, investors and TV production companies and raise the funds. We were up front with them showing that this is a football project, run by football people for the football people.
FS: You are saying that this is a purely football project but surely investors don’t part company with large sums of money without a feasible chance of seeing their investment generating an income in the future?
MW: You have to find an investment and people who believe in the project. Then you have to operate in the time frame to deliver the project. Year one was all about showing the world of football that we can deliver the project from the very beginning to the end. It was all about delivery of our product and we have to satisfy massive customers, Ajax, Liverpool FC, Inter, these are huge clubs. Despite of all teething problems we had 18,000 spectators at Liverpool and Celtic,6-7000 at Molde so we show investors that our model really works. We are at the stage that sponsors are now coming to us offering their help; the same can be said about venue operators who want to stage our games.
FS: What direction will NextGen take in the near future, European Club Association mentioned that your competition will be run by UEFA from the season 2013-14?
MW: We are in constant contact with ECA and other governing bodies and we are following the correct procedures. There is absolutely no point in cutting corners and upsetting important people. Our philosophy from the very beginning circled around the clubs. If you can get the trust and confidence of the clubs and show them that the project is about football, no hidden motives, you are in the winning position. Look at the Barca, they played Marseille, Man City and Celtic at home and Ajax away, it was a fantastic experience for them and that goes for all other clubs. So as long you provide a value and benefit for the players, clubs are very happy.
FS: Do you want UEFA to run your project?
MW: We are talking all the time to the governing bodies and showing them that this tournament really works. It is always better to have relationships as opposed to conflicts. We have no desire to be in conflict with anyone and we want to build a football product which can work. In the process of achieving that we have to make some tough decisions and selections. We are always asked why Liverpool not Everton, why Man City not Man United, why Chelsea not Tottenham and etc? How much further we want to expand our tournament? Obviously we can’t do it endlessly, we want only the best programmes to compete against each other.
FS: You are talking about huge brands taking part in your tournament but there are also smaller outfits like Molde from Norway. OK they gave us , Ole Gunnar Solskjaer but they very small compared to Ajax, Man City or Barca.
MW: Yeah they are there for a reason, which again goes back to the experience which we provide for the players. Molde is a club with a beautiful picturesque stadium at the bank of the fiord, with a fantastic hotel. They have Ole Gunnar Solskjaer on the staff there, they won the Norwegian Championship and they will play in the Champions League. Their stadium hosts 8000 people and was almost full when they played Liverpool in our competition. Liverpool beat them 4:1 but that was a fantastic experience for both sides. The Norwegians played against one of the biggest clubs in the world and Liverpool players on the other hand had a great experience in learning how to deal with travelling, living in hotels, dealing with different culture, food and on top of that they played in front of a huge crowd. This is all part of the bigger package which makes a professional football player. Their coaching staff learned a great deal about their own players from this journey.
FS: Going back to the financial aspects of your enterprise, that must be the limit of your expansion. NextGen pays for all costs of participating teams, that must cost a fortune! How many teams do you envisage ultimately to participate in your competition?
MW: In situations like that everything comes down to money, simple as that! That remains true whether you run football, basketball or gymnastic competition. We are dealing with the biggest football clubs in the world, truly huge badges with huge sponsorship packages behind it. So if we cover their expenses, perhaps we can also work with their commercial departments. Perhaps some of their sponsors would like also work with us and that creates endless opportunities. It is up to us how we capitalise on these opportunities in year two. This is about coming to a different level of relationship with the clubs, so far our football relations are working very well and we need to explore whether our commercial relations could be equally successful.
FS: People in professional sport never act on some altruistic impulse. They must see a return of their investments. What kind of returns potential investors can expect from NextGen?
MW: We offer a large exposure to our sponsors especially during the finals. We have to maximise this exposure. At the present we are exploring several ideas regarding the finals. Perhaps they can be played in Asia or Middle East or perhaps they can rotate around several venues. Maybe we can take 8 teams to the city of Abu Dhabi, that would be terrific for both fans and the players. We have to find out where the money is. I have already said that we have to show investors that this project works ,of course no one expects returns after first year, perhaps we will have to wait 10 years to see returns of this investment but I’m confident it will happen. We want to have an educational and developmental product which is great for clubs, spectators and players but also works as an investment. This is a huge ask but it is certainly possible to achieve it.
Photographs courtesy of NextGen Series