'I like to dream big ' - Ipswich Town co-owner Berke Bakay on his vision for the club
- Credit: Contributed
Ipswich Town's new co-owner Berke Bakay is dreaming big for the club. STUART WATSON and ANDY WARREN spoke to the Turkish-born, American-based businessman about his upbringing, the Phoenix Rising story and his vision for the Blues.
Q: How have you found your first few weeks at Ipswich Town? You must have had some great messages.
A: I had to learn how to turn off my Twitter notifications for every time somebody follows me or sends me a message because when the news broke it was two or three am in the United States. I’m a pretty deep sleeper, but my wife woke me up and said ‘you need to turn this thing off!’ It was amazing.
Look, when you embark on a journey like this you know that you have an international fan base and you know that it’s a massive club with 142 years of history and it accomplished many things that most EPL clubs have not accomplished, including a European championship and the FA Cup etc.
It’s been a tough couple of decades for the club, at least the last 14/15 years. I grew up a fan of football in Turkey going to Galatasaray games, so I know how fans feel. Any time there is a change that means hope. That means things could be different.
So I feel humbled and I feel honoured. And I’m not surprised.
I’ve seen videos of Portman Road full with 30,000 people, I’ve seen the videos of Wembley and Ipswich Town going to the EPL. I’ve seen all of that. So I know what the fan base is.
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It’s just been incredible, very welcoming. I think 99.9% of the feedback that I got was positive. There are one or two folks who have said ‘what makes you think you’re going to do a good job?’ but that’s understandable. I’ll take 99.9%.
Q: What have you made of the football so far? Since the takeover was completed, the team haven’t scored a goal...
A: From my perspective we need to give an opportunity to our manager to be able to start assembling his own team. This is not his team. He went in there late February. He’s trying a lot of different systems.
Look, for me it’s been disappointing. If you’re a football fan you have very little patience, if you will, and I’m a football fan.
Any time there is a change (of manager) there is usually a spark, so it’s been surprising and a little bit disappointing. That’s precisely why we are here, right?
We kind of knew what we were walking into. We looked at different opportunities in the world of football, but when you look at where Ipswich is today, a mid-table League One club, versus what its history suggests, I don’t think there are other clubs out there with that kind of disparity. If there are I’m not really aware of them.
What that brings is an incredible pressure. Some of it comes from the fans, some of it is my own making with my partners.
I feel the weight of responsibility on my shoulders of having this football club and trying to bring it to a better place from where we find it. That’s very important. History will judge us on that.
I’m very well aware of what it means.
It’s an incredible responsibility and this is a very humbling experience.
Q: What was the whole takeover process like? We’ve been told it rumbled on for 14 months. Were there times where you thought it might not happen? What were your feelings when it did get done?
A: It was incredibly satisfying. It was something I was working on every day and night, including the weekends, for a long time, always strategising and formulating.
If it wasn’t for Covid it would have happened much sooner I would imagine.
It was very difficult. Michael O’Leary deserves a lot of credit for being on the ground and getting this done.
I never thought I would live a day in my life that I would buy a football club without actually being on the ground. That’s a very disturbing feeling, in a way, but when you know the history of the club you’ve got those visuals helping you.
Covid was a massive challenge in making the process move as quick as it should have been.
To Marcus Evans’ credit, when he says he really did his work to give this club to somebody that he believes can move it forwards, I think he’s done his due diligence in making sure that we were that group.
So I’m very pleased that it’s finalised and we are where we are today.
It’s taken an incredible amount of time, but I never lost hope that it wouldn’t happen.
With my partners I stayed with the process, stayed patient and understood that we lived in a different world with quarantines and travel restrictions etc.
But it took every day of those 14 months. Whoever told you that was correct!
Q: We’ll get on to your vision for Ipswich Town in a moment, but can we first start by talking about your upbringing and your love of football. You were born and raised in Turkey, you’re a big Galatasaray fan, I can see your Drogba shirt in the background. Tell us a bit about all that.
A: Yeah, Didier signed that for me. There’s a really nice note in there that you can’t see right now.
So I was born and raised in Istanbul, an only child, a massive football fan. My dad was a fan of Besiktas, I was born as a Galatasaray fan and you know it was a good time to be a Galatasaray fan.
All the way up to when I was 22 years old, and I left Turkey a few years before then to study in the United States, initially in Boston, I was lucky enough to meet Georgi Hagi and Popescu, if you remember those names.
My uncle was actually President of the club for a while.
That was the Didier connection. When we started Phoenix Rising, and it was a third division club then without a stadium and it was playing to like a hundred people, that’s when I found the courage to reach out to him and say ‘hey, let me send you a ticket, let me show you the Phoenix project and what we’re doing’.
Q: When we spoke to Brett Johnson he described you persuading Dider Drogba to play for Phoenix Rising as one of world football’s biggest coups. How on earth did you manage that?
A: Brett is very generous with his compliments. I’m not sure it qualifies for that!
I will tell you, I have done good things in life – sport, business etc – and had good successes. If you asked me the lowest odds of anything I have done from start to finish in the given circumstances, that was it!
At that point, it wasn’t that long since the guy had just won a Champions League.
So how it happened... Like I said, I'm a big football fan, massive Galatasaray fan and I had a common friend in Turkey who had developed a connection with Dider while he was playing for Galatasaray.
I was living in the US at that point. One day, before we had even purchased what was then Arizona United, I had this vision in my head. I said ‘how do you take a club that only plays to a hundred people, that has been an incredible disappointment so far, that only plays in a baseball field... what do you need to do so that people start taking you seriously and you can move on in the journey?’
My answer to that was you need bring somebody that is so well respected, has such a history with the sport, has been such a success and who can still perform on the field, that anybody who knows anything about the sport can immediately make the connection and say ‘well, if it’s good enough for Didier then it’s good enough for me to watch the match and give these guys another chance’.
So that was the vision. I just couldn’t get it out of my head.
You can make a tie here to the Ipswich takeover process here as well.
In the most humbling way I can say this, but my friends say ‘you don’t go away unless somebody kills you!’ I just won’t go away!
So that vision wouldn’t get out of my head, I finally called my friend, said ‘give me Didier’s number’ and then I sent Didier a WhatsApp message with a picture of the USL Championship Cup.
And I said ‘could you help me get this?’ And he started laughing and I think he said ‘how can I do that?’
I said ‘well, I’d like to show you what we’re doing in Phoenix, you don’t have to make any promises, nothing’. He will tell you that it was a very soft sale from end.
I started with the big vision of the cup, then I invited him to Phoenix, said ‘it’s beautiful, why don’t you let me show you around’.
Then, what I proposed to him, was something that hadn’t been done before. This was before David Beckham’s whole Miami experience. I said ‘why don’t you become a part owner of this club and help us get to where we’d like to be?’ And that vision, initially, was to be the best club in the division on and off the field.
Didier was at a stage in his life, having accomplished everything, winning the Champions League etc, where I think he liked that challenge of going into a team who played in front of a hundred people and putting his mark on something that he can remember and think about for many years to come.
I remember showing him this tumbleweed area and saying ‘we’re going to build a stadium here’. We got this temporary stadium, which holds 6,200 people, built in a few months in time for the season starting and we ended up selling it out every week. We ended up breaking the North American record for 20 consecutive wins. We got 60 points out of 20 games. It was all sell outs.
We started the dollar beer nights and it became an international sensation.
Dider would score these crazy goals. There would be a free-kick 40 yards out and the goalkeeper wouldn’t even pay attention. It was like ‘what is this guy doing from 40 yards?’ and the ball would just fly into the net.
All of a sudden millions of people around the world were saying ‘who are these guys?’ ESPN called us ‘the most interesting sports team in the United States’. We got all these nominations.
By the way, at that point we brought in Shaun Wright-Phillips, Omar Bravo from Mexico, Peter Ramage, Jordan Stewart... We put this team together, won the Western Championship twice, the Supporters’ Shield, we started selling out every match.
I don’t know if you guys know this, but on April 30th we are moving into our new home which is 60% bigger, like 10,500 (capacity), which will grow from there.
Now we’re looking to sell that one out and grow our fan base to the mid-teens and ultimately the mid-20s.
So that’s the story. It was an incredible journey. When I told my partners that’s what I was doing (with Drogba) they laughed at me! Literally.
They thought all that could be possible was maybe a dinner with him in Phoenix and that would be the extent of it.
That took six months, from start to finish, of talking to him every day, but I think if you asked him he’d say he believed in the project and the vision and he wanted to have a new experience. He’s not scared of taking on things like that and that’s what he did.
Q: Could he still do a job? Ipswich need a new striker... Does he fancy it?!
A: *Laughs* Well, we need to ask our manager and our incoming CEO, but can he do the job? Yes, he can do that job! I mean, he’s incredible. I don’t know of he would like to do the job, I haven’t talked to him about that, but can he do the job? I think he would destroy League One if you’re asking my opinion! He’d scored 25 goals – I’d take a bet on that.
Q: You’ve talked about the Phoenix Rising story, which yourself, Brett Johnson and Marl Detmer have overseen. How did you three come together? And why are you called ‘The Three Lions’?
A: First of all, anything that relates to names, it’s Brett Johnson. He’s the brain child of names. If you guys are starting a new company, just call Brett and he’ll come up with an incredible name in just five seconds.
In terms of how we met, Mark Detmer and myself, both of our sons and daughters went to the same school in Phoenix. So we quickly became very close friends.
A story that hasn't been in the press yet is that there is a whole thing that happened before we came together at Phoenix Rising.
I tried to acquire the previous team, which was called Phoenix Wolves, and it didn't end up happening for a long list of reasons. I stopped the due diligence process and decided not to pursue.
Then Arizona United was looking for a partner and a lot of people in Phoenix were saying ‘hey, you need to speak to Berke, he’s the football guy and he’s very passionate and he has connections in the sport’.
So talked to the then owner and it turns out this gentleman was talking to Brett and myself at the same time, for multiple months.
Then Brett beat me to it with a better offer!
I thought we were closing in on that transaction then I literally read on the news that Brett Johnson was the new partner of Arizona. I said ‘okay... great... congratulations’.
Obviously, I’m saying that jokingly. I was disappointed. I felt like I was used in a process.
But then a few weeks later Brett heard about me and people were saying ‘you need to speak to him’.
Brett started reaching out to me, but I would not return his phone calls. Until, Mark Detmer had a chance to meet with Brett in Los Angeles and he said to me ‘you should really talk to Brett, he’s a nice guy and he didn’t even know about your involvement on the other side’.
So I said ‘have him come to Phoenix and let’s meet’. So he comes to Phoenix, Mark, myself and Brett met and I think before I had even opened my mouth Brett said ‘there’s a pathway for you to get involved and this other gentleman to not be involved’. That’s how he played it.
That was important because principles are very important to me and I wouldn’t work with somebody that put me through a process and then I only found out about the outcome through a press release.
Brett seemed a genuinely nice, considerate person, who loves the sport, was humble and wanted success. So I said ‘I’ll get involved, absolutely’.
I brought a group together, including some of our current board members, and the rest is history. That’s how we all met.
We’ve all become very good friends, have undertaken a lot of business together, including Rising. I probably talk to Brett no less than five times a day, with no exaggeration.
He already has a twin brother, but I feel like I am part of the Johnson family.
Q: What makes you such a dream team? Is it football that bonded you all together? Do you share the same ideals?
A: I would say it all started with friendship and mutual respect for each other and having a good time. Just think how you feel with best friends. Those were the initial feelings.
Then once you establish that, when you have differences of opinion you are less concerned about hurting somebody’s feelings. You can be open and candid with people that you are close with. You can say ‘no, I don’t think that’s how we should do it’ in a respectful manner and come to a mutually agreeable conclusion.
So we have that friendship, we have that mutual respect. I think we think highly of each other as human beings and that’s where it all starts.
The common thing that we have is the passion for the sport.
I told you guys, I grew up in an environment where football is the only sport. That’s all anyone talked about. It’s not even just the match, it’s like the seven hours after, all the sports programmes, the 20 channels.
I remember being a middle school kid, going to school and if you had lost to Fenerbahçe or Besiktas in an Istanbul derby then I would not want to go to school.
So when you’ve lived that as a kid and you don’t care about anything else...
I would go to the stadium at 7am in the morning to wait for a 2pm kick-off with Roma in the UEFA Cup.
I would go to away games with people who are 20 years older than me as a kid.
When you have that in your blood you have passion. I like to think I am the cheerleader of the fan experience. I always think as a fan of the sport.
And we all share that common passion.
Q: So what’s the vision for Ipswich Town? Where can you take this football club?
A: First and foremost, it’s always easier said than done. Let me start with that. Everybody starts these things with the best of intentions and puts appropriate resources behind it.
So, having said that, I already feel the responsibility and the pressure – some of it coming from fans, some of it my own making – on the disconnect between the 142 year history, of the UEFA Cup, of an unbeaten home record in European games, to winning the FA Cup, all the way to winning the league... I mean how can you be a mid-table League One club?
So the vision is - and I say this with the utmost humility, I’m not saying it’s going to be automatic and we just press some buttons and it’s going to happen - but what I will tell you is we will put in the appropriate resources, starting with people, with our CEO, with our manager, with our chairman, with ourselves.
People, and resources, and discipline. I think if you put those things in effect, and you are respectful of each others’ lanes, and you empower qualified people that have done these things before, you can get the job done.
I mean our manager has a history of multiple promotions and doing that by winning the title, not even though the play-offs.
Does he have his own team right now? No, he doesn't. So first and foremost we need to give him the resources, with our CEO, who will be leading the effort, on creating that formation. If he wants 4-2-3-1, what are the two, three players that he needs for that formation?
Get it done, get the resources.
The first and most important thing in my head, that is constantly bothering me, is that I want to get out of League One. Let’s get ourselves to the Championship first.
I feel like that will give a little bit of breathing room. That’s then just a difficult place.
I am listening to some podcasts and reading in the press that there are some fans talking about ‘in three years we’re going to be in the EPL’. I don’t think that’s a realistic goal. I don’t know who has taken a League One club to the Premier League in three years.
But is that part of our goal and vision? One hundred per cent.
I will ask our fans to be a bit more patient on going to that next level, because the Championship is an incredibly difficult place. You’ve got other qualified organisations that also feel like they should be getting promoted too. You’ve got parachute payments to compete against too.
So I think we need to stay humble, we need to understand what we are dealing with, but we need to increase the resources just to get to that goal.
I have other dreams beyond that once we get to the EPL, but we’ll talk about that later!
Q: Tell us now! Tell us the big dreams!
A: No! You guys can probably guess. We’ll talk about those later.
Q: But you’re dreaming big? I know you probably don’t want to make too many bold statements, but you guys are dreaming big?
A: Yes, 100%. I’m a dreamer. I’m a positive person, I’m an optimist, I like to dream big.
You guys asked about Didier. If I didn’t dream big then I wouldn’t have had the guts to even talk to him and see if he’d come to a third division side that plays in front of a hundred people. I could have worried that this guy was going to hang up the phone on me and think ‘don’t you realise I won the Champions League a couple of years ago?’
So you have to have the vision, but also you need to have the humility. You can’t just say ‘we’re the best, we’re going to do this, it’s easy’. You have to be respectful of the process. It is much more difficult than what people think it is.
But I'm uncomfortable with us being a mid-table League One club and, with utmost respect to this league, I will continue to be extremely uncomfortable with us being in it.
This history doesn’t jive. There’s a massive disconnect. How can you reconcile an environment where, let’s say, there is a 60-year-old person that has seen it, seen the UEFA Cup as a 20-year-old, and is bringing maybe a grandson or a son, and the 20-year-old now has seen nothing?
How can you go from there to there? How do you close that massive generational gap between this club’s success and heritage and where it is today? As long as that gap exists I'm just going to be extremely uncomfortable.
Q: It’s a really big summer for this football club. So many players are going to be out of contract, so many are going to leave and so many are going to have to be signed. You’re going to back Paul Cook in the transfer market aren’t you?
A: 100% Paul needs an opportunity to have his own team. I look forward to working with our CEO and Paul to give the resources to get that done. 100%.
Q: You know what football fans are like, they want to know if it’s going to be big fees and big wages. What can you tell the fans about what to expect in this coming transfer window?
A: What I can tell you is that spending the most money doesn't mean automatic success. You can just look at our history over the last 10-12 years to see that.
I can give you this straight message: Rest assured, all the resources will be provided to get this football club out of where it is today.
That will be done in a smart business way. That’s why Mark Ashton is leading this club as the CEO. I have utmost respect for him. I think we’re going to be able to get it done, whatever the resources that are needed, in a smart, intelligent, not wasteful manner. It can be both good business and successful.
I’m happy, with the rest of our ownership and management team, to take on that accountability.
You’ve got to be within the realities of salary caps and financial fair play though. You can’t just go out there and do anything that you want to do.
But, look, we have all the resources to get out of this league next year.
Let me put it this way. I'm just speaking for myself. If we didn't get out of League One next year it would be a disappointment for me, without a doubt.
I don’t know how else to say that.
Q: The money behind this is coming from the pension scheme in Arizona. It’s sizeable money isn’t it?
A: That’s correct. But, again, what I will caution is just because we have big backing and great resources, it doesn’t mean we’re going to be wasteful and it doesn’t mean we’re going to do things that are irrational.
It’s very good to be in a place to have all the resources to not only get out of this league, not just do well in the Championship, but also in the EPL and beyond. We have all of those resources for appropriate times.
Fans can rest assured of that, but they must also have realistic expectations. Just because you have resources it doesn't mean you are going to go out and splash money and do things that don’t make sense.
By the way, if you look at Phoenix, we are not only successful on the field, but also if you look at the way we run the club, we have one of the highest sponsorship revenues, we have one of the highest game day revenues, one of the highest jersey sales. We have done a good job of running a profitable business and making sure we have resources to out together a team that can compete.
Mark Ashton’s role as CEO will be critical, with our support and help, to make sure that we are a viable organisation that really is maximising its commercial opportunities, because if you’re not doing that you're leaving money on the table that could be useful to the club.
Q: You must be really excited to get over to a game at Portman Road. When you do come you’ll see a stadium that maybe needs a little bit of TLC.
A: I think our first focus is on the on-field performance. The way we can impact that is, come June, is the summer transfer window. So I think you’re going to see us putting a lot of time, energy and effort into trying to solve that piece that is so important.
At the same time, if you look at our history, what other football club do you know that builds a stadium and, three years later, builds another one?
I’m not saying we’re building another stadium for Ipswich by any means, but it just shows you our mentality of constantly trying to improve various things, whether it’s a bigger stadium, more food options, rest rooms, team shops... We’re constantly investing and trying to make things better for our fans. We have done that in the United States and we’ll do that in Ipswich.
I can’t wait to get there in person and see what it needs over different stages.
But I want to emphasise that the first priority is on the field.
Q: You mentioned commercial opportunities there. Could stadium naming rights be something you look at?
A: I wouldn’t touch the Portman Road name! Obviously that means lot to a lot of people. I’m very respectful of that. Growing up in Turkey, if somebody came and changed the name of my stadium I'm not sure what my reaction would be! So let’s not go there for now.
But we’ll absolutely look at other commercial opportunities. Stadium naming rights isn’t the only sponsorship opportunity.
I look forward to working with our CEO on maximising our commercial opportunities, 100%.
Q: Berke, it’s been a pleasure. I think so much of what you’ve said is going to resonate with supporters listening or reading. Your passion for football really shines through.
A: You don’t want to see me watching a game. I am more a fan than a board member! I need to restrain myself! I can’t even watch football games, I can’t even look at it. That’s me. I’m a big fan.
Q: Galatasaray fans are known as the most passionate around...
A: The first 18 years I was one of those guys. Even though I had access to all kinds of other boxes, I was right in the middle of the fans...
Q: A few flares?
A: Oh yeah! I think my life was in danger multiple times as a little kid, literally. It was incredible. I still have dreams about that stuff. You don’t forget that as a fan. It gets ingrained in you and stays with you all your life. All I can hope for is my kids have the same opportunity to experience what I experienced.
Portman Road with 30,000 fans looks incredible. I can’t wait to get there and to feel that energy in person.
Q: Thank you so much for joining us.
A: Thank you. I really enjoy reading your work.
My message to Ipswich Town fans is that it’s been an incredible welcome. The amount of positive messages I have received is so uplifting.
It’s a little bit of a pressure builder, because I never want to let anybody down and I know what it means. All I can promise is I will give 100%, as will my partners and everybody else involved in this organisation. That’s the only thing I can promise. It won’t be through lack of trying.