Jason Levien: Swansea City co-owner admits mistakes but plans for long term

Steve Kaplan and Jason Levien took control of Swansea City in July 2016
Steve Kaplan (left) and Jason Levien (right) took control of Swansea City in July 2016

Swansea City majority shareholder Jason Levien has admitted the club has felt the cost of mistakes made during the American owners’ time at the club.

Levien and fellow businessman Steve Kaplan have been heavily criticised since taking control of the club in 2016, a period that included relegation from the Premier League two years later.

But, in a defence of their tenure, Levien says the Swans are now on the strongest financial footing they have been in two years and reiterates his and Kaplan’s commitment to the Championship club.

Levien also describes as “a shot in the arm” the introduction of new director Jake Silverstein, who suggests he is willing to invest further in the club.

Portland-based entrepreneur Silverstein – who says he has long-term aims with Swansea – secured a place on the club’s board following a “significant investment” of a loan thought to be worth £5m that is expected to be converted into shares.

Following criticism of the club’s initial ownership group for cutting costs and selling key players, Levien argues they have “tens of millions invested in the club’s success”, although that figure includes the original purchase of shares from previous owners, as well as matching Silverstein’s recent injection.

In a wide-ranging interview and his first since 2018, Levien also:

  • Admits to underestimating the trajectory the club was on prior to their takeover and that the club “lost its way”.
  • Admits to errors in the transfer market and mistakes regarding engagement with fans.
  • Discusses his “ongoing dialogue” with the Swansea City Supporters’ Trust and hopes for a “more positive working relationship”.
  • Says the short-term aim is promotion to the Premier League and “in the medium and long term it is about sustainability”.
  • Points to the success of their appointment of Steve Cooper with the club now challenging for promotion, adding they were open to the idea of a new contract for the head coach.
  • Denies MLS franchise DC United, where he and Kaplan are co-chairmen, is more of a priority to him and Kaplan, who remains a decision-maker at Swansea despite stepping off the board.

In his first interview since being appointed to the board last year, Silverstein – whose mother’s family have roots in Wales – says he is keen to become more actively involved and of his involvement that “we are investors we are not speculators, we are not traders”.

What are your intentions?

Jake Silverstein: “To help, to invest, to invest my family’s resources, to invest my time, my energy, to be helpful to my fellow owners, to be supportive of the excellent executives we’ve brought in, to participate in the community fully.

“We look forward to spending as much time post-Covid as we can on the ground in Swansea. I think that would be hopefully an exciting part of our life with our young family so I’m here to help however I can.”

You’ve made an investment in the form of a loan, which has the option to be converted into shares. Why not shares straight away?

Silverstein: “Sure, in practical teams a convertible note is a pretty common investment structure we use a lot in various different business, and as we were working through this, we thought it would be simpler and quicker to get funds into the club in the form of a convertible note with the expectation it would convert into shares later.

“So it was about simplicity and ease of injecting funds into the club. Covid makes everything tricky and we wanted to make sure we were really shoring things up financially without too much machinery.”

So it’s not just a case of you testing the water, not taking a risk?

Silverstein: “No, this is not about testing the water, that was not the motivation at all. This was purely about simplicity about being able to effectuate the investment and getting funds into the club.

“We’re sticking around, we’re here to stay and we’re committed to this.”

Do you anticipate being more involved, committing more resources, financial or otherwise?

Silverstein: “The answer to yes to both. We’re currently in the process of continuing to invest capital into the business and my hope, plan and expectation is to continue investing more and more time, energy and brainpower into this enterprise. We’re really passionate about this.”

Why are you investing in Swansea? It’s not been a smooth path for the owners. Were you aware of what went on before?

Silverstein: “Yes, of course. The attraction to this particular club was largely rooted in the values that I understand to underpin the club in the community.

“There are a lot of football clubs we could have invested in or acquired. Believe me, we did a lot of research and we looked at a lot of opportunities over the last three or four years in earnest.

“And once we started digging into this and what makes Swansea City special and what makes it tick, the focus on community, resilience, hard work, fully engaging with the emotional experience of being a supporter of a club and through all phases in a life cycle of a club, the ups and downs, I just loved it.

“So I’m aware. Everything has a little hair on it, there’s complexity in every situation, every business, every family, and it’s how you work through the challenges together, remembering that you want the same things.

“That’s what I feel strongly is the situation, that everyone wants the same things for the club and making sure we navigate through any challenges from the past or that will come up invariably through the course of a long relationship. It makes you stronger if you do it right.

“I would say other than enjoying what it has meant to become a new parent these last nine months, this has been the second most wonderful new addition to my life over the last year, easily.

“It brings us a huge amount of joy. My son makes sure I’m up early to watch every kick-off, it’s like he has a built-in Swans alarm to wake us up for matches!”

Is part of the motivation the money on offer in the Premier League?

“We want to get promoted, everyone wants to get promoted. I don’t want to get promoted so I can cash my ticket, make some money and his the exit. That is not what this is all about. That is nowhere on my radar.

“I would say pretty definitively, we are investors we are not speculators, we are not traders.

“This is meant to be the long-term creation of value in which I hope to play some small role and participate. Eventually I hope we will make money one way or another but that is hopefully far down the road.

“I did not do this saying ‘let’s invest, hope to get up, flip the deal, make some money and hit the exit’. There are easier and much less emotionally significant ways to do something like that. That is not the business I am in.”

To Jason Levien, how important was it to bring Jake in, and what will he bring?

Levien: “I think it’s very important. It was little over a year ago Jake and I sat down and first discussed this possibility. We serve on a different board together and I was always an admirer of his, I appreciate his style and his thoughtfulness.

“I think it was a validation of our vision for the club moving forward for the ideas we want to implement, so the process of walking him through joining and making the investment was an important one.

“I think the commitment Steve and I showed it, also investing further funds and matching his funds in the club, we wanted to show a commitment to strengthen the club’s financial situation, stability and its ability to move forward in a positive way.

“So I think that Jake joining really was a shot in the arm for the organisation in a very positive way and it’s proven out to be the case.”

You mention commitment, but it has been too long since we last spoke to you. Where have you been?

Levien: “I’ve been trying to stay safe and healthy during a very difficult time. The work of the club has been taking up a lot of my time behind the scenes.

“Since we last spoke we appointed Graham Potter, who had no experience in the UK as manager, and then we brought in Steve Cooper. He was unproven at professional level as a manager. We are really proud of those appointments.

“We also brought Julian Winter on board to succeed Trevor Birch and we feel we are in very good hands with him as our chief executive. We’ve also brought Andy Scott in as our head of recruitment and most recently we’ve added Mark Allen on the Academy side.

“A lot of work has been going on under the surface trying to build the foundation of success and stability moving forward.”

You warned there would be some ‘hard medicine’. It has been particularly hard. Can you assure fans that financially they are over the worst?

Levien: “I think I can assure supporters we are in a much better place than we were 24 months ago. The club is on a much stronger financial footing.

“The transactions we have made, and the management and leadership appointments, the injections of funds that we have put in, and that Jake has put in, have put us in a place that even during this horrible pandemic, that has caused so much pain to so many people and economies around the world, means the club is on a much stronger financial footing today than it was.”

It hasn’t been easy for fans to see players being sold and the books being balanced at a cost of ambition. It’s an opportune time with the team second in the table to say you have made the right choices, but sometimes you have to speculate to accumulate?

Levien: “That’s right. I’d certainly say we haven’t made all the right choices. We have tried to learn from our mistakes and not make the same ones again.

“We are in a position in global football where we are very often a selling club. Talent will develop and players who have developed through our system will want to go to Manchester United, Tottenham and other clubs. We have to be aware of that.

“Part of our process in our investment in the club is making sure we developing talent, we’ve got the right people in position to make the right decisions about recruitment.

“With the additions of players like Morgan Whittaker, just as one example in this window, we are strengthening our core of young players for the future, knowing that some will leave us.

“That’s the reality of football. But I certainly think that in this window in particular, during a period when we have no fans and no real revenue to speak of, we showed a level of thoughtfulness and an ability to try to bolster the squad for both the short and long terms.”

When you came in you said you had the financial resources. Can you defend yourselves to the fans? They say players are going for big money and that money not being reinvested. How do you defend yourself?

Levien: “We made record signings when we were in the Premier League – Borja Baston, Wilfried Bony, Sam Clucas – the list goes on and on. As owners we didn’t identify those players, we had a leadership team doing that. We made record investment in those players.

“When we were relegated we needed to recalibrate. Our hope was that over a three or four year period we would make the team competitive and financially stable. I think we’ve done that to a certain degree.

“We’ve been making the right decisions about who would be leading on the pitch in terms of the manager. We’ve been making the right decisions on who would be leading in management in the front office. I feel good about those decisions.

“We’ve brought in a partner like Jake and made more of an investment ourselves, so I feel there has been a lot of hard work that has led us to a very positive place.”

While Swansea have had to fight after relegation, DC United (MLS club where Levien and Kaplan are co-chairmen) have been on the up with great signings and shown a lot of ambition. Can you understand why Swans fans think their owners are from the other side of the world with a new plaything?

Levien: “I don’t know what a new plaything means. We take the investments in these businesses very seriously. We have got an experienced management team in both clubs and we have different ownership groups in both, although some overlap.

“Right now I see Swansea looking down on DC United in the table and in the investment category. They have separate investors.

“Our recruitment department saw an opportunity in this transfer window with a player at DC United [Paul Arriola] who is in the US National team who they wanted to bring in on loan. We did that, so there is some sharing of best practices, talent and resources in terms of players and staff. But in terms of the resources of the clubs they aren’t commingled.”

Co-owner Steve Kaplan is still involved and a fan but no longer a director. Is there any change in the dynamic of the ownership of the club?

Levien: “No, not at all. Steve is very involved. He’s more than a fan, he’s my partner. Jake, Steve and myself speak non-stop about the club. I do that with Steve on a daily basis.

“We really wanted a fresh perspective on the board and we were really pleased that Jake could join us. So Steve decided at board level to take a step back. But in terms of his partnership as an owner and someone who cares passionately about the club’s success, and strategically thinks about it, he is as involved as ever.”

The aim is the Premier League. If you go up, will there be a will to invest more money?

Levien: “In the short term certainly the aim is the Premier League. In the medium and long term it is about sustainability. It is about sustained success, organic growth, making the right strategic investment and resources placed in the club.

“The reality is that this is a club that can and should be in the Premier League, but there are certainly going to be seasons, as we’ve seen throughout history, where the club is not.

“We’ve got to take a thoughtful approach to trying to win now. Every match is like life or death, but we have to think about what’s around the corner.

“How are we going to make decisions that are going to benefit the club, our fans and the community in the year ahead? What does that look like? That goes into a lot of our thinking, trying not to get caught up, as much as that is possible, in every possession and every goal.”

Steve Cooper has impressed at Swansea since leaving his role with England Under-17s to succeed Graham Potter in June 2019
Steve Cooper has impressed at Swansea since leaving his role with England Under-17s to succeed Graham Potter in June 2019

Is there an update on the talks with the Swansea City Supporters’ Trust and potential legal action? Are you concerned it could reach court?

Levien: “One of things that has been terrific about bringing Jake on board has been an ability to think in a fresh way about the relationship with our supporters and the Trust.

“Jake really rolled up his sleeves and, with Julian and in a limited way myself, thought through the season ticket pricing for the fans after what we’ve gone through in 2020 with Covid. He’s thought through a different communication directly with our supporters. That has been terrific to see and I’m deeply appreciative of.

“When it comes to the Trust, they’ve had a change of leadership and we have brought on a new key partner in Jake.

“We’ve resumed a nice, ongoing dialogue since Jake joined us and they had a change in leadership. I know that there is a great caring for the club from the leadership of the Trust and their membership.

“We also care greatly about the club, so I’m hopeful that dialogue will foster stronger relationships that can lead to a more positive working relationship. That’s what I’m hopeful about. I feel a sense of hope around that.

“Our focus is on the present and the future and what we can do to help this club moving forward. I believe the supporters Trust leadership feels it.”

Does that dialogue include talks on this longstanding dispute?

Levien: “I think we want to talk about every issue. The kind of relationship you have with a partner or family member is one where you want to talk about what’s on your mind and how do we come to a place where we can all be a positive influence on the club’s growth and trajectory.

“That includes what’s happened in the past and includes what we want to do in the future how do we wok best together.

“I am extremely appreciative of Stuart McDonald and Andy Godden and Jake for spending that time together and for all of us really making a commitment to having a positive relationship.”

How would you assess your tenure?

Levien: “My focus right now is on the present and future. When I take a look back I think we learned some important lessons and a lot about people.

“A football club is really about people and understanding those people I think. Coming into it there was a lot of history which preceded us which I don’t think we fully understood and relationships.

“I think that we are a lot stronger as an ownership group now, and more strategic. I think we came into this with strong aspirations. We still have them. We still hold them. I knew owning a football club, investing in it, caring for it, being a steward of that club which is really what you are.

“I knew there were going to be challenges and ups and downs. I didn’t expect it to be smooth sailing all the way.

“When you join the club in its seventh year in the Premier league I expected at some point we would be relegated and we have to fight our way back up. So I would say there has been a lot of learning, there’s been a lot of growth and there has been a renewed sense of determination to make this club successful and be a small part of that success.”

Can you fix your relationship with the Trust and fans?

Levien: “I really hope so. We’ve got some incredible supporters and there’s some terrific people on the Trust that I’ve met in the last five years. We all want to be going in the same direction. I think if we do that, I believe that we have the ability to achieve a great deal.

“Part of that process and journey is this conversation today, speaking with you all, being very open about views and our feelings, introducing Jake into the mix, which I really think could really be part of our secret sauce to having that success. So I really hope that we’re making the right steps to all be moving the right direction together.”

Silverstein: “One of the very first things that I did after investing was to roll up my sleeves and start spending time with Andy [Godden] and Stuart [McDonald] from the Supporters’ Trust. That was a really important relationship for us at the ownership level, to work, to nurture and repair as is needed and to build new trust.

“We’ve really tried to use this as an opportunity to start recognising we all want the same things here. Nothing has been perfect, but at its core, we want the same things. We will go much further and get to our goals more quickly if we recognise that we can be pulling together. I’m really hopeful and confident that that’s the course and trajectory we’re on now.”

What’s the plan for your role post-Covid?

Silverstein: “We’d like to be more hands-on. I want this experience for my family, I want my son and any future kids we may have to have this experience of being on the ground and participating in the club. We are very committed to finding the right executives and to empowering them. Jason and Steve brought me in so I could be involved.”

Why did Kaplan’s role change?

Levien: “Steve and I are very close partners and friends. When we started talking with Jake about investing in the club, we thought it would be good to get a new voice, a different voice and a fresh voice on board.

“Steve raised his hand and said ‘Listen, I’ll be just as involved on the ownership level as your co-managing owner, as I was before, but it would be terrific to get a young, fresh perspective, someone who has experience at a different club in professional football on board and have them join the ownership group’.

“As I said, I think Steve is very involved with the ownership level, but at the board level, we decided that we wanted a different voice and a different perspective.”

Who makes the big calls now?

Levien: “It’s Steve and I. We’re the co-managing owners, it’s the same as when we came in. We’ve committed as an ownership group, Steve and I continue to be the co-managing owners, so that hasn’t changed at all.”

How have club operations changed under chief executive Julian Winter compared to former chairman Trevor Birch?

Levien: “Trevor’s tenure was quite short, so I think we were trying to work out how workable that was. We got along well with Trevor so I see Julian’s role as an extension of Trevor’s.

“And I see the injection of Jake into that process as adding another set of eyes and ears and voice to our decision making. We hired him for a reason because of that expertise, and because he was on the ground and has a lot of knowledge in the football world.

“We’re not looking to micro-manage his decision-making, but when it comes to key decisions about transfers, business opportunities and the trajectory of the club, we’re certainly very engaged. We interact with Julian quite frequently.”

You’ve mentioned mistakes that you’ve made during your ownership – what are they?

Levien: “I certainly think we made some mistakes in the transfer market, which, the buck stops with ownership, even though we had different folks at management level.

“I think in some of our communication we could have done a better job, certainly with supporters and the Trust in building the right relationships.

“A common issue that I’ve seen among clubs that are battling relegation from the Premier League is, they some times make short-term decisions, in terms of player moves, because the desire is so strong to stay in the Premier League.

“I think the club, prior to our arrival it started, and went through our relegation, sort of lost its way a little bit, in terms of its identity, its philosophy and its core principles.

“I think that started before we arrived, and I’m not sure we fully appreciated that where the trajectory was when we arrived, and I think learning from some of the issues that went on through our tenure and improving upon that, I’d place it in that category.”

How do you want to improve communication?

Levien: “It’s something we’ve thought about. We want to balance the role of the chief executive that we have on the ground, and giving them the head room to communicate, while also trying to find a way of having more consistency in our communication as owners with the supporters and the Supporters’ Trust.

“That is something we would like to do on a more consistent basis, and I want the fans to know that, behind the scenes, beneath the water that we’re working very closely with our management team in trying to propel the club.”

This was asked of Jake earlier and it’s appropriate to ask you (Levien) as well. What are your intentions?

Levien: “We are approaching the five-year anniversary of our investment in the club. Our intentions are, I believe, to continue the trajectory we have been on in the last two years, of sustainable growth.

“I am very passionate as an owner about the club’s success. I live and breathe with every possession of every match, but I believe our job as stewards of the club is to take a more long-term view.

“To try to leave the club in a stronger place than we found it. To leave it in a more sustainable place, a more competitive place. And so I try to keep that long-term hat on when we’re making decisions as an ownership group.”

If you could give a message to the fans, what would you say?

Levien: “I would say thank you. Thank you for your love of the club, for your commitment during this awful time in the world that’s so challenging for so many people.

“Folks close to me, including my mom, have been through Covid and been hospitalised because of it. It’s been quite a scary time. I want to thank you for coming out to support the club, for putting your heart and soul into it.

“For those of you who have understood or are open-minded about our ownership group’s love for the club and want to support it, I want to thank you all for sticking with us.

“We really hope there are going to be good times ahead, for everybody.”

Plenty of Swansea fans say you are not investors, that you bought shares but haven’t invested in the club. Could you give a ball-park figure of just how much you have invested other than buying shares?

Levien: “We certainly bought shares. We have invested considerably in the club. I am reluctant to say how much but it is tens of millions, you know, in the club’s success.

“We haven’t taken distributions or taken any money out of the club. Our intentions are to grow the club, as I mentioned, to make it more sustainable and to leave it in a stronger place.”

The owners are accused of taking money out of the club, selling players to keep the club going so they don’t have to put money in. What do you say to that?

Levien: “I believe a sustainable club is about finding a financial path that is about self-sustainability.

“Certainly as owners we have put money into the club. But I believe that for a club to be sustainable long-term, it can’t look for a benefactor who’s going to just give money away.

“It’s got to a find a model where it can be sustainable. Part of that sustainability is selling players as they develop and they want to move on in their careers, and that’s certainly the case during a period of time where there are no fans allowed in the stadium.

“But even beyond that, that’s a key matter. I also believe that making the right investment at the right moments to keep the club sustainable is a factor as well.

“But we aren’t taking money out of the club. We have put money into the club.

“We have sold players to continue the sustainability of the club and part of our business model, of any club I believe certainly at a certain level, is that they are going to be selling players and that revenue from the selling of players allows you to re-invest, allows you to buy the Morgan Whittakers, allows you to look at younger players at the academy level that you want to invest in, allows you to make an investment in bringing in someone like Mark Allen to oversee the academy.

“So yes we are making resource allocation decisions all the time as we are stewards of the club.”

Steve Cooper has a burgeoning reputation in the game. You lost Graham Potter on doing less than what Cooper has done so far. Are you taking any steps to make sure Steve Cooper stays, a new contract?

Levien: “We addressed Steve Cooper’s contract situation before the season. We are really proud of his appointment as our manager.

“We think Graham Potter did a good job. One of the interesting things is that Swansea had a track record of developing managers prior to our arrival – Brendan Rodgers, Roberto Martinez, the list is there.

“We’d liked to continue that tradition. We have enjoyed the work with Steve Cooper. We think he has done a terrific job with this group of players.

“There was some negative pushback when we made the appointment, just like there was with Graham Potter.

“But we were steadfast in our belief in him and his leadership as a manager. We feel as though he has certainly done a very strong job for us.”

You said you addressed Steve Cooper’s situation last summer. Does that mean something changed in his contract? He signed a three-year deal when he got the job, so he has a season-and-a-half left. Is that right?

Levien: “That is right. We made some changes, some improvements to it.”

Would you like to tie him down for longer?

Levien: “Sure. I think that’s right. I think we have a lot of faith in Steve Copper, a lot of belief in what he has done and a lot of appreciation for it.

“We are living in the here and now. We have 20 matches left I believe in our league season and each one of them is going to be as tough as the next. That’s really where our focus is at the moment.”

Responding to Levien and Silverstein’s interview, Swansea City Supporters’ Trust – which retains a 21.1% shareholding in the club – says it has “always been willing and open to discuss those issues in order to arrive at a solution” and “welcome the public commitment” to further talks.

In a statement to BBC Sport Wales, the Trust added: “In our discussions to date, we had also highlighted that communication and engagement with Swans fans, or the lack thereof, has been a real issue that has driven a wedge between the fans and the club’s owners, and needed to be resolved as a top priority.

“This interview with the local press is a great start to addressing those issues, as are the commitments to become more communicative, involved and engaged locally, and we look forward to seeing that continue, and grow, in the coming weeks and months as circumstances allow.”

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