Football customers still believe they are fans with a say but the sport’s elite will always do what’s best when it comes to making more money, writes Ewan MacKenna
For it’s elite, even all of football as we know it is too little.
On Tuesday, senior officials from Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City and Manchester United got together in London’s Dorchester Hotel. There they sat with Charlie Stillitano, chairman of Relevant Sports, a company owned by American billionaire Stephen Ross and one that’s behind many money-spinning, brand-building pre-season tours. The clubs were quick to deny the meeting involved talk of a European Super League but it wasn’t so much that they lied, it’s more that they just don’t care about revealing the truth anymore. After all, this is their game, not yours.
By Thursday, Stillitano had let it slip that there were indeed conversations about “restructuring of the Champions League”. And what such a tournament might look like and who it would cater for could be deduced from his follow-up words. “What would Manchester United argue: Did we create soccer or did Leicester create it?” he said. “Let’s call it the money pot created by soccer and the fandom around the world. Who has had more of an integral role, Manchester United or Leicester?” Don’t react with anger though as not only is it too late, it’s what those clubs believe in.
Yet the real problem with the sport isn’t from the top down for there’s no delusion when you turn your will, however unseemly, into reality. Instead the delusion and thus the problem comes from those at the bottom who think they’re fans of teams when they’re simply customers of big business. And if you still think you’re a fan of an elite club, then you’re simply a gullible customer.
To ask if there’ll be a European Super League is to completely misunderstand football today. The real question is when will be the most financially beneficial time for the super rich to create it, as this has been coming since the creation of the Champions League in 1992. Back then it was a way of stopping the threat of a breakaway via a shift from democracy to the beginnings of a plutocracy. But much wants more and, by 1997, a company called Media Parnters with links to AC Milan were making further threats with big clubs again getting their way as a trade-off for not leaving.
It all left Arsene Wenger musing in 2009 that national leagues might survive just 10 years, as he added: “I feel inside our game there are some voices behind the scenes coming up to do something”. And already it’s reached the point where 60 per cent of the Champions League pot is given over to prize money which favours major leagues with more qualifiers, while the other 40 per cent is given to a market pool which comes from domestic rights, again favouring the wealthy.
But what exactly do we expect? Take the owners of the clubs present at the London meeting which ranged from Russian oligarchs to American businessmen securing loans against clubs to buy them in the name of profit to Middle-Eastern oil barons. Do you really think any of these people care about history or tradition, that they spare a thought for the little guy, that they let opinion get in the way of wealth? If you dance with the devil, the devil doesn’t change and this is basic capitalism which wants you to believe the wickedest of men will do the most wicked of things for the greatest good of everyone. We’ve seen how that’s worked in this era of football thus far and it’s only a start.
In fact the craving for money has helped speed up what will eventually be a European Super League as the Premier League TV deal worth over €6.5bn kicks in, meaning the bottom club will earn around €130m from it. The effect of this has been two fold. Firstly, it’s allowed the relatively unwashed to compete domestically, the sort of effect we are seeing this season and that’s disturbing the big clubs there as it makes Champions League qualification competitive. It’s forced those major clubs to change their attitude from we can earn it to we can buy it instead. Secondly, it’s left those in continental Europe worried about England financially moving clear and they want in, to the extent the European Club Association in December held a meeting in Florence where off the record discussions were about a European Super League as a way of keeping pace.
Not that they’ve made it a secret either. Laughably claiming to represent more than 200 teams, senior ECA figure Andrea Agnelli of Juventus talked in January about how much more profitable the NFL is compared to the Champions League with ECA president, Bayern Munich’s Karl-Heinz Rummenigge noting: “You can’t rule out that in the future we could create a European league with the major clubs from Italy, Germany, England, Spain and France, under the auspices of UEFA or a private organisation”. Elsewhere Barcelona president Josep Maria Bartomeu is suggesting Champions League wild-cards as a move in that direction while the head of the Bundesliga, Christian Seifert, argued that a Super League could be beneficial to his clubs.
All in all, it’s sport mirroring real life in every sense. The rich are entrenched, immovable, wanting more and taking care of their own interests. Meanwhile the rest of us are squabbling over what aren’t even the major issues. Of late there’ve been walk outs in the Premier League and beyond over ticket prices but compared to the real moving and shaking in football, that’s like complaining about an overcooked steak when the waiter has already left with your wife. Plus, when it comes to the murmurs of a European Super League, all week there’s been as much talk about who’d be in it and which countries would get how many teams as there has been about the idea being abhorrent in the first place. The customers are being played off one another while big business laughs.
There are binding deals in place until 2019 with the current Champions League format and nothing will change until then at the earliest. But the clock has been ticking towards the inevitable for a long time now. As a consumer you only have one choice left – that’s whether you buy it or not.
Sunday Business Post
6 March, 2016