Finally, the European and US systems are fundamentally different and what is deemed authentic sport – the way in which quality, jeopardy and connection is delivered to fans – is different too. US leagues don’t sit on top of a professional sports pyramid – they sit astride a college system where narratives are created through the draft. As a result, teams can’t rise up and fall down the pyramid – narratives are limited to winning, with the threat of decline or even extinction prevalent in European football absent. Outside of the top teams, fans expend their energy and passion on college teams. This influences enterprise values for professional teams both through limiting the downside of ownership and through scarcity. The number and status of clubs is controlled by the league system – like a sort of sporting Blockchain – while in the free-wheeling, free-market world of European football there are any number of clubs for sale, all of which have a chance of one day becoming a ‘superclub’.
None of this is meant to refute the fact that opportunities for commercial growth abound – it is simply to point out that where European football currently stands is perhaps not as bad as is sometimes supposed.
The logic behind the commercial model
The great irony of the project was that it was conceived to maximise revenue for participating clubs but that those who are the ultimate source of all club revenue – the fans – weren’t consulted and didn’t like the idea very much. UK-based creative agency Ear to the Ground has since conducted research that revealed that 80% of Gen Z fans – the group (aged 16-24) to whom the concept was primarily targeted – were unsupportive of the new competition. The reaction to the project was one of the few times football fans have been truly united in pursuit of a coherent, common goal.
But the proposal is backed by both logic and evidence, of a kind. While not directly consulted, fan wishes were interpreted through their actions evidenced in viewing figures, social media following and engagement. This evidence supports the logic that revenue growth for the biggest clubs would be best achieved by pooling their commercial strength into a single competition into which they are guaranteed access each year.
It is certainly true that more people tune in to watch Manchester United vs. Liverpool than Burnley vs. Brighton, and the relative social following of the world’s biggest teams dwarfs that of mid-table teams in Europe’s top divisions. This is true of both a domestic and international audience, although is even more acute among younger, international audiences where ties with clubs tend to be based purely on the quality and brand strength of both the clubs and star players. There is little reason for a fan in China to watch Sheffield United, while the prospect of watching Raheem Sterling for Manchester City is all the more appealing.
The logic holds, therefore, that if there can be more matches between the world’s biggest teams, more people will want to watch, resulting in higher subscription revenues for broadcasters, higher media rights values for competitions and higher revenues for clubs. This kind of logic holds true in other forms of entertainment, namely film: people like Iron Man and Thor? Put the two together and you get, among others, Avengers: Endgame, the second-highest grossing film in history. So far, so clear. But in football this only works in the context of an authentic competition and The Super League was not perceived as such.
It’s not sport
Much of what has been written since the end of The Super League’s cameo has focused on the communication strategy, rightly pointing out how badly the whole thing was handled and how surprising this was given the experience and competence of many of the people involved. It may be true that the project would have had a better chance were the founding members more committed to persuading stakeholders on the idea’s merits rather than preemptively defending their legal position. But the project was destined for failure, not because of the botched launch, but because it was an entertainment product marketed to sports fans, and as such was simply a bad idea.
It is our belief that for professional sport to be commercially successful, it must be authentic and to be authentic, sport must inspire fans through quality, excite fans through jeopardy and connect with fans through what it means – to both fans and players – to win. The Super League was destined to be the highest quality football competition on the planet. Tick. But jeopardy was undermined through guaranteeing access to the founding members each year, removing the punishment for failure. Jeopardy is what happens when high stakes meets uncertainty and allowing clubs to lose on the pitch without any material consequence off it meant that games outside of the title race wouldn’t have mattered. More significantly, jeopardy within domestic leagues would have been materially undermined, rendering 9 months and up to 380 games of football next to meaningless. “It is not a sport where the relation between effort and success does not exist. It is not a sport where success is already guaranteed, it is not a sport where it doesn’t matter when you lose.” In his press conference following the announcement, Pep Guardiola succinctly articulated the significance of jeopardy’s absence.
But that fans didn’t feel a connection to the competition was a bigger issue still and was largely for two reasons. The first was that the sporting credibility of the competition was undermined through the qualification criteria. Instead of being based on a sporting meritocracy the participation of the founding members was determined by their commercial clout and historic, rather than current, success. Today’s Champions League is legitimate (albeit not without issues of its own) because the participating teams deserve to be there because they are the best teams from their respective nations at that given moment.
Second, the perception was that the games would have lacked the proper context as the competition lacked meaningful history. Fans have a connection not only with the players and clubs, but also with the competitions in which they compete – clubs are playing on a platform that would still matter even if some of them weren’t there. It’s a bit like watching Coldplay headline Glastonbury. It’s more meaningful seeing them perform on one of music’s most iconic stages than watching them play a random stadium in a one-off event. The reason being there is a context to their performance that enhances its significance. And likewise, Glastonbury is still Glastonbury even without Coldplay.
History matters. Historical context is one of the key things that differentiates sport from entertainment. The top flight of English football has been running under various guises since 1888. While the format, the teams, the narratives, the quality, the style of football have all evolved over that time, the fundamentals – that of a sporting competition between England’s best football teams – remain the same. That’s 123 seasons. Compare that to the longest running scripted TV Show – The Simpsons at 32 seasons (and counting) – and you begin to see that there is something about sport that makes it different. How can an entertainment product that is fundamentally the same as it has always been continue to capture the imagination and elicit the passion of so many fans such that club affiliations are passed down within the family for generations?