Not So Super

The European Super League or how to be rich and fail with delusions of success

Plenty of extremely smart and well informed people have written eloquently since the European Super League imploded on itself in the week of April 19, 2021: Miguel Delaney, the inimitable Brian Phillips, the Football Ramble folks, everyone at Stadio, Jonathan Wilson, Tariq Panja, you get the idea. More brilliant commentary will come (and indeed has since I started tinkering with this essay), but I particularly like this bit from Marcelo Bielsa in Wilson’s piece. Bielsa is the coach at Leeds United and arguably one of the most influential coaches in modern football:

“The logic in the world at the moment, and football is not outside of this, is that the rich get rich at the expense of the poor,” he said. “And then they demand more privileges.”

A short summation of the Super League proposal is probably useful, especially for folks who haven’t mainlined ESL related content this week. In essence, 12 European football clubs announced that they would take a loan from JP Morgan to create a competition that they could never be relegated from, i.e. they would be part of in perpetuity, American style, everyone in line to keep cashing them checks no matter what happens in the league. Presumably, there would be a TV deal to cover those loans, because that is easily the most obvious sports business lesson of the pandemic: global brands can survive without fans in the stands as long as they have that sweet sweet TV money. Not that the Super League had such a deal yet, I’m sure it was a done deal in all of these executives’ heads, but there were no signatures on legally binding documents when they went public, oops. In essence, they were gonna borrow money with essentially no collateral but their respective club’s reputations, which is all some of those clubs have thanks to their epic borrowing sprees over the last 15 or so years. The CEOs of these clubs had such an iron conviction that this league would exist and they specifically deserved to be part of it that they did not discuss it ahead of time with the domestic football associations of three different countries, UEFA, FIFA, the coaches, the players, or the fans. They didn’t just fail to secure agreements before going public or something sensible as a negotiating tactic, they didn’t discuss it AT ALL with any other stakeholders.

The clueless arrogance of the Super League coup participants is staggering. It takes a particular kind of well-padded insularity to fail to connect with ALL of those stakeholders, right? What kind of insularity, you might ask? Well consider, the former president of the new dead ESL, 74 year old construction magnate Florentino Perez, who engineered an early election so he could run unopposed as president of Real Madrid in order to do this hamfisted shit, felt quite safe saying, on television even, that the ESL was in the best interest of the game and suggested that 16–24 year olds aren’t that into soccer, according to market research (40% of them aren’t into football! Disaster!) and maybe that means the matches should be shorter. Yeah, no, you read that correctly. He said other things as well that were just as half-baked, but that one stuck with me, especially as an American sports fan.

In other words, this old dude suggested that the shortest professional game on the planet (an honest to God 2 hours ±7 minutes when you factor in all of the breaks, because ties are actually fine) needs to be shorter . . . to appease the kids with short attention spans, thanks Fortnite, hence the reason his club should never be relegated from a competition that should return hundreds of millions of euros every year. If you’re baffled by that reasoning, you should be because it is utterly unmoored from any kind of sporting reality even if you manage to stitch together a coherent narrative of what the everloving f&@$ he was talking about. Perez’s rhetorical assertions that this blatantly greedy and anti-competitive proposal is best for the game BECAUSE, followed by either silence or utterly garbled nonsense, should have a familiar ring. It’s a rhetorical strategy that is essentially the communication strategy of the Republican Party — declare yourself for the common, sorry working, man and then . . . do absolutely nothing to help those people whose votes you already take for granted, assuming you care about voting at all, which is clearly not the case for the GOP.

But I have tipped my hand a bit, politics is the destination, but we should dwell a touch longer on the sporting details of the for now defunct European Super League. The core part of the new league and easily its most objectionable part from a sporting and fan perspective, is that the 15 founding members could never be relegated. My fellow football fans will be reading this only because the effigies they plan to burn later are drying (you don’t want them to burn too quickly), but if you don’t follow soccer, I should elaborate. In European club football there are multiple levels of competitive professional football under the same rules. The various football associations govern each of the leagues in their respective countries. In England alone the Football Association governs the Premier League, the Championship, League One, League Two, and the National League and then you get all the amateur and semi-pro leagues below that. I want to dwell on that for a moment. In England, not the United Kingdom, just England, population 56 million, there are 5 levels of competitive, professional soccer just on the men’s side (the inequities of that situation on the women’s side are a topic for another day). If you don’t do well enough at one level, you go down to the next level, where you can rise again, find your level, or sink lower. These rich clubs wanted none of that.

Seeing these clubs publicly lust after the business model of the NFL broke a logjam in my head. I have quite successfully avoided thinking too much about the NFL and collegiate sports in America because the injustices at the core of how they are run just became too much for me, especially as we continue to learn more about CTE. I replaced those sports with European football where nearly every match at every level has some stakes, relegation and/or promotion, access to additional competitions, decades of local rivalries, stories that stretch back over a century in most cases. So to see these giant clubs, including one I support in Manchester United, even though I loathe the ownership, repudiate all of that made me not only mad at them, but it surfaced the crushing awfulness of a sporting ecosystem in America where everyone is super satisfied exploiting amateurs under the banner of collegiate sports, pretending that its good for the game when every professional coach complains about the time it takes to undo the bad habits developed in the college game, underpaying players for as long as possible even after they become professionals, skirting nearly every sensible and just principle in developing talent with as little investment as possible, all so that a country that is six times bigger by population and richer than England by a healthy margin, can produce some of the most putrid and meaningless games by the end of every season. American professional sports leagues have a massive competition problem because in truth, de facto, America doesn’t believe in competition, it believes in using not-for-profit organizations to coddle billionaires who collect checks regardless of whether they field a competitive team or not (the official word for that is anti-trust exemption, though I love the ring of cartel). That’s why hedge funds own sports teams.

And now that we have gotten to the hedge funds, we can expand our view beyond sports and into politics, though as fan blowback from the ESL has demonstrated, stung to the core by betrayal of the communities that created these clubs, politics is never far from sport, indeed sport is often a splendid microcosm for the problems in a society, as well as, from time to time, an opportunity to work toward solving those problems. But to solve problems you must first identify them clearly. The problem that the ESL demonstrates is the same that America was ostensibly founded to fight: the dominance of power by an aristocracy. For all of the talk of the American dream, social mobility, children doing better than their parents, meritocracy, right at the moment, those are bed time stories, if you’re feeling generous, or you could just call them a fucking lie. Americans have never been less likely to move, never been less socially mobile and that is in no small part because of the furiously dedicated efforts of many wealthy people to convince Americans that wealth of any kind should not be scrutinized, inspected, taxed, or regulated. The current political storm is in no small part a creation of the storytelling industry funded by those very same ultra-wealthy to protect every last rounding error of a penny from any perceived threat and to never be accountable to anyone for any of their choices no matter how many people they actually impact (Jane Mayer’s Dark Money is an excellent exploration of one such ecosystem). It is, even in America, the aristocratic principle — the notion that once a sufficient agglomeration of wealth has accumulated (and new ones should be strenuously objected to), it has a right to exist in perpetuity and without supervision or participation in the common weal, no matter how poorly that agglomeration is managed (a certain former elected official is number one with a bullet on that front, but lets not derail things because we can make this point without that fail-son).

Lest you think I have wandered too from the ESL, consider the current owner of Manchester United: Joel Glazer. In 2005, JP Morgan lent Malcolm Glazer enough money to buy the club and Glazer subsequently hired the banker who arranged that loan to work for them at the club, becoming CEO of the club in 2012, which did not happen because he demonstrated any sporting acumen about which players and managers to sign. Just to reiterate that point about how poorly this football club is managed: the Glazers were so impressed with a banker’s ability to do what they wanted, they put him in charge of signing players. What does Ed Woodward know about scouting, recruiting, and developing soccer players? Not much. Certainly not as much as a scouting department would, but Manchester United didn’t have so much as a director of football until LAST MONTH. The bumbling incompetence of Woodward and the management team didn’t become immediately apparent because they inherited a generational manager in Sir Alex Ferguson, who didn’t retire until 2013. But once Ferguson was no longer manager, things took a turn. Man United went from being a titan and perennial title contender, to a side that had enough money thanks to a giant global fanbase to be around the concept of winning a title but never managed to spend it wisely or well enough to do better than second and usually not even that. They were great, got rich, but not so rich as to not got bought, then became meh but stayed rich and when you are run by someone who likes to stay rich more than they care about football, you get the European Super League. The son of the dude who bought a club founded in the 19th century in 2005 thinks he is entitled to profit from the entirety of Manchester United’s history, very little of which he or his family were primarily responsible for. THAT is the American Way, and apparently we are exporting it.

The utter cynicism of the American sporting model stands naked before us - the sense of entitlement to any pot of money available regardless of performance, the direct antithesis of the meritocracy, but the actual executive reality in every American sports league. And in American politics. Every issue we wrestle with in the wider society is present in sport and the ESL is a vivid demonstration of the indifference of many of the wealthy to any concerns but their own access to capital. But it’s also a demonstration that when everyone shouts together, those assholes can be made to back down. I felt a tremendous sense of relief (and more than a wee bit of Schadenfreude) when the entire venture stumbled immediately and was roundly and soundly mocked for its ineptitude. There’s nothing better for the soul than the stark demonstration that wealth and ability are not correlated. A battle was clearly won, so while the war drags on, the failure of the ESL because of the fans realizing their power as a whole, as a community provides hope and a template for the future in beating back the aristocratic tide.

Theatre. Sports. Econ. Cocktails. General geekery. The usual.