There aren’t a lot of places that can match Philadelphia’s passion for sport, at least not on this continent. But if you go overseas, you’ll find clubs that not only have millions of fans in their home countries, but globally as well.

That’s the case for Aston Villa F.C. of the English Premier League, the Birmingham-based team that finished fourth this past season and qualified for the UEFA Champions League for the first time in more than 40 years. Running the business side is former Sixers President Chris Heck, who spent nine years here, first as Chief Sales and Marketing Officer and then as President. Prior to joining the Sixers in 2013, he spent two years with Red Bull in MLS, so moving overseas to work in the EPL marked a return to soccer almost 10 years after leaving New York.

We got into all of that and more in a wide-ranging conversation that touched on the differences between American and European sport, the financial setup in the UK, and representing diehard supporters of a club enjoying its 150th year of existence. Here’s a portion of the discussion:

Crossing Broad: I don’t have a Premier League team. I have very strong feelings on Americans picking Premier League teams. As someone from the Delaware Valley, you know we would shit on the Cowboys fan who grew up in New Jersey. So I was always sitting there thinking, ‘do I pick a team, or do I not?‘ And if I do, it can’t be Manchester United, or City, or Chelsea, because I don’t want to be a poser. I guess the term in the UK is ‘plastic fan.’ I don’t want to be a plastic fan. But I’ve thought that Villa could fit the bill. Birmingham is a very workmanlike town, very similar to Philly.

Chris Heck: It’s very Philadelphia-centric in the sense of, they’re not the pretty boys. But it’s a very prideful club. It’s a club that has incredible heritage. This is our 150th year. That’s really cool. We play in a stadium that was built in 1897. Think about that a little bit. It comes with a lot of charm, but headaches as well. It’s also the second-largest market in the UK. We can win, we have the infrastructure to be one of the best clubs in the world in one of the best leagues in the world. It doesn’t happen overnight. Our owners have had the club for five years and they’ve really been smart and methodical about how this has been built up, and that’s pretty exciting. We’re in the Champions League for the first time in 42 years. It’s awesome.

CB: You left the Sixers in 2022. I was familiar with your Red Bull background, that you worked in MLS previously. When you left the Sixers, were you thinking about getting back into soccer? Was it something that just came up? What was the genesis of this?

Heck: My youngest child of three is heading into college, or ‘university’ as they say over here. I had this window where my wife and I were thinking, would we go live in Europe for a while and see how this goes and take a chance? I’ve always been studying the Premier League. The NFL is clearly the king in the U.S. The Premier League is king of the world. It’s amazing, you have 20 clubs, three that go up and down (promotion and relegation), you have these six clubs that kind of have a monopoly on getting into the Champions League (Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool, Tottenham) and dominating. Huge brands. Now all of a sudden the opportunity came up, like would I be willing to think of that? And what club would actually make sense? There are some small clubs that drop off, and I think for any of your listeners or readers (to understand), this isn’t Wrexham. This is the Philadelphia Eagles in a city of a similar size, if there were no Sixers, no Phillies, no Flyers, and no Union. Oh, and no college teams. It’s massive. Absolutely massive. I thought, listen, it’s the best league in the world, if I could get one of those jobs and succeed, it would be really fulfilling. And what I mean by ‘succeed’ is actually make a difference. The thing that I love about this league and sport, is that what I do actually does make a difference. It affects the fan not only in their experience, but whether we win or lose. I actually cross over there, as opposed to American sports where they really keep you at the other side, almost in different buildings, locations, they don’t talk. And I’m generalizing, some teams do it different, but most do not. I’ll never forget my first meeting with Daryl Morey, and I brought him some stuff. I’ve known Daryl forever, I knew Daryl when he was with the Celtics and I was with the NBA. And I’m like ‘Daryl, we should start talking, and he’s like, ‘yeah, okay, lemme just do my job and you do your job.’ And here, I talk to our guys on the sports side every single day. They have to know what the money is coming in and I have to know what the money is going out. They also are in sales too, because they buy and sell player contracts. It really crosses over. We are recruiting, we’re doing all of these things, if you don’t collaborate, you’re in big trouble. In U.S. sports, it’s not necessarily set up to collaborate.

CB: And I would expect a lot of that has to do with Financial Fair Play and the lack of a salary cap.

Heck: 100 percent.

CB: Business and player operations in the United States, you can have that separation of church and state. You’re capped, you have the aprons in the NBA, for example. But my basic understanding of Financial Fair Play is that you can only spend the same amount of money that you’re actually generating.

Heck: Yeah, it’s 80% essentially of how much – you can spend 80% of what you make. Every club has their own version of the salary cap. It’s like a sliding scale. I’ll give you a specific, and how you can flip the business if you have a lot of things that work in your favor. And it’s just all happened well for us this year. We have an incredible manager (Unai Emery). He’s a top-5, top-3 manager in the world. We locked him in. He made that big a difference. We generated almost 54 million pounds of incremental revenue this past year. That’s off of a 200 million pound business. The plan is to be four to four hundred and fifty (million pounds) in three more years. Now all of a sudden you’re competing against Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool, but also Real Madrid, Barcelona, and Bayern Munich. You’re in that space. We overachieved, but we also capitalized on it, and you have to do it for several years to catch up. We’re one of the good clubs in the sense that we have the ability to catch up because we’re in a big market with a big fan base. There’s statistics out there saying we have 300 million fans. It’s crazy. How do you actually capitalize on that?

CB: Yeah. And Villa’s payroll was what, 7th in the Premier League last season? If you are the Uniteds and Cities and Chelseas of this world, they’re spending what, 200 million pounds on player salaries? If you’re an American and you don’t know fuck all about the Premier League, baseball’s the best comparison to it. You guys are trying to be in this tier of the Yankees, Steve Cohen’s Mets, even what John Middleton is spending with the Phillies right now. You make more money on the business side, there’s more to spend on transfer fees and paying better players.

Heck: And the difference is that John Middleton can just go into his bank account and spend. Here, you could have the richest owners in the world and it doesn’t matter. It’s how much you actually generate. So how do you do that without ticking off your most loyal fans? That’s the formula that we have found, let’s protect our season ticket base, our local fans first, the core fan, protect them, and then find new revenue streams to pump up the value of the club and the spending opportunity of the club. That’s the big difference between baseball and the Premier League. We actually have to make money as opposed to somebody going into their bank account.

CB: You worked here for a long time. Philadelphia is old school and traditional. Maybe not as old school as the Villa fan who has been standing in the Holte End for 30 years. But they’re traditionalists in the same way the Philly sports fan doesn’t want anything to change. I think that’s a concept that’s applicable everywhere. I say to Sixers and Eagles fans, if you want the team to have the best facilities, the best practice center, training setup, whatever, then yeah, money has to be part of that. If you want to be up there with the Yankees or Manchester City, or pick any high-spending team in any league, that just comes with the territory.

Heck: The magic is trying to find that where you’re not forcing people to change as much as you’re giving them options. And remember, the biggest difference in revenue generating in the Premier League vs. all U.S. sports is that we go global. They’re territory restricted in Philly, all of the teams. That’s it, what you see is what you get. But we control our merchandising. We just did the Adidas deal, which was a game changer. Now all of a sudden we’re in 120 countries, in stores. Before, we had a very underwhelming local brand, that couldn’t do anything. The revenue stream in that alone is through the roof. That’s a win for the fans and a win for the club. We have better gear, more stuff, we look cooler, our brand is cooler. Everything is better. That’s a good win for everybody. The other area we’re focused on is that we put a lot of money into completely changing all of our premium seating. It’s a big stadium and we have 5,000 premium seats, about half of which before were made up of suites. So we wiped them out and made restaurants, clubs, loge boxes, at all of these different price points. Some really cool things. We sold those in a much different fashion to generate a lot more money. Who does that affect? It affects the rich, so the common fan doesn’t get upset with that.

CB: When you went over there, I would assume people were saying ‘who is this American guy? what does he know about the Premier League?‘ Was that a hump to get over?

Heck: I kept my mouth shut for the first six months on purpose, and I think that aggravated people because they want to put a camera or microphone in front of your face immediately. If you make any changes, they say, ‘well you didn’t tell us about this,’ and I’m like, ‘we just came up with it a week ago.’ They want to know before you know. And it’s part of the culture where everything is so critically important to them. Everything. Philly I think is the best sports town in the U.S. It’s not even close to (the Premier League), the scrutiny that goes on with the clubs here. And to be fair to (supporters), they don’t have four other sports to dive into. They don’t have college sports. This (American setup) doesn’t exist. There’s only one thing that matters. It’s European football, and that’s it. That’s what matters. It really is part of their life, their lifestyle, it’s family, it’s generational. Everyone takes it really personally, and I respect that, and you have to be very careful with that. But I also want to win. If your compass is the right compass of ‘win” by also being respectful and doing things (the right way). I was reading something (recently), and I’ve been pretty good about getting off of social media. But I was getting destroyed for something that was wildly successful, just getting destroyed. But it’s 20 or 30 people killing you. So that’s kind of the game, the deal. The anti-American thing, it’s real. It’s real. And in many ways I get it. If you look at the way the (United States national team) has played this summer, you’re kind of like, ‘really? you’re the expert?‘ (laughing) But what I’ve been saying to everybody is that I’m not claiming to be the expert on the sporting side. I’m an expert on the business side. And I’m not apologizing for that. I do believe I surround myself with really good people. And I do believe that I will deliver results, and I do believe that they’ll be happy in the end. Change is tough. Change is hard.

CB: I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask you about the Sixers arena plan and Comcast sports complex redevelopment. I can tell by the way you’re smiling that you have thoughts on this.

Heck: (laughs) My thoughts are there’s a reason I’m not in Philadelphia anymore. Never, ever, ever underestimate Comcast. I don’t think that was (pauses)… understood by everyone in Philadelphia sports. Listen, it’s not my problem anymore. I wish everybody the best. I love Philly as a sports town, the best. Incredible. I just hope everybody wins. I hope this parade is for all.

CB: That’s a very diplomatic answer from you.

Heck: (laughs) I’ve become very diplomatic coming over as an American, coming to England and working in their national pastime.

Here’s the full interview: