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Destroying the Super League was no victory

Friday 23 April 2021

The status quo in football is financially unsustainable. We need to look to the franchise model of American sport if we want the game to survive and prosper in a rapidly-changing social and technological context


The fuse was lit. There were sparks, sure – but this time, no bang. Like a soggy firework on a wet Bonfire Night, the European Super League fizzled out with a whimper. Fan power won the day (or, at least, claimed that it had). U-turns, apologies, and resignations ensued. 

What we do know is that the European Super League (ESL) has been a spectacular failure, terribly managed in every conceivable respect. Like the Gunpowder Plot, the conspirators were uncovered, and the plan foiled. Heads will roll.

The battle is over, for now, but the war will rage on, because the status quo in football is unsustainable (even without a pandemic); and, whatever traditionalists insist to the contrary, the current product won’t be fit for purpose for the next generation of fans.

Digital disruption has already transformed our lives forever – for better and worse. The constant element is change, and those that don’t keep up vanish quickly. Which begs the question: is football disruption-proof, or does the game need to adapt imaginatively to survive and prosper?

Anyone with kids knows that they simply don’t have the staying power to watch 90 minutes of football. It’s too long, too boring, and too linear. And there are too many matches that no one wants to watch. I pay through the nose for it, and I love it. But will the next generation of fans feel the same? 

How will they reconcile paying a few pounds a month for endless, on-demand streaming entertainment, with the hundreds of pounds needed to watch live sport? Narrowing attention spans and a reluctance to fork out big sums for visual content: it’s a game-changing combination. From now on, sport needs to be spectacular, every time, just to stand a chance of attracting younger fans.

Clubs are already struggling. The pandemic has brought some close to bankruptcy. Barcelona is €1bn in debt. Bolton Wanderers, £172.9m. And whilst the ESL itself surely wouldn’t have fixed this, something fundamental does need to change. 

As fans, of course, we are susceptible to the romantic idea that football clubs define our respective identities and bring together our communities. But who actually owns these clubs? The fans, the owners, both?

Unfortunately, in the UK at least, it’s the owners.

Clubs are businesses, and as with all businesses, they have to make more money than they spend. As a Bolton Wanderers fan, I dream of the day a plucky billionaire buys up our club and brings us back to glory, just as happened with Chelsea and Manchester City. Big money transforms football clubs to global brands. Winning trophies becomes the norm — but this comes at a price.

For all their rhetoric to the contrary, clubs stopped caring about fans years ago. They’ve jacked up ticket prices, released third and fourth kits that kids pester parents to buy, whilst serving up overpriced pies and stale lager at eye-watering prices. We’re dollar signs, not fans. And we’ve been monetised. But add all that up and it’s still not enough to plug the gap. 

So here is (or was) the real Super League strategy: jettison “legacy fans” and trade them in for the next-gen super-fans, flying in from Hong Kong on a bucket list weekend to Barcelona, Madrid, and, er, Manchester. 

These fans would go all in and spend all out, filling hotels, restaurants, and bars, whilst buying up everything the club shop had to offer. A truly global fanbase with bottomless pockets and insatiable appetites for new experiences. 

That blueprint was fiercely rejected this week, as the ESL collapsed ignominiously. But we should pause for thought and ask if that really is the end of the matter. The world is changing, fans are changing, entertainment is changing – and maybe football needs to change, too.

Think about it; these next-gen fans are playing Champions League finals on their PS5’s every day. Not bound by the limits of real-life transfers, their digital dream squads include Messi, Ronaldo, Mbappé, Haaland and Alexander-Arnold. Suddenly, West Brom vs Sheffield United on a wet Monday night doesn’t quite cut it – or, more accurately, won’t cut it for the next cohort of fans who learned about the game on the sofa rather than the terraces. 

One of the lost opportunities of this particular row was the chance to have a grown-up up conversation about financial stability. This is what the American franchise model in sport is built upon, and what we ought to have been talking about. A guaranteed income, regardless of specific annual performance, allowing clubs to plan forward and build dazzling franchises with global reach. 

For teams that don’t make the play-offs in the main US American football league, the NFL, there is little to play for except pride. In practice, they often forget about pride and deliberately “tank” in their final games. Why? Because, in the draft of new players, the order of selection is determined by the reverse order of performance in the previous season. 

This means that each round starts with the team that finished with the worst record and ends with Super Bowl champions. Such gaming of the system causes mild outrage on Twitter in the US. In the UK, the prospect of anything close to this sort of structure provokes – as we have seen – a nationwide meltdown. 

The American owners of Manchester United and Liverpool naïvely assumed this version of jeopardy-free, commercial-break-crazy, franchise-based, closed shop sports would work here. But we weren’t having it. Not a chance.

We don’t want our sports watered down, the system of promotion and relegation effectively abandoned, an ever-greater concentration of resources in a tiny number of clubs. We still love the Cinderella story, and we have Leicester City’s against-all-odds triumph in the 2015-16 Premier League at hand to show that underdogs can prevail and David can kill Goliath.

Then again: after a profoundly emotional week of fury followed by euphoria, maybe we should take a deep breath and reflect upon the tectonic forces at work, how we respond to them and what is at stake. Unpopular as it may be to say so, I think that most people misunderstand what the ESL was really trying to do – namely, to address the existential threat that football is undoubtedly facing, by creating a new format, made entirely for a new fan: fewer, bigger, better, must-watch “events”. Bigger than a game. Bigger than football. Entertainment.

The play was to own the product end-to-end. For the super-elite clubs to be the captains of their own ship, attracting even greater sponsorship global mega-brands, forging new connections with cash-rich, experience-driven, global fans – of which there are, potentially, billions – and selling them the dream: box office entertainment. You may curl your lip at this model, but it is much better-suited to the changing patterns of human behaviour than what we have now.

In the end, football came together, uniting with politicians and fans against a common enemy – which they claimed was a disruptive form of greed that would vandalise the game in this country irreparably. That, at least, was how the destruction of the ESL was presented.

In fact, it was not a victory at all but a reactionary preservation of a system that, sooner or later, will fail. Football needs radical structural change if it is to prosper in the decades ahead. This was not any kind of triumph but a carnival of self-congratulation that did nothing more than kick the can down the road.

Stuart Watson is a Tortoise Member and founder of sports branding agency, Nomad.


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