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Last week saw the birth and collapse of the European Super League (ESL). Living in Atlanta, to me, the defeat was on a par of the Falcon’s 2017 Superbowl and Greg Norman’s 1986 Masters. On Sunday evening, there was the announcement of the formation of the ESL, comprising 12 “founding clubs” from England, Spain, and Italy. Three other unnamed clubs were soon to join, along with another five teams that would qualify annually for the 20-team competition. Within 48 hours, it was dead!
The announcement of the ESL was accompanied by a promise to “deliver excitement and drama never seen before in football,” and did they deliver!
Why was the ESL formed?
Why? Simply, MONEY. The fifteen founding clubs were guaranteed a place every year with no messy football stuff like qualifying and relegation! The teams would capture a larger share of the revenues with less risk. Expectations were that broadcasting rights might generate €4bn a year, nearly double the €2.4bn brought in by the Champions League in the 2018-19 season.
As Martin Baumann put it, “We can sell just about anything to the Europeans. Why not our hyper capitalistic cartel-based pro sports system?” That sentiment seems very popular on this side of the Atlantic. Many other commentators pointed out that the owners sought profits before tradition, financial opportunities before culture, and self-interest before communal identity. The ESL was the logical outcome of the increasing commercialization of football and powerful few’s desire for monopolistic control. To enable the ESL, J.P. Morgan underwrote its formation with a $4 billion line of credit.
While I like capitalism, I find it interesting the claim that this is capitalism. So saying ignores a couple of the mainstays of capitalism – no monopolies or cartels and creative destruction. The owners were not imposing an American capitalistic system on football; they sought to create an American-style cartel to reduce risk and transfer more money to themselves. This has just been done with F1 under the ownership of Liberty Media, turning the ten existing teams from car manufacturers into holders of very valuable franchise charters. Of course, technology development will slow, and the product quality fall. But we can’t let that get in the way of making money.
American sports competitions, especially the major leagues, are all effective money-producing cartels. Professional sports leagues in the United States are monopoly-like structures that ensure that the riches are spread evenly among a self-selected group. The teams stay in the league no matter how they perform. So much for the American ideal of meritocracy!
The only economic competition they face is from rival leagues; that is why the U.S. system is a century-old marketplace of rival sports leagues. The combination of less risk and less competition for talent produces higher profits for owners. According to a ranking last year by Forbes magazine, forty-three of the world’s 50 most valuable sports teams are American – aren’t cartels wonderful! Such a structure has several results:
- “Brand value” is not necessarily tied to on-field success. The “worst teams” in one season get the best players through draft picks the following year.
- It provides an inferior product, as I have discussed before. Guaranteed a place in the league means there is no need to invest in the team and deliver a good product for the fans. Recognition that the product is inferior is reflected in U.S. sports capturing a smaller share of the global viewing audience each year.
- It delivers more money to the billionaire owners, who theoretically have invested in the clubs. In every American sport, an inferior on-field product isn’t a reason for billionaire owners to make less money, e.g., Tampa Bay Buccanneers. The Bucs, I believe, have the worst record of any team in the NFL, even though they have two Super Bowl titles – 278-429-1. With such a record, they would have probably been relegated in European sports and no chance at any championship.
For those unfamiliar with relegation, unlike American teams, European sides play in open leagues, where the three poorest performers get demoted to a lower tier, with stingier broadcasting and sponsorship deals. The three top performers in the lower leagues get promoted to a high league reaping greater rewards. Club owners thus gamble on making it to the top, investing generously at the expense of profits.
The European model is genuinely a capitalistic one where owners take risks and invest for a potential reward. Creative destruction is evident: between 1992 and 2014, there were 45 insolvencies in the top three tiers of English football, 40 in France and 30 in Germany.
So why did the ESL collapse?
I believe it was because of hubris. Through hubris, the founders ignored the sport’s business model and Ben Horowitz’s sage advice, “Take care of the People, the Products, and the Profits— IN THAT ORDER.”
Hubris is a terrible thing and causes many failures in life and business. Only hubris can cause a few rich people to come up with an idea that generates such visceral and universal hatred, or put another way, “Never underestimate the incompetence of people.” The hubris of the American owners that they could easily impose the U.S. system on European clubs showed that they “were willfully ignorant of an alien culture.“
Value creation is about “the job to be done” for the customer. The league claimed it would be an exhibition of elite football. However, with no qualification, the teams would not have had to try very hard and thus reduce the value of the “job to be done.” However, even more concerning was that the league’s criteria were not based on being the best in Europe but merely the richest. Once a world power, Arsenal is barely one of the best in England and just a bougie to Newcastle United. Arsenal currently sits ninth in the Premier League table, out of reach of Champions League qualification, and likely to miss out on the less lucrative Europa League as well. Choosing the clubs by the wealth of the owners killed any pretense at value creation.
The key to marketing is delivering on your brand promise. The brand promise in European sports is the promise of the club’s success. The basic unit is the club in European sports, which tends to be much older and more locally rooted than any franchise and far more fervently followed. Many clubs are over a century old and ripple with local associations and mythologies. For those who want a greater understanding, I would suggest watching Sunderland Til I Die.
Not only is the club the basic unit, but there is a “holy trinity” in a football club, the fans, the players, and the manager. The owners are there to invest and collect profits. Unlike in the U.S., when a team wins a championship, the owners are never seen lifting the trophy, only the players and the managers.
The key to sales is to know your core customer, the FANS. The fans were not amused, to put it bluntly. Unlike peripatetic American sports fans, English football clubs’ fans are even more zealous and less forgiving. The Glazers, Stan Kroenke, and John Henry were pretty much despised by the fans of Manchester United, Arsenal, and Liverpool, respectively, before the ESL. If they were unaware of this, the fans that welcomed the Glazers to Manchester chanting “Die, Glazers, die!” should have been a hint. The ESL announcement only made things worse. Liverpool fans were burning effigies of John Henry outside Anfield. A banner outside Old Trafford read, “Created by the poor, stolen by the rich.” A YouGov poll found that 79% of British football fans opposed the Super League, 68% of them “strongly.”
There have been massive protests by Chelsea, Liverpool, Arsenal, and United fans at Stamford Bridge, Anfield, The Emirates, the Carrington training ground, and Old Trafford within the past 5 days. All the fans have been complaining about the money taken out of clubs rather than investing in them. Opposition was fiercer still among fans of clubs outside the ESL, some of whom burned Liverpool shirts. However, American billionaires excel at ignoring public outrage. Kroenke and the Glazer family might’ve waited out the protests until kingdom come. However, the rest of the founders abandoning the ESL gave them no choice.
The key to value delivery is keeping the customer satisfied which in European sports is RIVALRY. The rivalry between teams is local, not leagues as in the U.S. Liverpool’s main rival is neither of the Manchester teams but Everton, a mile from Anfield. The ESL would have removed these rivalries. Further, ESL was not designed with these in mind, but for millions of foreign fans, in Asia and America who care less about such details. In European football, this was heresy. But overall, the ESL would have stopped the key rivalries that make European football what it is and thus reduced value delivery.
There were apologies all around. John Henry issued a groveling apology to Liverpool’s fans: “I’m sorry, and I alone am responsible.” This is something I don’t any U.S. fan has heard from an owner. Also, JP Morgan has apologized, which shows how much it has realized that its role might damage its chances of getting business in Europe. However, apologies are the least of the owners’ issues as hubris takes its toll. The speedy collapse presents an opportunity for the wider community [members of the Premier League] to drive a harder bargain during the auction of a new round of Premier League broadcasting rights. The result is that the ESL founders may receive a small cut this year.
However, the real threat is regulation. Boris Johnson, Britain’s populist prime minister, read the tea leaves and thus vowed to “do everything I can to give this ludicrous plan a straight red [card].” Oliver Dowden, Britain’s sports minister, wants to examine everything to stop the new league, from competition law to governance reform. His words, “Owners should remember that they are only temporary custodians of their clubs; they forget fans at their peril,” should be a stark warning. Also, the British government launched a wide-ranging review into how football is run this run. There is pressure for British clubs to adopt the German community-ownership model with fans owning 51 percent. While some point out that fan ownership did not dissuade Barcelona and Real Madrid from joining, the Spanish and Italian leagues’ financial health is more impoverished than England’s.
Who says football is boring?
Copyright (c) 2021 Marc A. Borrelli
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