As the European Super League is announced, here is our quick take on the situation.
Will it happen? Stories such as these often break from the larger European footballing powerhouses, normally to exert greater influence and extract more money from UEFA. Whilst this time it does feel different, given the announcement was made on the eve of UEFA’s planned launch of the new Champions League structure, one has to wonder whether this is a huge powerplay.
After the dust has settled, will clubs lose fans? These decisions have not been taken lightly, the clubs will have known that the fall-out was going to be big. They will have calculated that they will ostracise some of their fan base. However, this will have been factored into their planning as their objective is to create an American style sporting commercial structure and recruit a globalised fan base. The plan will be to recruit fans in Guangzhou & Miami, for example, who will be more lucrative than those they may lose in Salford or Highbury.
Will we watch? Probably, we want to watch the best compete against each other. However, will most fans passionately care as much about results? Probably not, once you take out the tribal rivalries (the Merseyside Derby will be lost for example), sport loses some of its appeal. You cannot manufacture passion and tribalism around fixtures, this builds over decades. Additionally, even amongst this elite there is disparity in quality, so given that in the current EPL table Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool and Tottenham are all languishing behind clubs not included in the ESL plans, are they going to be habitually challenging Barcelona and Real Madrid to be champions? Probably not, so fans of these clubs could be supporting bottom of the table teams, will they be content with that? Unlikely.
Will the sport lose appeal without relegation? American sport says promotion and relegation is not a pre-requisite to success but football is not comparable as it has vastly different histories, traditions and structures. If players are not fighting for their livelihoods and fans are no longer bothered because of the lack of consequence, the games become glorified friendlies (look at this season’s Premiership Rugby which has scrapped relegation, many of these late season fixtures are dull). Witnessing Fulham, since Christmas, consistently missing out on valuable points in the final moments of their matches to save their Premiership status is compelling viewing; it is the essence of competitive sport. Whilst extremely painful if you’re a Fulham fan, it is incredible theatre watching the raw emotions in an increasingly sanitised and stage-managed entertainment world. Its why we turn on. Arsenal are currently 9th in the EPL, will their fans stay as engaged with their teams playing dead rubbers against teams superior to them for much of the season? I doubt it.
Will it work? It’s a big risk. The average EPL season ticket holder is 47 years old, our kids don’t care or engage as much with topflight football as they did 20 years ago. Partly because of other distractions but also because the cost to take a family to a top-level game is exponentially higher resulting in fewer kids being exposed to the tribal/loyal support that is the cornerstone to football’s historical commercial success. This challenges the future financial stability of the sport and is the crux of the issue; ESL’s argument is that it will save football. The success of this plan is dependent on the ESL clubs growing an equally lucrative and loyal group of supporters outside their established heartland.
Some are drawing similarities with the formation of the Premier League in 1992. The two are not comparable as only the commercial structures were changed to England’s topflight, the competitive league system’s fundamentals remained the same. The ESL plan is aiming to revolutionise the sport’s fundamentals, from fan make-up to competitive structures, by challenging 130 years of evolutionary success. One valuable lesson learnt over the last year is that without passionate fans, sport loses some of its appeal. The ESL clubs would do well to remember this. It’s a huge story which will have massive consequences whether it succeeds or fails.