Wednesday, 21 April 2021

European Super League - How to get it completely wrong

 I've no idea what the combined book value of the clubs who announced the founding of the European Super League was, but it is tens of millions. The turnover of the clubs is huge, all are global businesses and revenue from turnstiles is now no longer the main income for the clubs. Ever rising TV rights, merchandising, business sponsorship and image rights are an ever rising percentage of the balance sheet. 

When I read that the ESL founders had a guaranteed place for 23 years, I had a look back at the league tables from 1998. In that year ESL founder member Manchester City had just been relegated to the third tier of English football. Blackburn Rovers, now languishing in the Championship were a top six club. Spurs haven't won a league title in the intervening years and are miles off a Champions League place were in the club, whereas Leicester, who are top four currently and who have, were not invited. Although I am biased, the only English club to have qualified for the Champions League for the last ten years is Manchester City. As a fan, I am proud of this achievement, but should they get it wrong and finish mid table, as Arsenal will, I would feel embarrassed seeing them qualify for anything. 

Yesterday Pep Guardiola stated that if you don't have to win, it isn't Sport. One can only wonder what words were said behind closed doors. Manchester City employ Pep Guardiola as he's the best manager in the world and that is the only real way to ensure success (get a good manager and back them to the hilt). If there is less competetion, it won't be long before the bean counters start to query whether a club like City really needs such people. There has been much criticism of Manchester City's millions. The amount the owners have put in to 'buy success' is roughly equivalent to the money taken out of Manchester United in 'dividends' for the owners. United is run as a business by a bunch of American businessmen, with no real love of English football. Their approach has meant that United have failed to mount a serious challenge for the league title for nearly ten years. There is a feeling that players are sometimes bought for non footballing reasons or as short term fixes. This season, they are mounting the nearest thing to a serious challeng for the title since they last one in 2012 under Sir Alex Ferguson. A cynic may say that this is as much to do with the implosion of Liverpool as a masterplan coming together. Unless Manchester City suffer a similar implosion, they will end up as runners up, creditable but not what the fans would expect. It is a classic example of what happens when cash is king in sport. 

I mention this, purely to demonstrate what happens when a club is run purely to keep greedy owners bank balances topped up. These are the people who thought up the European Super League. I am sure that teams of accountants produced glowing forcasts of projected profits from global audiences, all of which would moisten the juices of the moneymen. What puzzles me is that whilst they got all of the forcasts to show such a compelling case, not one of these people gave a thought to the PR effect this would have.

I've been involved in countless launches of various things over the years and perhaps the most important aspect of any launch is planning the PR campaign. Whilst I understand that with something like this, secrecy was vital to those putting it together, there are plenty of product launches, where PR firms keep far more sensitive things secret. This has been an unmitigated disaster. Not one club or official of the new league has been able to give a single compelling reason why a genuine fan (or legacy fan as we are now known) will benefit. For a well run club like Manchester City, the fans would  expect the club to participate in the tournament on a regular, if not annual basis. For the fans of a less successful club (in recent times) such as Spurs, do they really want to be in a tournament which they don't deserve to be in, will have no incentive to improve to stay in and may end up just being cannon fodder? It is interesting that City and Chelsea were first to break ranks and ditch the idea, as these have been the two most successful clubs of the last decade and the clubs least likely to need automatic entry. They also have owners who are more committed to success than profits. 

One has to assume that there was an assumption, clearly wrong, that the fans of these clubs would think "Wow, we will be guaranteed great football every year, what is not to like?". This may be true for armchair TV fans, who don't go to games and don't really get it and have fluid loyalties, but for the fans who actually stand on the terraces, they are far less wrapped up in the concept of success than many of the money men realise. I have friends my age who are Man Utd fans. They consider the fact that they stuck with the team when they were relegated in 1974 as a badge of honour. They recognise that the achievements of Sir Alex Ferguson were demonstrably special as there had been a long list of managers before him who failed to win the league, going back to the day Sir Matt Busby left. 

Many of us recall Nottingham Forest winning the European Cup under Brian Clough. That created a huge amount of interest in Football. Clough exemplified the pre Premiership era of English domination. Forest, Liverpool and Aston Villa more or less monopolised the trophy. Sadly the holliganism of the era put paid to this golden age. I can remember people saying that the only way to stop football violence was fences and bans. In fact, it was the Taylor report that really sorted it out. Taylor made football address its worst aspects, the current success is based on a perception that it is a family sport. Whilst the truth is that on the terraces you still hear words the Vicar wouldn't say, you don't expect to get your head kicked in. Stadiums are all seated and safe. There is a move back to 'safe standing' but this won't be like the old swaying crowds on the terraces. This is the foundation of the current success of football and has nothing to do with the FA. It is telling that it took an outsider such as Taylor to put football back on its feet. 

Football has the greatest product of any spectator sport. The negatives have largely been addressed, the experience of going to a match is special, be it in the Premiership or in the ninth tier (both of which I do regularly). Anyone owning a club is the custodian of that club and it's traditions. They owe a huge debt to the loyal fans. It is true that fans really don't know what they want. They want to watch great players, giving their all, week in and week outm, who engage with them. They want to be safe on the terraces, but not totally insulated and sanitised from the banter that makes being in a crowd fun. They want  a pie and a pint to be served quickly at half time. Most would love to be able to take a pint of warm beer with them to their seat and if they did, most would behave impeccably. Most fans will pay the TV subscriptions and recognise that the cost supports the infrastructure that makes it all possible. But if you said to a fan "We've set up a system where your team is guaranteed a trophy every year" most would laugh at you. I don't know any fans who enjoy watching the dead rubbers in the Champions League qualifiers. The first thing I thought when I head about the ESL was "Oh no, more dead rubbers". If no one can be relegated and only one team can win, by half way through the season, half of the games would be irrelevant. 

My second team, Hadley FC, of the Essex Senior League are on a record breaking run in the FA Vase. I watched the game on a stream on Saturday with 47 other viewers. The commentary was done by a couple of amatuer Sutton Common Rovers fans, one of whom turned up at half time as he'd missed the bus. The other hadn't got a clue who the players were. I enjoyed it more than the sterile match between Chelsea and Manchester City, which had the most appalling first half of any match I've seen. I've always said I'd watch a three legged dog kick a ball around Watling Park if there was nothing else on. The bottom line is that for  'Legacy fans' like me, football is a curse. I'd go along with whatever, as I need my fix. But the excitement that got me hooked is diminishing all of the time. If these greedy businessmen really wanted to think about the future of the sport long term, they would be moving to make it genuinely more competetive and open. One of the things that makes ties between English clubs and the likes of Real and Barcelona so special is that they don't happen all of the time. Intense rivalries only happen because of geopgraphy or success. The only reason why a Real vs Man City game would ever become a classic would be because both teams had a long period of success,where they viewed each other as bitter rivals. The bottom line is that with a sixteen club Super League there will only be three or four genuinely competetive clubs. That is the Achilies heel of the proposal. I can't believe that so many rich people, controlling so much of our favourite sport, could miss that and get it so wrong. 

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