Castellón’s Haralabos Voulgaris: ‘Our model gives us a 53% chance to win the league’ | Football

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“Floyd Mayweather was my beard,” says the sharpest mind in sport, somewhere in the middle of another chapter from his extraordinary story. The tale of Haralabos “Bob” Voulgaris is about a philosophy student, tree surgeon and baggage handler who bet everything on the LA Lakers, won $500,000 overnight and became arguably the world’s best gambler. How he “solved” basketball and was courted by its biggest franchises, a disrupter drafted in. And how an ice hockey fan from across the Atlantic ended up here, owner of a football team in Spain’s third tier intent on changing the game.

The way he tells it, Voulgaris would regularly lay $1m a day, beating the system, which is why bookmakers tried to lock him out and he needed “beards” to begin with, superstar names secretly betting on his behalf. A Greek-Canadian whose father took him to Vegas, he became a poker pro and director of quantitative research at the Dallas Mavericks. He travels by private jet, hangs with the famous and lives in Hollywood Hills. When he’s not on his boat, or in Mexico, Monaco or Castellón.

A city of 176,000 near Spain’s east coast, “not a rich town”, this may not be the most likely place but Voulgaris says he loves it. He does not just own the local club, he runs it his way: it is the ultimate bet, applying everything he learned, the definitive test of the models he built. “Like a master’s thesis,” he suggests, strolling through the training ground, Oscar his dog quietly following him everywhere. The aim: to return Club Deportivo Castellón to the first division 33 years later. “When people heard, they had doubts, especially in Dallas where they think I’m a villain,” Voulgaris says. “But getting to La Liga is a given. I’m not saying it will happen, but the way I work is to act as if it will.”

The way he works is different. “I grew up seeing the downside of gambling, then saw the other side. My dad was an unsuccessful gambler. I wouldn’t say ‘anti-hero’ because I respect him but a lot of my decisions were made looking at him, trying to do better. He lost almost all his money: racetrack, NFL, card games. I would go with him. ‘Tell mum we broke even.’ They had to sell the house, the business. At 15, 16 I had to get a job to pay my parents’ rent. That taught me: I’m careful about always being honest. I became untrusting. I’m grateful because it made me very self-reliant, resilient.”

Voulgaris Sr was easily swayed, superstitious; Voulgaris Jr watched, studied, had an eye for an edge. A student at Manitoba University in his native Canada, in 1999 he bet $80,000 on the Lakers taking the NBA championship, and won. “It was an opportunity to get out of Winnipeg, fast-forward my life five years,” he says.

The Dallas Mavericks hold up the Larry O’Brien trophy after winning the 2011 NBA Finals. Voulgaris masterminded the team’s data-driven revolution. Photograph: Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

His first million followed fast, models built with a maths prodigy he recruited. “I have never had a losing year. Now it’s common to have five TVs, a man cave. I was doing that in 1999 with little box, tube TVs and VCRs. My edge was watching more basketball than anyone, thinking differently, seeing patterns. You have ideas, test, evaluate. I didn’t wake up one day a winning gambler. I learned and became very, very successful. It’s not arrogant: I’ve done the work, had a bunch of stupid ideas, lost and ditched them until everything left is predictive.

“You can’t be a winning delusional gambler. I grew up in a violent home and used to think less of anyone who couldn’t control their emotion; I’m about as unemotional as it gets but I was still subjective until I got into data. You need five years to build your model: three to accumulate the data, two to test it. If it’s predictive, you probably have something.”

He had something, all right. With other teams interviewing him – or, he suspects, “just mining me for information” – it took him to the Dallas Mavericks. Voulgaris quietly guided recruitment before the 2011 championship-winning season, then formally joined in 2018, in effect running basketball operations. He was the data-driven revolution, analysing players, building strategies – “coach Carlisle can say whatever he wants; I pushed for their five-out offence” – identifying failings and challenging assumptions. He was seen as an outsider, an intruder.

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“Many owners don’t know what they’re doing and the real goal of decision-makers is to keep their job,” he says. “I didn’t know they would kill for it. It was like a big gossip factory. There were good people but some were assholes. Players are paid a lot very young, given a level of fame and adulation …”

But isn’t that true in football, too? Voulgaris laughs. “Not in the third division, it’s not. It was pretty brutal,” he says. “But it made my approach to life iron: ‘Is this in my control? No? Do I care? No.’ That’s a tenet of stoicism. It’s my super power. I care about the right decision, doing the right thing. In the end, I thought: ‘I’m not spending the emotional energy trying to convince the owner.’ I wanted to be the decision maker.”

Voulgaris had been analysing football, betting on it. He built predictive models, followed and admired Brighton’s rise under Tony Bloom, visited Brentford. Guided by a consultancy called Pitch32 – run by Robin Taylor, Richard Bentley and Dave Reddin, friends from Loughborough University – in June 2022 he bought Castellón for a little more than $4m, assuming the debt.

“Buying a third-tier team makes sense because we feel we have an edge, there are inefficiencies we identify, and the pyramid structure is super-rewarding: good work gets you promotion, bad gets you relegated. In US sports the worst teams are rewarded. There’s systematic tanking for an entire season. Here, it’s high stakes, meritocracy. Relegation makes European sport beautiful.

Bob Voulgaris, the owner of Castellón FC, and his dog Oscar, the icebreaker.

“We found this team and fell in love with the community. We calculated the cost to go up, our predicted promotion. People act like we spend a lot but it’s very reasonable. I didn’t have the luxury of patience; we faced bankruptcy. Our first-team budget is around €2.2m (£1.7m). We’ll spend but I won’t throw $350,000 at some 35-year-old. We’re doing it differently. Young players, proper coaches, staff, the right facilities.”

Voulgaris gestures at the new training ground, the infrastructure overseen by Reddin, who had worked with England rugby, the Football Association and Team GB. “This is the backbone,” he says. “And we’re spending a lot on analytics, player evaluation.

“I’m not a ceramics billionaire: I won’t dump $200m on a new stadium. Our revenue is capped: in the first division, the league would set our salary limit at €34m, €35m. I’m also hesitant to take sponsorship I don’t vibe with. I come from gambling but view gambling companies as parasites. It’s a challenge but if you’re good at player trading you’ll be fine. Clubs like Brighton have done it.

“I’m overbearing in squad composition,” Voulgaris admits. Is that hard for the sporting director? There’s a smile. “We don’t really have one.” And the coach? Voulgaris admits seeing one starting XI last season and thinking: really? “But,” he says, “the coach does what he wants. I ask questions, like to understand, but don’t interfere.

“Basketball is mathematically very pure: every team gets the ball, they have 24 seconds to do something, then the other team gets it. Football is harder to model but the data is improving. One of the edges successful teams have is that, as well as PhD-level mathematicians, they have tailored in-house data. We have two external providers – their xGs are different – AI camera tracking, player-based models. There’s data, a bit of art, and you take shots. Madrid and Barcelona can take hundreds of shots.

Castellón’s Josep Calavera in action against Osasuna in the Copa del Rey. Photograph: Manuel Queimadelos/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images

“You have to understand how you want to play. I love our style: we don’t play for ties. When we played Deportivo, they defended. We went ahead, they attacked. They scored, defended again. It was comical to me. That’s the inefficiency. Three [points] for a win, one for a draw, zero for a loss, it’s the most basic thing. A long cross is a very low EV [expected value]. Passes in the box is a useful metric to teach the best-value shot. Distance run is massive, but what does it take? We killed players in pre-season, but now they feel that strength. They’re quite receptive: in the end, you’re trying to help.”

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Voulgaris discusses contrasting mentalities – north American, north European, Spanish – the influence of agents, and building owner-player relationships, the lessons learned in the NBA and how footballers can be emotional. “There’s a book that’s Buddhist stoicism through tennis – I’ve given that to a couple,” he says, patting Oscar, his secret weapon: “He’s the ultimate ice breaker; he takes the pressure off round here. That human element is the biggest challenge, the most interesting part of the puzzle. You can’t put that on the spreadsheet.”

There’s a pause. “Well, in the NBA you can,” he says, laughing. “Coaches that aren’t very sharp say: ‘Your models don’t tell you that.’ Actually, they do. Ceiling cameras take 24 photos a second. Everything is captured. I had a conversation with an assistant coach who didn’t believe in data at all. He’s been married 15 years. I said: ‘Who knows you better? Your wife or your Google search history?’ His face …

“You get coaches who are disparaging of analytics. It’s a culture war; that’s why I wanted my own team. Now if I have someone like that – and I did when I took over here – they’re gone. There’s the ‘Americans know nothing’ thing, eye rolling. But now everyone gets it.”

It’s working. Under the Dutchman Dick Schreuder, the former Barnet coach who insisted on taking PEC Zwolle to the Eredivisie before signing, Castellón are leaders. Top scorers in Spain, they beat second division Real Oviedo in the cup and took first division Osasuna to extra time. “When we hired Dick, I said: ‘I don’t make many promises but we will lead in goals, certainly xG.’ I don’t say much but I believe everything I say. The players respect that because it tends to be true. And we all want the same thing – to get out of this league.”

Castellón head coach, Dick Schreuder, oversees a training session at the club’s new training ground. Photograph: Pro Shots/Sipa USA/Alamy

Voulgaris laughs. “The players were going round going: ‘Prima, prima’ at me and I’m thinking they like me: prima, prime, No 1. Sounds good. But it means ‘bonus’. ‘OK, let’s talk.’ I gave them two options: a promotion bonus, even if via the playoffs, or a bigger bonus but only if you win the league. They chose that, gambled on themselves. I think we’re doing pretty special stuff here. It’s our model so it’s biased, but we’re 53% to win the league.”

Oscar pads across. “When I started, I wanted to buy a basketball team,” Voulgaris says. “They were trading for $200m, $300m and I was like: ‘I can get there.’ Every time I got close, the goalposts moved: $300m, $700m, $1bn. I felt like Sisyphus with the rock. What I didn’t realise when I was young and stupid is that some of the dudes owning NBA teams have nowhere near 100%. If I had known that: different ball game. So I end up in Castellón instead. But I like it. It’s a chance to genuinely affect people’s lives and I wouldn’t change anything. This is perfect.”

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