The namesake of the beach where its first stadium was built, Levante UD is a Spanish football club from the Mediterranean city of Valencia, with over 103 years of history. Although the club has only spent a decade of its extensive history in LaLiga, Levante has boasted legendary players like Johan Cruyff and Predrag Mijatović, and more familiar names such as Lauren, Ian Harte, Savio Bortolini and Arouna Koné in recent years.
A popular club in Spain, it is renowned for having a robust and faithful fan group. Proudly shaped in the shadow of a bigger and richer institution, it shares the city with Valencia CF, its more illustrious neighbour. In many regards, its image is shaped in the mould of Everton, Manchester City or Espanyol.
Despite not being at the level of Spanish giants Real Madrid or Barcelona, and less internationally known than Atlético Madrid, Valencia or Sevilla, Levante has been at the centre of attention for its outstanding management model developed over the last 10 years.
Football is the most universal of sports and, of course, highly competitive. If there is a correlation between competitiveness and better management – as a study by The London School of Economics and McKinsey seems to confirm – football clubs should develop innovative, forward-thinking and sustainable management practices. Levante had to come up with a smart and effective managerial model to survive in a competitive environment like LaLiga with scarce resources and precarious finances.
The Granotes are a club whose motto is “Qué grande es ser pequeño” (How great it is to be small). It is an institution that has understood its limitations and learned how to survive in a competitive league, with sixth place in the 2011/12 season and subsequent Europa League football the pinnacle. All of this was while having one of lowest budgets in LaLiga; £35m, a pittance compared to Real Madrid’s £600m and Barcelona’s £500m.
In 2008 the club went into administration and called a creditor’s meeting in a Valencia court after amassing a debt of over £65m. In 2009, the current president, Quico Catalán, then acting as the general manager, succeeded in gathering a group of professionals with whom he started to shape the foundations of a plan that would rebuild Levante over a five-year project.
People like Manuel Salvador, the former director of football, and Javier Vich, the managing director, have been key elements in the most recent Levante success story. Vich, in an interview to local website Love Valencia, said: “It is not a miracle. It is all the fruits of our labours, the result of a strategic plan where everything is under control; everything but those 90 minutes that take place every weekend.”
In 2010, under Luis García Plaza, Levante were promoted to LaLiga having lost only one game at home throughout 2009/10. The next season was the best in Granotas history, achieving a well-deserved 14th place and being considered breakout team in LaLiga that year. As a result of this success, Luis García was recruited by Getafe and Juan Ignacio Martínez – affectionately nicknamed JIM – came in. The start of the 2011/12 season saw the club register their best start to a LaLiga campaign with three draws and seven consecutive victories, including a 1-0 win against Real Madrid.
Levante became a LaLiga leader for first time in their history and ended the season in sixth position, qualifying to play in the Europa League the following campaign. They ultimately lost to Rubin Kazan in the last-16 having beaten teams like FC Twente and Olympiacos in the previous rounds, but it was a wholly acceptable European campaign for a team that only three years earlier was in administration and fighting to avoid going bust.
The early success, and everything since, is the ultimate example of good business sense at a time when clubs are living beyond their means and recklessly spending cash. Furthermore, it highlighted that clubs can still grow in LaLiga in spite of Real and Barça’s dominance of television revenue.
Academy director David Salavert describes Levante’s model as “a model for a context” – reminding us that they had no other option than to create their own model and to adapt to a system that works specifically for the southern club. In an interview with Fútbol Paraentrenadores, Salavert identified the key principles for success: “Humility, unity, creativity and communication.”
Levante are indeed a humble club with limited resources and are not only aware of it and behave accordingly, but have made this circumstance their modus vivendi. “It is an example of good judgement, serenity and brightness of ideas for the current times in which we live. It is a realistic management style,” points out Sandalio Gomez, president of Centre for Sport Business Management (CSBM) and professor at IESE Navarra University.
When Quico Catalán took over in 2009, he encountered an unstable and divided boardroom. By creating a common goal, managers, players, directors and supporters understand that they are all part of the project, and it has been one of the key areas upon which the current administration has focused. At Levante, unity is everything.
Their model is ensuring continuity and sustainability is brought to a club where the only parameter not under its control is whether the ball will hit the back of the net.
In 2008, as a result of the financial issues the club was mired in, a restructuring of the club’s technical area was needed. A new and more sustainable model took over, where cost-cutting decisions and rational expenses prevailed. The “prune-juice effect”, as Alan Sugar called it, owing to the overwhelming amount of money coming into the game but immediately being flushed out, was buried at Levante.
The new model was based on long-term sustainability with a strong focus on harvesting talent at the academy, signing affordable players only, and revitalising players that didn’t succeed at other clubs and selling them for a profit.
There has not only been a cap on wages but on transfer fees too. Over the past six years, the club has spent a mere £20m on transfers while they’ve recouped £32m, all the while securing their place in Spain’s top flight barring a solitary season away. More importantly, the money recouped has been reinvested around the club.
Those in charge at Levante have shown that they can create a competitive squad with limited resources, making use of creativity, rationality, football knowledge and patience.
Indeed, only a handful of managers in the club’s history – which has been littered with relegation battles and mid-table mediocrity for much of it – have been sacked during the season. President Catalán trusts his leaders, even at the most difficult of times, giving them chances to turn things around before pulling the trigger. This was best evident during the reign of Juan Ignacio Martínez.
Another aspect worth highlighting is that there are no interferences from other departments in the sports area. Manager Paco López, flanked by managing director Javier Vich, and his team are in charge of the football and technical side of the club, and no decisions are made without their approval, no matter how unpopular they may be.
David Salavert has been the academy director for the last six years at Levante. Since his arrival, he has installed a new structural organisation at the Ciudad Deportiva del Levante UD training ground. All youth teams must deliver a positive image at every level; in football, values and behaviour. It is a mantra that not only applies to the young players but to the coaches too – to keep everyone united and focused on achieving a common goal.
The learning process hinges on the age of the players, stressing technique while they are young and adding tactical and physical concepts as they scale through the ranks until they become members of the Juvenil squad. The aspect most commonly applied across all ages is the formation of values applicable to their lives: competitiveness, self-improvement, overcoming adversity, success management and respect.
All players and coaches are asked to bring their knowledge and past experiences to the decision-making process. At the academy, all opinions are considered and decisions are made in consensus, with the intention to involve all participants.
Players are evaluated on six main criteria: physical, technical, tactical, psychological, personal values and environment. There is individual monitoring to ensure that the theoretical ‘archetype’ of an ideal footballer is created. In addition to the perfect player template, the coaches are required to be approachable, well qualified, devoted, opinionated, honest and with room for improvement. As Salavert points out in his interview with Love Valencia, it is crucial that the coach feels identified with his team; that it is the team he always dreamed of training.
Salavert doesn’t want to set a goal or deadline for the future, but he dreams of having a Levante coach that came from within the academy very soon. Seemingly, there are no limits for the youth system.
It is a bootstrapping model based on cost-cutting, a break-even budget, clarity of ideas, trust in the model and staff, and a resolve to remain grounded in the face of success.
From every transfer made, around £750,000 goes to the club directly, while the rest is reserved to pay down debt. The budget is under strict control and no unnecessary expenditures are carried out without justification.
In line with the club’s on-field direction, the policy to revitalise players and sell them to other clubs for a better price has brought Levante direct cash to help reduce its debt. There seems to be perfect coordination between financial and technical areas when it comes to selling players for cash. The club receives money, which helps reorganise finances, after which it is Vich’s task to find a replacement to keep the squad from weakening.
That was the case with Felipe Caicedo, Arouna Koné, Vicente Iborra and Keylor Navas. Caicedo was bought from Manchester City for £1m. One season later, after scoring 13 goals, he was sold to Lokomotiv Moscow for £8m. A similar case is Koné’s. The Ivorian came to the club on a free after impressing on loan and was sold a year later to Wigan Athletic for £5m. Vicente Iborra, whose contract expired in June 2014 with no intention to extend it, was sold to Sevilla for £5.5m. Navas, meanwhile, joined for free and was sold to Real Madrid for £9m.
Rational finances and smart football management have helped Levante reduce their debt by 25 percent since 2009 which is no small feat.
As with every elite club in the world, one of Levante’ sources of income is its contracts with sponsors. At the moment, Levante have sponsorship deals with beer maker Amstel, Coca-Cola, Comunitat Valenciana, Volkswagen and Valencia Terra i Mar, as per the club’s website. Similarly, the club receives income from gate receipts, TV rights and merchandising. Having fostered unity within all aspects of the club, where the fans feel more a part of things than ever, merchandise sales have rocketed by 60% over the past decade.
Since the very first day they took over and focused on Levante’s critical finances, Quico Catalán and his team have introduced more discipline and rationality, to operate the club within its means, to promote responsible spending, and to ensure the long run viability and sustainability of the club for the sake of the fans.
Levante fans received the Best Supporter’s Award in the 2010/11 season. They are known for being an extremely loyal fan base. Faithful to the idea of creating a unit, the club forms strong ties with its fans through their presence on social media, with over 220,000 likes on Facebook and almost 400,000 followers on Twitter. It makes it one of Spain’s most engaged with and popular clubs in the social sphere, belying their size and on-pitch reputation.
By using this method, Levante intend to engage players and fans, who consequently feel more identified with the club and project, while at the same time elevating their status beyond Spain. The club also has its own TV and radio channel through which they broadcast news, activities and stories of interest.
Levante have professionalised their management system with Sage Murano, a software company that helps manage information ratios and optimise decision-making processes. The application provides financial ratios, payslip and HR solutions, and digitalisation of contracts and documents, which saves time, space and money. It also includes management solutions for purchases, sales, storage units, and the official club store where all merchandising products are sold and registered.
The software allows for a better interaction with supporters, managing season tickets renewing and ticket sales. Modern and efficient software help to keep up with an innovative way of management. It’s symbolic of a club looking to push the boundaries and invent new ways of competing.
Levante’s management stylehas caught the attention of sport management schools, some of them as prestigious as the Sport Business Management (CSBM) at IESE Navarra University, from which members have spent weeks in Valencia interviewing Levante directors, coaches and managers trying to understand how Levante operates. Quico Catalán and Javier Vich even travelled to China at the request of Shaanxi Baorong Chamba, offering insights into how the national game can become self-sufficient.
Levante UD’s management model has served as an example and symbol of hope for smaller and more modest clubs, with the likes of Eibar, Girona and Leganés emulating their methods. Historic institutions with low levels of income and smaller budgets are proof that a football club can thrive if it promotes humility, a clarity of ideas, logic, and discipline.
This is not only a model for football clubs, but one for small companies, families and individuals. Not every club can sign Messi, Ronaldo or Bale and not every individual can drive a Ferrari or live in a luxury villa. But Levante UD have proven that we can all be happy and successful by remembering our roots and staying true to our means.
By David Bartolome Martínez @bartolome_david