Marc Geschwind sat down with the former CEO of Ajax, Michael Kinsbergen. While at Ajax, Kinsbergen worked closely with Edwin van der Sar and Marc Overmars in the upper echelons of the club’s management, held a close friendship with Johan Cruyff, and masterminded Ajax’s finances.
Most people do not have access to much insight regarding the inner workings of football clubs. We see the players, the coaches, and the owners on TV but we know very little about all the people working behind the scenes that make the beautiful game possible. Today, Marc Geschwind had the opportunity to learn more about how Ajax is run from the perspective of former Ajax CEO Michael Kinsbergen.
Michael Kinsbergen operated as the CEO of an internet company called Nedstat from 2000 until it was sold to US company comScore in 2010. He took the reins as the CEO of Ajax in November of 2012, and held the position until the end of the 2015 season, when he left the club. Kinsbergen says, “I grew up in Amsterdam and had been a fan of the club since I was young so when they asked me to become the CEO it was a big honor.”
Kinsbergen played football at amateur level, and competed at the collegiate level in the US for UCLA but never played professionally. Although he had always been very sports-minded, his working life experience was in business. He explains, “In any given company true knowledge of the trade is crucial. I therefore strongly believe that in the management of a football club, ex-football players should be able to take on important management roles. Having lived in Amsterdam most of my life, I had a good understanding of the city, the culture of the club and the club’s position in the world of football. But in my knowledge of the game itself I was let’s say no more than a sophisticated supporter.”
The club’s plan was that former Ajax player and legendary goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar was to become the Ajax CEO in a few years time. Kinsbergen was asked to take on the CEO role for three years and work closely with van der Sar to prepare him for the future job. He says, “One of the main things I was hired for was to assist and coach Edwin in his new role at the club, which I gladly accepted and found a great honor. Edwin had little business experience, hardly ever sat in a desk chair but was very motivated to learn the ins and outs of managing the business side of a football club. We had good fun working together and I was impressed to see how he developed himself in the job. He filled in his responsibilities in his own way, using his strengths as a football personality and as a top sportsman who knows how to deal with pressure and the unknown. In 2016 he was appointed Ajax CEO and I am proud to see how he is handling it all.”
“One of the main things I was hired for was to assist and coach Edwin van der Sar in his new role at the club, which I gladly accepted and found a great honor.”
As CEO of the club, Kinsbergen’s responsibilities ranged from organization to commerce to finance and much more. For the business end of football matters he worked closely with Marc Overmars, who as Director of Football, was responsible for the “technical” side of the club’s dealings: “With respect to player contracts and transfer matters I was not involved in the technical decisions but was in the financial and legal aspects. And at times I assisted Marc in the negotiations. Working with Marc was always a pleasure, he is very competitive and a great professional.”
“I strongly believe that in the management of a football club, ex-footballers should be able to take on important management roles.”
Kinsbergen also provides us with some insight into the process of signing a player:
“At Ajax, we had a so-called technical heart, a committee of football experts that continuously evaluates all players and the composition of the players selection. Marc Overmars was and is one of its members. For open positions, the club has a policy to always look at its own young talents first but sometimes it has to bring in players from elsewhere. Spotting players elsewhere starts with the scouting people. Their job is to spot players that fit the Ajax way of play and make suggestions to the technical heart. If the technical heart decided to try and get one of these players to the club it was Marc’s job to get that player interested in Ajax. And at the right terms of course.”
In response to a question asking whether Ajax missed out on any major transfer targets during his time at the club, Kinsbergen calmly responds, “No.” Our Marc cites a rumor from 2014 that linked Ajax with Samuel Eto’o, and Kinsbergen says, “We spoke to Eto’o and that could have happened, but it didn’t.” Kinsbergen stresses that the transfer process is constantly ongoing, and that the club always casts a very wide net: “You follow a lot of players and you speak to a lot of players.”
“For open positions the club has a policy to always look at its own young talents first, but sometimes it has to bring in players from elsewhere.”
It was also rumored that player contracts at Ajax often had limited transfer clauses, which implied that when a contractually agreed limited sum was offered by a club for a player, Ajax would have to let the player in question go to that club, provided that this club had also come to terms with the player on salary conditions. When asked about the sales of high profile players such as Christian Eriksen, Kinsbergen says, “Marc Overmars and I had a policy for new contracts to, in principle, not accept limited transfer sums. Marc did a terrific job in executing this which made the contract portfolio much more valuable than before.”
“Not accepting limited transfer sums in contracts made the contract portfolio much more valuable than before”
As a result of this policy Ajax was in a strong position when Napoli wanted to buy Polish striker Arkadiusz Milik, and sold him to Napoli for over £30 million in 2016.
Ajax is world famous for its youth academy, and some of the most prodigious talents in the world honed their craft in Amsterdam (Johan Cruyff, Marco van Basten, Dennis Bergkamp, Clarence Seedorf, Patrick Kluivert, Edgar Davids, Wesley Sneijder, just to name a few). This massive success with youth may be down to one of the club’s main policies, which Kinsbergen outlines for us: “The policy at Ajax is that the club always looks for its own youth players first to fill in the spots in the first team. This is truly in the DNA of the people that work at Ajax which makes it a very special club unlike any other.”
Ajax’s youth academy is considered by many to be the best in the world.
Kinsbergen says that based on numbers, Ajax most likely has the best youth academy in the world: “Ajax cannot afford the salaries that players are paid in the UK, Germany and Spain. The simple fact is that the exposure and TV contracts of those markets are so much bigger than in the Netherlands, the club cannot compete. So, Ajax does not spend so much money on buying players but puts its energy and funds into developing players themselves. And when the club does buy a player, it is usually a young talent. For a young player the chances of valuable playing time are much higher at Ajax than at Real Madrid or Chelsea.”
“For a young player the chances of valuable playing time are much higher at Ajax than at Real Madrid or Chelsea.”
During his tenure as CEO, Kinsbergen was responsible for a significant strengthening of the club’s financial position. When he arrived, Ajax’s cash and balance sheet were not very strong. However, thanks to two championships, positive transfer results, record new sponsoring contracts and strict cost management, the club’s financial position seriously improved. S&P Capital IQ’s Credit Football League even ranked Ajax the financially healthiest club in Europe for two years in a row and when Kinsbergen left the club, cash in the bank had increased to 80 million euros. The club’s financial position should not, however, be confused with the turnover that is maybe only 15% of the biggest clubs such as Manchester United and Real Madrid. Kinsbergen: “Our 4.5 year shirt-sponsor deal with Ziggo, subsidiary of the Liberty Global group, was a record in the club’s history and crucial in providing us a strong financial base for the future.”
“Our 4.5 year shirt-sponsor deal with Ziggo, subsidiary of the Liberty Global group, was a record in the club’s history and crucial in providing us a strong financial base for the future.”
Besides the big-money offloading of Arkadiusz Milik, Ajax haven’t had too many players leave the club for massive amounts of money. In the past five years, the next highest transfer fee Ajax have received for a player is the £14 million that Manchester United paid for Daley Blind in 2014. However, teams such as Porto and Benfica in other “lesser” leagues are able to command much larger transfer fees for their youth talents on a much more frequent basis. Whereas Milik is the only player Ajax have sold for more than £30 million, Porto have sold nine players for upwards of the 30 million mark, six of which were sold in the past six seasons. Benfica, too, have sold six players for more than £30 million, and all six were sold after 2010.
Kinsbergen attributes this dichotomy in transfer fee income to a few factors: “Benfica and Porto generally do quite well in the Champions League, much better than the Dutch clubs, which gives them more exposure on the European stage. Also, many of their players come from South America. For Brazilians, Portugal is an ideal stepping stone to Europe. Same language, more or less the same weather, seaside. For a young player this can be a better step to make than for instance going straight to the Premier League.”
Marc asks Kinsbergen to elaborate on his relationship with Dutch legend Johan Cruyff, who tragically passed away in 2016. Kinsbergen says, “Johan was our club advisor and I spoke to him regularly about many different issues that you deal with in a football club. He was very accessible and always happy to give his point of view. And he never forced his opinion upon me but was a master in providing comfort and guidance by making not so simple things simple. His views were always authentic and refreshing. Johan was a great inspiration for the club and for me.”
“Johan never forced his opinion upon me but was a master in providing comfort and guidance by making not so simple things simple. He was a great inspiration for the club and me.”
Kinsbergen then expands on the variety of different tasks that he and his colleague executives dealt with every day: “Ajax employs about 300 people if you include players and staff. Aside from the first and second team and the Youth Academy, the business side of the club also needs to be run at Champions League level. There is Sponsoring, Commerce, Finance, Media, IT, Fan relations, the entire organization around matches, and more. And don’t forget Ajax is a listed company on the Euronext with all its rules and regulations. A lot of activities to look after but in the end it is all about football, about the results on the pitch.”
Working at a historic club like Ajax must have been an incredible experience, and we are extremely grateful to Michael for sharing some insights about a side of football that is not often seen by the eyes of the public. We wish him all the best in the future, and we will certainly be on the lookout in the coming years for yet more Ajax youth talent.
Transcription Written by Nick Hawkins