As a long-suffering Gunners fan, I have had to endure the humiliation of supporting a selling club, derision from the soccer fraternity when our legendary coach blurted out that "fourth place is a trophy" (he meant that qualifying for the Champions League was a reward in itself), and now the shame that US owner Stan Kroenke was an enthusiastic participant in the recent Super League flop.
The European soccer fraternity was shocked when the 12 biggest clubs in the UK and Europe expressed their intent to create a Super League, in effect breaking away from their home championships and doing away with the small matter of having to qualify annually for the Uefa Champions League.
It didn’t go down well.
Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp lunged into a two-footed tackle on his US owner, John Henry, who, coincidentally, also owns the Boston Red Sox. The Leeds United team sported an "Earn it " T-shirt before their midweek game against the English Premier League (EPL) champions and even style icon Bonang Matheba expressed her dismay on Twitter.
As all avid sports fans know, the thrill of winning championships is only matched by the great upsets when David topples Goliath. Who can forget Wimbledon beating mighty Liverpool in the 1988 FA Cup final, or Leicester City winning the EPL in 2016?
To understand the drive towards the creation of a Super League, you need to first understand the difference between European and US sports models.
In the US, team owners get granted franchise rights over a territory. This has the effect of restricting the number of professional sports teams that take part in "closed leagues". So, for example, there are only 15 teams in two baseball leagues, 32 teams in American football and 30 teams in basketball. These teams compete in regionalised divisions and only the end-of-season playoffs determine the champion. So we have about 90 professional teams across all the popular sports codes in the US serving a population of about 330-million.
Compare this with the European sports structures, where, in soccer alone, each of the biggest five European soccer leagues supports about 20 teams, each serving a national population of 30-million. In contrast to the US model of "closed leagues", European teams compete for promotion and relegation, making these leagues ultra-competitive.
However, in typical capitalist style, US owners are better at maximising profits for their teams. The National Football League is vastly more successful at monetising games, with average revenue of $60m per game compared with $25m for the Champions League — despite the latter having a much larger audience globally.
But what it means is a growing plutonomy — where wealth is controlled by a few — in both society and professional sport.
For example, several studies have tracked the win ratio of European teams over time and provide a measure of competitive inequality using a Herfindahl index, which indicates whether the win ratios are being increasingly skewed towards a few teams.
It is no surprise that the data shows a rising level of inequality in the EPL, as the top tier of English football has become increasingly dominated by billionaire-owned clubs.
What Covid has exposed is that soccer clubs’ reliance on stadium attendance is dated and that maximising broadcasting rights is a more reliable income stream. There is also a limit to the ability of clubs to raise the price of season tickets, while a growing global audience of football fans in their living rooms provides a much larger market to penetrate.
This was key to the creation of the Super League, which was premised on the notion that the so-called big clubs wouldn’t have to compete to qualify and would then be able to command a much bigger and more reliable share of broadcasting rights without having to split them with lesser teams.
But, as an Arsenal fan, I know too well how soccer teams have the ability to self-sabotage by snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. And the Super League team owners have now alienated their loyal fans, who have seen through the plan as unfair, anticompetitive and venal.
Fans have won this round thanks to a swift counterattack, while Uefa will now appease club owners by pouring billions more into the game. But the structural cracks are clear. And the one-time notion of European soccer clubs as vanity assets — much like wine farms — owned by billionaires for the benefit of fans is probably a thing of the past. The beautiful game is now squarely a money game.
- Rassou is the chief investment officer at Ashburton and a long-suffering Arsenal fan
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