How ex-MLB exec is behind Leganes' Laliga push, Cancun's title

Baseball isn't for everyone, especially for a decorated soccer manager like Jose Mourinho. Outside the confines of the commercially lucrative American sports landscape, former MLB executive Jeff Luhnow learned this the hard way a few years ago when he was a consultant for the two-time UEFA Champions League winner.

"As I gave my background, he [Mourinho] sort of chuckled," said Luhnow, who noted to ESPN that he was starstruck by the former Chelsea, Real Madrid, Manchester United and, most recently, AS Roma manager.

"It was all in good humor, but he said, 'Jeff, you know, baseball doesn't really matter to me. How you did in baseball is not going to have a big impact on how I think about this.' I realized at that point ... despite the fact that I had quite a bit of success in the world of baseball, I should probably just stop talking about that."

Following a near two-decade career in America's pastime that infamously ended in 2020, Luhnow is still adapting, but also thriving, in his pivot to soccer.

Initially viewing soccer investment as a side hobby while working as general manager of the Houston Astros, Luhnow was suspended and then subsequently fired from his MLB role after an investigation revealed that his Astros players had taken part in a sign-stealing scandal. He has maintained his innocence on the sign-stealing matter -- "I didn't know what was going on and I would have never condoned it had I known" -- but after turning his full attention onto soccer, he's made rapid progress in his projects.

- Stream on ESPN+: LaLiga, Bundesliga, more (U.S.)

In Spain's second division, Leganés are on the cusp of an invaluable promotion to LaLiga where globally respected powerhouses like Real Madrid and Barcelona ply their trade. In Mexico's second division, the recently formed Cancún FC claimed a championship in the 2023 Apertura season and will fight for an additional trophy this week. Alongside them, Luhnow has dug deeper into lesser-known and obscure teams, too, like Czech Republic's MFK Vyškov and Dubai's Elite Falcons Football Club.

Regardless of the fact that he admitted that he would have dealt with things differently in Houston's scandal, the 57-year-old's unanticipated career shift is an already promising one. It's even more impressive when you consider how he entered sports altogether.

Editor's Note: Some quotes have been lightly edited for clarity.

A dramatic MLB rise, exit, and transition to soccer

"My background in baseball was fantasy baseball," said Luhnow. "I was known among all my colleagues for being a fanatical fan of different sports, but that was my sum of experiences."

Despite his fascination, a young Luhnow -- working in business, engineering, tech and consulting -- didn't believe that an analytics outsider such as himself would be given an avenue into sports. He assumed that watching from afar, like he did at Wrigley Field while drinking Old Style and cheering for Sammy Sosa as a business school student, was probably as close as he could get.

That is until he read "Moneyball," a 2003 book by Michael Lewis that highlighted the benefits of a data-driven approach to baseball. Months after reading it within days of its release, the baseball gods provided a fortuitous opportunity through a former colleague to meet with the owner of the St. Louis Cardinals. Impressed by Luhnow and with a desire to do their own version of Moneyball, the Cardinals took a chance and hired him as a vice president in 2003.

"People weren't excited to have me join ... especially on the sports side," said Luhnow with a laugh. "It's one thing to have an MBA join on the marketing side, it's another thing to have an MBA tech guy join as a vice president of baseball."

Credited for his impactful draft picks and player development that helped the Cardinals win a World Series title in 2011, Luhnow gained credibility and was brought on by the Astros as their general manager in the same year. At first going through historic lows in a substantial rebuild -- "Astros or Astronomical Disaster" read one 2013 headline -- Luhnow's focus on analytics, technology, scouting and player development pushed the team to a 2017 World Series championship.

Then came the fallout of a 2020 MLB investigation regarding sign-stealing by the Astros in 2017 and part of 2018.

Although the investigation found that the rule violations were "not an initiative that was planned or directed by the Club's top baseball operations officials," MLB suspended Luhnow for one year and stated that there was "a failure by the leaders of the baseball operations department and the Field Manager to adequately manage the employees under their supervision, to establish a culture in which adherence to the rules is ingrained in the fabric of the organization, and to stop bad behavior as soon as it occurred."

The Astros took one step further by firing Luhnow and manager AJ Hinch. Years later, Luhnow admits he should have done things differently.

"I've never been a micromanager," said Luhnow. "When it came to how things operated down in the clubhouse, I relied essentially on my manager and the traveling secretary and other people down there to do what they needed to do to run those environments properly. Because I wasn't a professional athlete, I never felt completely comfortable hanging out in a locker room, I still don't. It's really their space but in retrospect, I should have been more involved in what was going on down in the clubhouse.

"I always assumed it was a self-policing environment and that nothing like what happened could happen. It didn't cross my mind that that was even a possibility. I would do things differently. I would have more oversight and ask more questions, but I didn't and I can't go back and do it, so it is what it is. I learned my lesson and I've moved on."

He also reiterated that he had no knowledge of the sign-stealing scheme that involved banging on trash cans and a center-field camera. "My story has not changed one iota from the very first time I was asked about it in the fall of 2019 to now. The reason it hasn't changed is because it's easy to have the same story when it's the truth. I didn't know what was going on and I would have never condoned it had I known," said Luhnow.

According to a 2020 report from The Wall Street Journal that reviewed a letter from MLB commissioner Rob Manfred to Luhnow, the since-fired Astros general manager was characterized as someone who may have known more. The report painted Luhnow as a front office member who at least had access to the sign-stealing plan, which was called "Codebreaker."

To quote The Wall Street Journal: "But while the league collected evidence that showed Luhnow was aware of Codebreaker's existence and capabilities, it couldn't prove that he knew how it was used."

No matter the case, baseball was now out of the picture. Soccer, something he had dabbled in while with the Astros, took center stage.

Before his departure from the Astros, Luhnow and a couple of other MLB front office leaders like Billy Beane (a central figure in Moneyball) discussed the unrealized potential of trying their approach in soccer. "The things that Billy and I did in baseball, were no longer really a huge advantage because all the teams had copied. In football, it was sort of open territory, right? There's a lot of modernization, technology and analytics that can help," said Luhnow.

Born and raised in Mexico City to American parents -- his father, who still resides in Mexico, took an advertising job in the country's capital in the 1960s -- Luhnow developed an early interest with the sport. Often taking any chance he could to visit the Estadio Azteca, he rooted for Liga MX giants Club America as a kid. Later in 1994, Luhnow, his brothers and friends rented an RV and traveled around the U.S. to watch World Cup matches.

Years later and while working with MLB, he collaborated with an investor from Dallas who was interested in a stake of English lower league side Sunderland. After being dropped by the Astros, his side hobby then became a more significant endeavor as they made a bid for Sunderland.

"We were about to enter [an] exclusive negotiation period when COVID hit, and because Sunderland is so reliant on matchday revenue ... we didn't know how COVID was going to affect the revenues and so we basically backed off," said Luhnow.

Diving into the economics, recruitment and all aspects of running a team outside baseball, he became intrigued by the possibilities. "I was hooked after that," he smiled. Through the formation of Blue Crow Sports Group (BCSG), which Luhnow leads as CEO, he has recently been able to secure ownership in a handful of clubs, including a 2022 investment at Spanish second division side Leganés, who are enticingly close to securing a promotional spot in LaLiga.

Winning the World Series is one thing, but it's an entirely different world to possibly be in direct competition with global juggernauts like Barcelona and Real Madrid in one of the most popular and demanding leagues.

"Dream, Leganés"

Driving into Leganés, you pass a banner stretched across a bridge overhanging the main road. "Dream, Leganés" it says, the slogan adopted by the club as they chase promotion back to Spain's first division.

With three games left to play, Leganés' dreams are intact. Luhnow's side are currently second in the second division, their return to LaLiga within reach. At the end of the season, the top two teams will be promoted automatically while the next four compete in playoffs for the third promotion spot.

"The Segunda is really difficult," sporting director Txema Indias told ESPN, speaking at the club's training ground in late April. "You can be fighting for promotion one year, and the next you're battling relegation.

"How many 'projects' in the second division talk about promotion? 20? 18? Only three can go up."

Leganés have been a top-flight club just once in their 96-year history. For four seasons between 2016 and 2020, they welcomed giants like Real Madrid and Barcelona to their compact Butarque Stadium. When they were relegated, they came close to bouncing straight back, beaten in the playoffs in 2021. A mediocre season and a midtable finish followed, before BCSG arrived in June 2022, acquiring 99.1% of the club's shares.

"Leganés was the perfect combination of being near a major city and having no debt and having good infrastructure and a team that was poised to grow," said Luhnow, who noted that he had looked into six clubs from Spain's top two divisions.

With the team on an apparent downward trajectory, you might have expected the new owners to look for a fresh start. But Indias -- who had overseen the club's football operations since 2015 -- kept his job.

"It was a surprise," he admitted. "When a new owner arrives, it's understandable that they'd want to bring in their own people. But in this case, Jeff wanted to trust the people who were here first. We hadn't had a year to write home about, honestly, but he wanted to get to know us all."

There was no instant transformation. 2022-23 yielded a 14th place finish, closer to the relegation zone than the playoffs, though this season has been different. Leganés have been in the top two since October. They have the best defense in the division, with just 24 goals conceded. Leading that charge is coach Borja Jimenez, 39, who was appointed in June 2023.

"The way I was hired was a bit unusual," said Jimenez. "Normally they'd get in touch with your agent, and then it's an interview to meet your boss. Here, it was more like a selection process. There were various candidates.

"We had interviews with all the people at Blue Crow Group: the physical preparation department, the sporting department, the president [Luhnow], the vice president ... It must have been at least five or six interviews."

With just a few months' experience at this level -- and more in the lower leagues, twice winning promotion to Segunda with Mirandés and Cartagena -- Jimenez wasn't the obvious choice. "It's a bit like with players," said Indias. "We wanted people who were ambitious, good for the dressing room, who hadn't played at a higher level, who were hungry, who saw this club as a big opportunity, rather than someone who thinks they're doing the club a favor."

"For me, it was a really good opportunity," said Jimenez. "A second division club, an attractive league. The club had been in Primera a few years earlier. They'd had two years where it had been hard for them. As a coach it's always easier to arrive in a place when they've just had a bad year.

"The only thing I want to hear when I'm hired is absolute confidence in me. If there are doubts in June or July when everything is perfect, then by September or October, when you lose some games, you'll be sent home."

Contact with Luhnow and BCSG's executive team is constant. "It's on almost a daily basis," said Indias. "I have three meetings a week with [Luhnow]. In Spain, or via Zoom. He likes to be very involved, in every department. "We talk about everything, not just the sporting department, not just Leganés, but also sponsorship, marketing, other things, other clubs that the group has."

In what is perhaps an obvious sign of that involvement, one just has to glance at Luhnow's profile picture on WhatsApp, which is Super Pepino (the club's cucumber mascot) sitting at his desk -- phone and tie included.

"[Luhnow] is very present," said Jimenez. "He was with us at Huesca [on April 7] and against Espanyol [on April 12]. When he's not here, we communicate with messages. He asks how things are going, how we're feeling. He's grateful for our work and he lets us know that."

Squad building has been cautious -- often loan moves or free transfers -- and focused on Spain's domestic market, with a few overseas additions.

"We're lucky being in Madrid," said Indias. "It's a strategic location for players and families. We're well regarded in Spanish football. You can bring in players from around the world but they're often risky gambles, without knowing how they're going to adapt. So we've based ourselves, with some exceptions, on domestic players.

"We put names on the table, and we speak to Jeff. Around Jeff there are various departments, big data, physical data, and we put all that data in. There are things big data can't tell you, if they're married or not, their personal life. Here in Spain, we often know what these players are like. "We provide all that information, thinking about the coach, the style of play, the club, and from there we sit down with Jeff, and look at the financial conditions. It would be absurd to suggest a player we can't get, so we suggest realistic names."

In March, Leganés were six points clear at the top of the table. After five consecutive draws in April and a loss this weekend, they're now a point behind Real Valladolid, with Eibar two points further back.

"It's normal," said Jimenez. "You get into the final stretch. There's more fatigue. Decision-making is worse. The season is almost over, you have this great target, which nobody expected to be fighting for at this point. I think it's cumulative. I'm not worried at all."

"It's something we don't want to talk about too much," said defender and captain Sergio González, 32, when asked what promotion would mean. "We want to keep things normal. It's been a very, very good season. That big prize is so close now. As we've been saying, Leganés has a dream. We'll do everything possible to make that happen."

Close to 5,000 miles west, a partner club is soon hoping to do the same, albeit with hurdles.

A championship among obstacles in Mexico

"What the hell did we do," thought a group of BCSG members, including new vice president Giovanni Solazzi, that was attending a Cancún FC match after purchasing the Liga de Expansion club in 2022.

A small fire had broken out at the Estadio Andres Quintana Roo, there was rain that made its way through the stadium's concrete, and a dismal tally of 298 people were watching the Mexican second division game from the stands. Just three season ticket holders were in attendance, which nearly made up half of their paltry total of seven season ticket holders.

Cancún would go on to finish empty-handed in 2022 and with a spot at second-to-last in the Apertura tournament.

2023, though, was a different story. With increased investment, staff hirings and the same guidance of BCSG's centralized support that is making in-roads with Leganés, success -- and fans -- followed. By December, a total of 16,950 packed their stadium for the second leg of a championship final. Guided by two goals from 2022 newcomer Cheick Traore, Cancún would go on to beat Atlante 3-0 and clinch their first-ever trophy.

"It was the reward," said defender Benjamin Galindo Jr. "This reaffirms that we are on the right path, that the club is growing in all aspects, in all areas."

"Many times the results confirm things to us," said 33-year-old head coach Luis Arce. "Good things were being done at the managerial level. It's very important that we are all rowing in the same direction, with Jeff as the head of the group."

This week, they'll take part in a two-legged series vs. Atlante in the Campeon de Campeones final, a championship series between the winners of the Apertura and Clausura tournaments that has traditionally been used as the decider for promotion into Liga MX, Mexico's top flight. The problem is, no Liga de Expansion club is currently allowed to be promoted. "Technically promotion is open," said Luhnow. "But practically it's not."

Back in 2020, second division clubs that were already struggling financially were hit even harder with the sudden impact of the coronavirus pandemic. As part of a wider deal that provided economic support to the second division from Liga MX, promotion and relegation into the top flight was temporarily suspended.

Now in 2024, the process of promotion isn't closed off, but current rules stipulate that a minimum of four Liga de Expansion teams must be certified as eligible for Liga MX in order for promotion to return. Through a certification that looks into stadiums, finances, the overall structures of clubs, and additional details, the four-team threshold has yet to be reached. "There is a little bit of ambiguity in the certification process and how it happens and how teams get approved," said Luhnow.

A place in the Mexican top flight will have to wait, although it wasn't too long ago when the former baseball executive nearly brought a Netflix-inspired soccer team to life in Liga MX.

After the streaming success of "Club de Cuervos," a Netflix series about a fictional Mexican soccer team, a group that included the show's creators reached out to Luhnow in late 2020 about actually placing the TV show's club into Liga MX. "I was like, that's the greatest idea I've ever heard of. Yes, I would love to do that," said Luhnow.

By June of 2021, it looked as if everything was set for the 2021-22 season through a purchase of Atletico San Luis, who are owned by Atletico Madrid. Logistics for a preseason camp were set, terms were agreed with new players, and significant money had already been spent on branding and uniforms.

"We were literally a week away from closing the deal with Atletico Madrid and acquiring the club," said Luhnow. "Deals like that are complicated. Even at the last minute."

Various reasons came into play, but the deal was paused and then never cemented. Looking elsewhere, there were considerations for other Liga MX teams and MLS, until there was a recognition that more of a project could be built in Mexico's second division. Scanning and analyzing clubs that could be up for sale, one city stood out among the rest.

"Cancún is such an important market in Mexico and really in Latin America," said Luhnow.

"It is the second most traveled to tourist destination since COVID, second only to Dubai. I looked, at the time, [the] 39 cities in North America that have first division football clubs, Cancún has direct flights to 33 of those 39 cities, daily. It's a transportation hub, it's centrally located, it's a city of over a million people now," said Luhnow. "I don't see a football map of Mexico in the future, or North America for that matter, that doesn't include Cancún in a meaningful way."

A purchase was made and so was a recognition that they could create their own identity and story. Unlike many other long-standing teams in Mexico, Cancún FC were newborns in the soccer scene after being founded in 2020. "There wasn't that much to analyze and see, it was basically, barely an organization," said Solazzi, vice president. "It was an incredible opportunity to build a soccer club from scratch."

The work goes far beyond what they've already accomplished through on-the-field investments. New branding and jerseys -- that have avoided the kaleidoscope feel of many sponsor-heavy Mexican kits -- were brought in. During games, they've experimented with unconventional ideas such as pitch-side hot tubs and tattoo artists. There's also talks of building a zip line that will bring tequila to fans.

From just seven total season ticket-holders in 2022, Cancún have since rapidly grown that number to 300. According to their vice president, he believes there's "still a long way to go" with their ambitions. "We understand that the new generation wants much more than just soccer," said Solazzi. "We want to integrate entertainment, we are renovating the stadium for concerts, so the idea is to be much more than football ... obviously [in the] first division, this can be 20 times [greater]."

If a more concrete path to Liga MX becomes available to second division clubs, ongoing leadership from Luhnow's overarching project will be vital.

The cities of Cancún and Leganés -- the former an international beachfront tourist hotspot and the latter a residential area of just 188,000 -- couldn't be any more different, but a connection remains through support from BCSG's centralized analytics, scouting and technology that are still in the early stages of development.

"I think in the world of football, you can actually gain a pretty significant advantage," said Luhnow about his analytical MLB blueprint that he's now bringing to soccer. "It's not as easy -- it's much, much harder because you're not talking about a pitcher-batter interaction, which is easy to study. You're talking about 11 vs. 11, and a low-scoring environment and so many things have to happen for a score to take place. Some of it is randomness but a lot of it is skill and training.

"Football is hard but we believe it's absolutely worth the investment and it's an investment that we're making very seriously."

Blue Crow's next steps

More teams are expected to be added to the BCSG portfolio, although the globe-trotting Luhnow stressed that they want to grow at a reasonable pace. "You can't be a remote ownership group," said Luhnow, often on the move and visiting his teams. "You have to really understand the club and the fans and the history and all of that. It's harder to do with 10 teams than four teams, but we're going to grow in a smart way and we do plan to bring on more clubs."

Seemingly leaving no stone unturned for their future, markets are being looked at in Europe, there's a desire to have more of a presence in North America, they're dabbling with relationships in South America, there's interest in something down the line in Asia, and they already have a presence in Africa. There's a global perspective that's now set for Luhnow in the new chapter of his post-Astros life, but does any of that include a possible return back to home plate and his former baseball career?

"Yes, I do," said Luhnow. "100% dedicated to football for right now and for the foreseeable future, but I love baseball and I think that as Blue Crow grows, we're gonna start tinkering around with some other sports. We've had, for example, mixed martial arts in our sights and potentially baseball. There's a team in Cancún, right next to our stadium, a baseball team. I love baseball, but I have no plans right now. A couple of teams have called me and asked me to help them in different ways."

"I'm open to that, but right now, football is my 100% priority."

And with Cancún and Leganés currently leading as the flagships of his organization, the ever-analytical Luhnow plans to be on the forefront of the sport's evolution going forward, possibly earning league promotions and more championships along the way.

"I think that the emergence and the development of video technology and machine learning and A.I. have all, in the past 10 years, closed the gap significantly from what's possible, using analytics and technology in the world of football compared to the sports where it's more advanced."

"That's where I'm excited."