New Europeans

The debate over the latest proposals for a European Super League go to the heart of the discussion about what kind of business football should be

Setting out to write regularly about football as a fan who also recognises that football is a business was always going to involve instances where those perspectives apparently clash. The prospect of a European Super League (ESL) is one of those instances. The debate around the latest manifestation of the proposal goes to the heart of what The Football Fan is about.

The subject comes up because this week a statement signed by a remarkable alliance of supporter groups expressed strong and eloquent opposition to the latest proposals, labelling them “unpopular, illegitimate and dangerous”. National fan organisations, supporter groups from the top 200 UEFA-ranked clubs, and of clubs who are previous winners of the European Cup, united under the umbrella of Football Supporters Europe (FSE) to make their feelings clear. What’s also remarkable about the statement is the breadth of thought behind it. It is something those running the business of football need to take note of.

It is worth reading that statement in full, but the paragraph that stands out is the following one expressing the basis of opposition to the project that is currently being discussed by some leading clubs and marketing companies. It says the proposed breakaway league…

“…would destroy the European model of sport, which is based on commonly accepted principles such as sporting merit, promotion and relegation, qualification to European competitions via domestic success, and financial solidarity. In the process, it would also undermine the economic foundations of European football, concentrating even more wealth and power in the hands of a dozen or so elite clubs.”

Already there will be people reading this who see the initiative as another noble but naïve attempt to halt progress. And there will be plenty within the game, including more than a few football club owners, who see fans expressing a view on such matters as impertinent. Which tells you much of what you need to know about many of the people who hold influence within the game. 

The debate that has been ignited is not just that familiar one of traditionalism versus what posits itself as economic realism, although there are some very valid points to be made in that debate. You’ll read plenty of them over the coming months. The Football Fan, while acknowledging many of those views, comes at this from a slightly different perspective to argue that the plans aren’t the good business many – even the ESL’s harshest opponents – think they are.

And yes, as one comment on my last newsletter said, I’m banging the same drum again. I’m saying that smart football business involves recognising what makes the product – if we must call it that – valuable. That’s really the point of The Football Fan.

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Let’s stop and think for a moment why the ESL is being floated. For most of the people who invest in the football business, the biggest challenge is the fact that it doesn’t operate to normal business rules. So concepts of certainty, guaranteed return and competition cause issues. In normal business you aim not just to be the best at what you do – you aim to at least dominate and preferably eliminate the opposition. In football, you not only need opposition, you need opposition that is strong enough to provide sport’s vital element. Uncertainty. 

The whole point of sport is that the audience doesn’t know who is going to win. It might have a good idea. But it doesn’t know. If it did know, it probably wouldn’t bother watching, and it almost certainly wouldn’t pay as much to do so. 

So here’s the problem. People spend a lot of money owning and running football clubs. But there’s no guarantee of success. And so, at various levels of the game, we see much energy being put into ensuring there are as few chances to fail as possible. This is, after all, why we now have a Champions League rather than a European Cup. 

In 1987, Real Madrid played Napoli. The Italian side at the time featured Diego Maradona. The Real Madrid side’s roster of talent included Emilio Butragueño. The tie took place in the first round of the European Cup, and Real Madrid won. Silvio Berlusconi, then owner of AC Milan, was said to be stunned that it was possible for a footballing giant to be eliminated at such an early stage. What if it happened to AC Milan? So he proposed, you’ve guessed it, a European Super League. The idea was resisted, but the Champions League was eventually introduced to buy off the bigger clubs who were threatening to break away. Guaranteed games – that was The Big Idea.

And look at what that has done. It has established the Champions League as the richest, most prestigious competition in club football. Mere participation in it has become more important than winning domestic trophies. Regular participation in it has meant some clubs, and importantly some national leagues, have pulled away from the rest. An elite of European clubs is now far ahead of the competition, and five leagues – in England, Germany, Spain, Italy and France – are far ahead of the others. 

Because everyone wants to, needs to, be in the Champions League, the competition has been expanded further. Creating a new problem. Because the biggest teams that once feared they would not be able to play enough games in the top competition now have to put up with the infernal inconvenience of playing games against teams they don’t think they should be playing! Why must these obstacles constantly be put in their way? You’d need a heart of stone not to feel for them.

But one of the reasons teams from leagues in countries such as Belgium and Denmark and Sweden and Portugal are now not the attractions they once were is a direct result of the self-styled ‘big’ clubs and ‘big’ leagues minimising competitive challenge. Keeping yourself at the top constantly means keeping others off the top constantly. So when the top clubs complain of the problems that mean they simply must look at creating a closed super league, they need to be told that they caused the problem in the first place. They broke the model, to use the words of the FSE statement.

Those who like to think of themselves as business realists will point to dead rubbers and question whether there is a TV audience to watch FK Banga Gargždai play Barcelona. They want to get rid of these irrelevancies and proceed to the main event. Which really means the same self-appointed elite teams playing each other as many times as possible. 

The tension is clear. The imperative for the top clubs is to eliminate the ingredient that makes the product so valuable – unpredictability. The worry is that not enough of the people with influence see the problems this has already caused. 

Elite European club football is in danger of becoming just another product. Knowing what you’re getting is great if you’re ordering shoes from Marks & Spencer but in football – not so much. If you doubt that, be honest and ask yourself how often you are thrilled by the prospect of a European tie these these days. Compare it with the time, not so long ago, when it meant something really special.

The audience likes a bit of uncertainty, and it likes to identify with the product. And while the TV audience will always outnumber the matchgoing fans, those matchgoing fans play an important role, because they retain a connection with the teams. 

The atmosphere generated by the fans, as the English Premier League went some way towards recognising when it introduced the £30 price cap on away tickets, boosts the value of the product, but there’s more. Much of the cultural stickability of football is a product of the wider audience seeking to tap into concepts of tradition and identity created by the fans at the game. 

The FSE statement says: “There are limits to the amount of time and money fans can invest in football, and a Super League pushes well beyond them.” It’s another point some will rush to dismiss, but it is important. The pandemic provides the opportunity to see what the effects of elite European football with the connection to fans severed would lead to.  

I’ve put forward views such as these, banged the drum if you like, for some time. And a frequent response is that I “don’t understand football is a business”. So here’s a business take of the kind I often adopt when writing and editing copy about businesses, as I have done for the best part of 15 years. 

We’re looking at a business that actively seeks to avoid hearing or acknowledging the concerns of a significant section of its core audience. One whose owners smile benignly at the objections that audience has to its plans, pats them on the head and tells them they don’t know what’s good for them. It’s a business that doesn’t realise what makes its product valuable, and actively pursues strategies that undermine it. A business that can’t see how it has created the problems it faces, but which expends untold energy on trying to solve them. It’s a business that has internalised the worst kind of short-termism.

One of the current big themes in business is the idea of sustainability. Once largely associated with environmental considerations, it’s now being embraced as a rounder concept that puts the longer-term health of the business centre stage. Ask not how we can make money, but how we can keep making money, if you want to put it that way. Football could do with some some sustainable thinking.

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A brief concluding comment to say thank you to the good people at Fan Insights, who included me as the only non-logo on their ‘People we like’ page this week. I know there are some interesting plans being laid, so keep an eye on their site. And not just because they keep very good company. 

Post header photo by Thomas Serer on Unsplash