THE GREAT game was staring into the abyss, an attempt by big business to mould football into something that fits nicely in a portfolio of assets. But the instigators, shadowy figures tucked away on ranches or sitting high in Manhattan penthouses, underestimated the power of the product, the will of the people and the rich heritage that is indeed far richer than the cultural savvy and sensitivity of Wall Street barons in expensive suits with gilded lifestyles. Football has never been a culinary feast, but the bitter taste in the mouths of thousands of players, managers and supporters has never been so acrid.
And so, the putsch-type coup failed, for now. Maybe the clubs realised that without fans, their product would soon be meaningless. And without the public’s support of TV deals, merchandising, media interest and money, football would eventually be as unemotional as the covid-induced, sanitised closed-doors game we have witnessed over the past year. If anything, this period has raised awareness of how crucial the game is to so many people, their routines destroyed by a virus, their links to their clubs being compromised on a daily basis. This was no time to test people, even though they probably thought that fan-free stadiums may mean less abuse, protests and questioning. They were so wrong and misguided.
The nonsense being spoken by those with self-interest at heart just adds to the fury of the masses. Real Madrid president Florentino Pérez claims he was not worried about anyone leaving the cartel and insisted young people are no longer interested in meaningless games. What an insult to the people and to Real Madrid’s La Liga rivals. Young people’s attention span may have changed, but essentially, they are being priced out of the game. With incomes declining over the past decade, waiting lists for tickets at some clubs and alternative ways to watch football, it may be true that young people have a different perspective, but this doesn’t mean the product is at fault. Perhaps Pérez should wonder if his own club’s digital offering, which has been very successful, is actually contributing to that problem. Or maybe they have literally become spoilt by success? Pérez and others fail to realise that a European Super League will have winners and losers – Arsenal versus Tottenham, with both teams at the bottom end, may become as unappealing as Huesca versus Getafe. It is all relative.
It was clear where the appeal was for the likes of Perez, the Glazers, Kroenke and FSG. Dr Peter Dawson of University of East Anglia, believed the super league raised a number of pertinent issues. “The attraction for the big clubs is that they can play other big clubs more frequently and, at least for the founder members, there is no threat posed by relegation. This becomes closer to the franchise system (closed leagues) that operates in the major North American sports. This creates more certainty from a business perspective and probably more demand if there is an appetite among consumers to watch the top teams play each other more often,” he said.
Dawson highlighted the negative impact of a cash-rich super league on domestic competitions. If, for example, the super league members were allowed to continue in their home leagues, then the financial advantages would serve to make the Premier League, La Liga and Serie A more uncompetitive than today. Without these clubs, the danger is that the domestic leagues will be less attractive from a business perspective.
But it would not have been all milk and honey for the super league members, claimed Brand Finance. The London-based consultancy estimated the brand values of the founding clubs would lose a combined value of € 2.5 billion, rising to more than € 4 billion. Furthermore, they calculated the annual loss for the founders would be around € 1.1 billion in revenues. And the brands themselves would suffer significant reputational damage.
Even though the super league appears to have been abandoned, reputational damage may still hangover the 12 clubs in the near-to-medium term future. That won’t necessarily peak until fans return to the stadiums, which may still be some time away.
Brand Finance also pointed out that an attempt to reach new markets like China and the United States may not have had the desired outcome. Their research over the past few years indicated that in both countries, the most popular leagues are their domestic competitions, suggesting the markets are maturing. David Haigh of Brand Finance cautioned: “If the ESL founding clubs saw the Chinese market as a vacuum available for them to fill, they will be in for a nasty shock when they discover there’s only one true ‘super league’ in China.”
Deep down, it is hard to believe anyone thought this audacious attempt to bring about the Disneyfication of top level football would succeed. At best it seemed like a bargaining tool, a threat to the governing bodies to squeeze more money out of the game. Let’s be frank, the Premier League was one of the first examples of such a tactic. At worst, it looked like a cynical, greed-driven tactic to divide and conquer. The way it has developed over a very short timeframe is really a massive own goal for the 12 clubs. They have not only lost their deep and rich gravy train, but their reputations are in tatters. UEFA and FIFA now have some moral high ground, despite their own shortcomings.
It may take some time for clubs to repair their images. Certainly, club owners will have to demonstrate their sincerity and sorrow at trying to dismantle the world’s most popular sport. If the pandemic brought to a head the poor business management of many, many clubs, then please get your house in order – do not try and tailor the game around sub-optimal practices.
Now is the time for UEFA, FIFA, the Football Association to introduce new standards for ownership. Clubs are assets of public value and should be treated accordingly. They are not banks, hedge funds, private equity funds or even North American sporting franchises. Mr Owner, if you don’t like that, it is time to invest somewhere else. To the governing bodies, the message is fairly obvious – do not waste this moment, for the matter may not be dead.