Different game, different battle. Why the Super League could succeed.
The ‘Dirty Dozen’ football super-brands have kicked off, and immediately the game’s establishment defence has been turned and on the backfoot. Despite the existence of tentative plans to form a new, elitist format of the people’s game circulating in the public domain for many years, Sunday’s announcement by the twelve breakaway clubs, including English clubs Liverpool, Manchester United, Manchester City, Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur came as a shock that has rocked the game to its core.
Having weathered this initial attack and recovered their poise, the global football community has united (no pun intended) as one, putting aside all its former rivalries and self interest. Sporting bodies, media outlets, fans, and even governments have regrouped and started to counter attack. Player bans, competition expulsion, fan boycotts, even government legislation are all weapons in their collective arsenal (excuse the pun).
At a glance, it looks like the traditional stakeholders of the beautiful game have a very good chance of fending off this existential threat. Viewed purely from a footballing perspective, they may very well save the game and counter the Super League’s attack. But this assumes that the Super League is playing the same game, and fighting the same war.
In my opinion, the Super League are not. Further, I believe that the very weapons that the football establishment has at its disposal will in fact, if deployed and used in anger, play into the hands of the Super League and help them achieve their aims and goals.
Imagine trying to play a high defensive line, pushing everyone forward in a pressing game, only to be caught on the break by a long ball while vainly flailing an arm for offside. The very tactics that the football establishment think will defeat the Super League could in fact backfire and kill themselves.
Football bodies ban the ‘Dirty Dozen’ from their competitions
Other than the fact that this would be commercial suicide by the Premier League (dramatically reducing their product offering and its financial value) this threat is only viable if the breakaway teams actually want to play in these competitions. With the six English teams, there is an assumption that their owners want to remain in the Premier League.
The Super League’s proposed Tuesday/Wednesday scheduling of their own competition is interpreted as avoiding conflict with top flight domestic fixtures, but of course the truth is simply that this scheduling is a straight like-for-like replacement of the existing UEFA Champions League competition. The scheduling of the Super League has absolutely nothing to do with any consideration for the Premier League.
In fact, I believe the owners of the breakaway clubs explicitly want to be expelled from domestic football, cups and all, and that this occurrence is an essential part of their breakaway strategy. If they can’t play in traditional competitions anymore, it strengthens their proposed enterprise in any legal action they bring based on restraint of trade. They actually need expulsion from traditional competitions to happen, so as to bolster their defence.
Legacy tournaments are an obligation that all twelve breakaway owners don’t want or need. They’re a distraction from their own shiny new marketing vehicle. When it comes to fulfilling football fixtures, less is very much more. Who wants to go to Stoke, Alicante or Perugia on a cold, wet midweek night? Who wants to play three games every seven days when just once a week not only preserves the fitness of your player assets but enhances the exclusivity of your product offering?
The fans will never stand for it — but which fans?
Some may still believe that leaving the Premier League is impossible, since English football fans won’t stand for. Fan soundbites being aired on traditional and social media include ‘we’ll boycott the Super League’ and ‘we won’t renew our season tickets’, threats that once had teeth. No longer.
Why? Because domestic fan participation is not a necessary requirement in the proposed Super League business model. The COVID pandemic has shown once and for all that in fact football doesn’t actually needs fans in attendance for it to take place. Instead, the screen’s the scene, and not necessarily the TV. The future of football viewing monetisation is via the smartphone, not the goggle box. Why tie yourself to a fixed rate broadcasting deal worth millions when you can charge 200 million fans a quid and make £200M per game?
Virtual attendance is all that matters to the Super League. The game has demonstrated that sporting competition still can take place without an in-person crowd atmosphere. Arguably, the removal of this home advantage has resulted in more exciting, unexpected competition on the pitch. Results suggest that away teams have benefitted from no fans, making outcomes less predictable — boom times for betting companies, not so good for punters.
Empty stadia will detract from the spectacle and the Super League offering, right?
Okay, let’s address this properly. Any die-hard working class domestic fan that has attended football since the 1980s onwards (admittedly an ever decreasing segment of the live match day experience) will vehemently attest to how the demographic of match attendance has been diluted by football tourists and new fans — aka ‘them’.
The gentrification of football, given life following England’s relative success at Italia 90 and accelerated after glorious defeat at Euro 96, is the foundation that football tourism is built on. Non-local and non-UK fans are an ever increasing, highly sought after segment of in-person match day attendance. Of course this has had a significant impact on the traditional match day experience for domestic fans, such as ticket prices and match atmosphere, but these are established issues irrespective of the proposed breakaway.
And who can blame ‘them’ for wanting to engage with the six English super brands? For these fans it’s a great day out, often a once in a lifetime experience, that typically includes the spending of large amounts of money on merchandise, food, and even — in some cases — flights and hotels. The commercial departments of the breakaway clubs can’t sell enough of these highly lucrative packages to football tourists.
It’s not as if the ‘true fans’ spend anything like as much on match day, is it? Our indigenous fan base is a mature market that can’t compete with football tourism, and someone’s got to pay for those super stadia, right? If traditional local English fans choose to boycott the Super League, they’ll simply try to replace them with more out-of-town day trippers and football tourists…
Local government can withhold safety certificates and close the stadia
…assuming that in-person attendance is even worth the hassle. Local fan picketing, or even local authority stadium closures will surely scupper the Super League’s ability to host their fixtures, right? If they don’t have permission to use their own stadium they can’t play, surely? Wrong.
While this may seem like a powerful weapon to stop the establishment of the Super League, such a decision could in fact play into their business model. They may be of English origin, but who says these clubs have to play in their fixtures exclusively in England?
Many traditional fans are still of the mindset that believes their club is tied to this country, when in fact the real value for their owners is the club’s global brand appeal — and that can be offshored.
Think of occasions when a foreign company has bought out a UK business, and then taken it overseas. Brands such as MINI (a British brand now manufactured in Germany) spring to mind. Global fans’s don’t follow super brand football clubs primarily for their stadia. A home ground and its traditions may be important to domestic fans, but it’s secondary to everyone else. Was the spectacle of the recent UEFA Champions League knockout games diminished by being played at neutral venues? No, it was not.
The Super League model wants to be excluded from its own stadia, since this will allow it to export the game to foreign shores where match day revenues are significantly more lucrative and commercial opportunities waiting to be exploited. If local government stadium closure or domestic fan hostility make home ground participation impossible, it will play right into the hands of the Super League.
And don’t forget, should the Super League owners want their own new stadia to base themselves at, there will be at least a dozen world-class venues looking to be regularly employed once the 2022 Qatar World Cup is completed…
The players. It’s all about the players.
It’s ironic. One reason for the breakaway clubs’ desire to take ownership of their financial future and maximise their income streams is the ever increasing cost of player salaries, and the struggle these clubs’ have servicing this obligation. Yet it’s these very same players that could prove to be the difference between the success or failure of establishing the Super League.
The threat of exclusion from international football by continental confederations, such as UEFA, and the world governing body, FIFA, could seriously scupper the Super League. If organisations such as these are able to impose a ban on players participating in the tournaments, the breakaway could be finished before it’s even begun.
Some players may already be wealthy enough to choose international inclusion over breakaway exclusion, and subsequently refuse to participate in the Super League, though not all. Some players may be heading towards the end of their careers and not want to miss one last chance of World Cup glory, though not all.
The legal exclusion of players by international bodies is not guaranteed. This matter is potentially as significant as the Bosman Ruling of 1995 that resulted in the lifting of restrictions on the free movement of workers in football — the players. If the footballing bodies can impose their bans, it could compel many footballers to turn their backs on the Super League, but if the law rules against exclusion it will allow players to participate without consequence to their careers.
Of course, individual national football associations could still choose not to pick Super League players, but, just as with throwing out the six breakaway English super clubs would ultimately be self-damaging to the Premier League, history suggests that commercial interest will always trump principles. Ultimately, organisations like FIFA have their own product to sell, and if a breakaway club Super League can succeed, why not an alternative international event featuring the world’s best players?
Lawsuits have already been submitted in the courts. This is where the real frontline of this battle is, and where events will be most significant. Everything else — threats of expulsion, fan fury, media uproar, government posturing — is currently secondary. The Super League may be able to do away with traditional fans, but they’ll always need the world’s best players.
Let’s hope reason prevails and the future of the beautiful game is secured for us all.