Commentary: This new Super League will break football’s essential promise
Proposal for breakaway group fails to grasp that clubs are more than for-profit businesses, says the Financial Times' Simon Kuper.
LONDON: “There was a general expectation a little while ago of what was called a Super League, in which all the leading European clubs would play, breaking away from the domestic leagues in their own countries.”
“It has not materialised,” wrote the journalist Arthur Hopcraft in 1968.
Their plans betray a misunderstanding of what a football club is — which is far more than a for-profit business.
FANS ARE NOT EXCITED
It would be fun to see giants like Barcelona and Manchester United playing each other more often. Even so, it’s hard to find a fan expressing excitement about the proposed league.
The plan isn’t driven by love but by money: there’s a lot of private equity sloshing around, and JPMorgan Chase will underwrite a €3.25 billion (US$4.55 billion) “infrastructure grant” as a “welcome bonus”.
That appeals to clubs panicking about pandemic-induced losses. And certain club owners — notably Americans such as John Henry at Liverpool and the Glazer family at Manchester United — were always cold profit-maximisers. They hope to import US sports’ closed-league model into European football.
The league’s revenues would mostly accrue to the super-rich: Players, agents, and owners. Nor would increased income improve the game. Until the 1990s, clubs survived on comparatively tiny revenues, yet the football was gripping.
NEW LEAGUE HAS LIMITED AMBITIONS
The Super League’s ambitions are limited. It isn’t a “European” league; so far, Germany’s big clubs and Paris St-Germain haven’t signed up. Nor is it genuinely “super”, given the presence of under-achievers such as Arsenal, Tottenham and Milan.
It aspires merely to be a sideshow to domestic leagues. It would be played midweek. Football’s global primetime slot — weekend afternoons — would remain reserved for domestic leagues.
The league’s biggest impact would be to blow up two of football’s cornerstones: Competition and tradition. Fifteen of its 20 spots would be guaranteed to “founder” clubs regardless of performance.
It would exclude almost all European clubs effectively forever. Football’s essential promise — that any club can triumph — would be broken.
Outsiders would be condemned to permanent minor-league status, warns Stefan Szymanski, sports economist at the University of Michigan: “It would be catastrophic for European football.”
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A closed league would also ruin one of fandom’s special pleasures: Tradition.
From childhood until death, people watch their club playing in the same colours, often on the same ground, in the same competitions, against the same opponents. Everything in life changes, except football fandom.
Some fans won’t follow their clubs into this new world. Relatively few are diehards who watch every match. In any case, the prospect of Arsenal versus Milan at the bottom of the Super League doesn’t sound unmissable.
There is also something ridiculous about a tinpot industry selling out for money. Football’s highest-grossing club, FC Barcelona, had pre-pandemic revenues of nearly US$1 billion a year. That’s about 0.4 per cent of Apple’s.
Traditionally, clubs did not regard themselves as businesses. England’s Football Association used to forbid club owners from profiting from their investment.
The aim was to ensure clubs were run by “the right class of men who love football for its own sake”. Regrettably, those rules were scrapped in the early 1980s.
Clubs need to know what they are. Rather than profitmaking companies, they resemble museums: Public-spirited organisations that serve the community while remaining reasonably solvent.
The Super League certainly isn’t that.