Super League’s greatest threat is what it would do to local culture and community

Franchises can be moved around the globe. But football clubs are cultural institutions, representing the hopes, dreams and achievements of a people.
Photo: Arsenal v. Stoke City, 2011. By Ian Burt.
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The last 48 hours have been surreal for football fans who follow European clubs.

On Sunday evening, news broke that 12 of Europe’s top clubs across its three top leagues would be forming a breakaway Super League. The idea behind such a tournament has risen time and time again for the past decade at least, and analysts have considered it a nuclear option in the hands of the richest clubs trying to force the existing football governing bodies to hand over a bigger share of the profits, earned mainly through advertisements and international TV broadcasting.

This time, though, it seemed more than a threat. A flurry of press releases and official statements from the involved clubs made the Super League seem to be a done deal.

It is perplexing how an industry regulator can be competing in the same industry as a player.

The response to the news was, predictably, one of outrage. The idea of a Super League has always been opposed by fans and by smaller clubs, as well as by governing bodies at multiple levels, such as England’s Premier League, national football associations, UEFA, and FIFA, because it threatens to create a new, and more permanent, status quo of rich clubs.

Many of these teams — Arsenal, Manchester United, Liverpool and AC Milan — are owned by American billionaires or hedge funds that also possess franchises in almost all of U.S. sports. The Super League is mainly pushed by the American owners, though Real Madrid, which is under a different ownership structure, is a major backer of it too.

The ultimate goal is to create and close off an upper echelon of European football along the lines of the American model: an exclusive league that guarantees money for its owners. Not all is wrong with this model, and there is plenty that is wrong with the way European football is currently run. But for all its good, the American way of doing things poses an mortal threat — not least to clubs involved in the proposed league.

European football undervalued, uncompetitive

As it stands, European football is severely undervalued, and its total earnings are far less than the market potential. NBA franchises, on the other hand, which are not nearly as popular globally as British football teams, earn more. American owners started investing in English football around 15 years ago knowing there is great potential to increase the value of their teams over time.

One of the reasons is that governing bodies such as the European UEFA and the global FIFA are status quo entities in and of themselves. Instead of playing the role of regulators and facilitators to develop the game and ensure fair competition and equal investment, especially at the grassroots level, these two institutions are more interested in earning money themselves. It is perplexing how an industry regulator can be competing in the same industry as a player. This has inevitably led to institutionalized corruption among the governing bodies, severely compromising the integrity of the sport. From the point of view of the American owners, there is no business justification for UEFA to be earning money for itself. And this is hard to argue: Why should the regulator be enriching itself? The teams play the sport, so they should earn more of the money, which is rightfully theirs to begin with.

Second, broadcasting rights are monopolized by TV companies such as Sky Sports, which is not as advanced as American media groups like Amazon, Netflix and Disney. Moreover, the American services are cheaper. During the pandemic, Sky Sports offered fans the opportunity to watch football at a price of about 15 pounds per game. For this much money, you can get a monthly subscription for Netflix. Ironic as it is, American tech is more consumer friendly and democratic, and therefore far more profitable. It is no surprise that the Super League was rumoured to have partnered with Silicon Valley–based streaming services to broadcast the new tournament and tap into an underexploited global football market. As a result, the prize money promised by the Super League is billions more than what UEFA offers to its members.

Teams are still rooted in their communities, have a direct connection to the local fans and are an integral part of the culture in the countries they were founded in.

European football is also severely uncompetitive. This is because UEFA has been unwilling to impose measures to create a level playing field. It has allowed clubs like Chelsea, Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain to be bought by Gulf-based sovereign funds and Russian oligarchs, who have pumped limitless amounts of money into these teams to distort the market and create unfair competition. There is no real check on the amount of debt clubs can go into in order to buy expensive players and pay salaries, resulting in a club like Barcelona accumulating unpaid bills of over one billion euros. Real Madrid is not far behind.

This results in Barcelona or Real Madrid sharing the Spanish league title between themselves year in and year out; the Italian league is dominated by Juventus, which is owned by the Fiat group; the German league had become a playground for Bayern Munich, sponsored by top German car makers and insurance companies; the French league is won by PSG, which is owned by the state of Qatar; and the English league title is taken by the likes of Chelsea and Manchester City, which are owned by a Russian oil magnate and the United Arab Emirates, respectively.

Strange as it sounds, the American model is fairer. The team that wins is the team that has the best sporting ability, not the most money. This is because in the U.S., they have spending limits, salary caps and other measures that European football does not have. American franchises always turn a profit while being competitive. Simply put, they are a better business model.

Uprooting teams and culture

What, then, is the issue with the Super League?

Some have argued that the clubs that signed up for the new format do not deserve to be in it, that the only reason they are included is they are big clubs belonging to rich Americans. Arsenal, for example, joined the Super League, yet the team has not won a league title since 2004. Some would argue that they don’t merit their place due to that. However, that’s just one measure of success and future potential.

Despite the lack of trophies, Arsenal is one of the most popular clubs in the world — and this is a measure of success too, especially when crunching numbers to predict profitability. They are popular precisely because they play good football and have had a history of winning. Unlike almost all the other clubs, Arsenal has been financially fair, does not rely on an owner’s money (despite being owned by a U.S. billionaire), and is entirely self-sustainable. Why should they not be part of a better-run league?

Football was created by the poor, and it cannot be allowed to be stolen by the rich.

As an Arsenal fan myself, I desperately want a new football model where my team is rewarded for sporting merit instead of losing out to clubs who do not play by the rules. I would argue that it’s clubs like PSG, Chelsea and Manchester City that are undeserving, since they have no history of self-earned success and have bought their ticket to the top of the game. Again, it is ironic that the wealthy from America are offering a better format for my team, which has always advocated for an end to investor money in football. As an Arsenal fan, I should be happy with the Super League.

But alas, this is not the league of our dreams. It is one of our worst nightmares.

The American model for European football should be understood in the same way as trends in the overall economy since the 1970s. What is being proposed is, in essence, deregulation and — here is the kick, pun intended — delocalization. A league run solely by the private owners can only happen when it’s not regulated by any other governing body. Despite UEFA’s hopeless corruption and disrespect of football clubs in general, the teams are still rooted in their communities, have a direct connection to the local fans and are an integral part of the culture in the countries they were founded in.

The U.S. model threatens to tear that fabric apart. It is the destruction of local culture by international capital. In the future, there would be nothing stopping Arsenal’s American owners from shifting the club from North London to Los Angeles. That’s the American model: You take the team where the team makes more money. The L.A. Rams in the NFL, which are owned by the same people who own Arsenal, have already been moved from one city to another in the chase of profits. If there is more market sense for Real Madrid to play its home games in Florida in order to tap into the Spanish-speaking market in the U.S., there is nothing that locals in Madrid can do to stop that.

A war for the soul

This is not to say that an Arsenal fan in the U.S. is less of a fan. I have never been to London, yet I am as much a fan as any local boy in Islington. But if I demand that my team plays where I live, I do an injustice to the history of my club.

All the English clubs were founded by the working class; Manchester United by coal workers, Arsenal by workers of a gun factory. There is a reason we are called The Gunners. In England, football clubs are seen as community assets and local cultural institutions. They represent the hopes, dreams and aspirations, achievements and success of a people — working-class people, originally.

Football was created by the poor, and it cannot be allowed to be stolen by the rich. Ours is a global game, yet it remains fundamentally local, never rootless.

The American model threatens to turn it into a brand, to be franchised around the globe, to be turned into a McDonald’s or Coca-Cola. A way of life cannot be turned into a product. To attempt this is the worst of consumer capitalism.

The case against the Super League is not a nationalist one. Football is sufficiently cosmopolitan and capable of evolving without being uprooted. At the turn of the century, Arsenal, which was founded more than a hundred years ago, was led by an elegant Frenchman who became the first manager of an English club to field an entire 11 of foreign players, many of whom were Black from former French colonies. He looked at a player’s talent and not their passport. Liverpool, which has a strong socialist history, won its first title last year in three decades, led in the dugout by a charismatic German manager and on the field by an Egyptian named Mohamad. This is the beauty of our game.

Following fan protests, the founding clubs have, one by one, started backing out of the Super League. This abominable project looks not to go through after all. There is much confusion at the moment and the dust will take time to settle.

But whatever happens, this event has made clear that the soul of football is on the line. The battle may be won, but the war goes on.

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