Ben Walker | Save football LRB April 27, 2021
During a pre-pandemic panel in November 2019 at the London School of Economics on ‘The Future of Football in Europe: Access and Sustainability’, sports journalist Gabriele Marcotti described the growing sentiment among football clubs of elite that they had reached a “ ceiling ”. . The lack of competition between broadcasters had created a “monopsony” and European gambling was a “mature market” with little room for growth.
Another panelist, Umberto Gandini, a member of the board of directors of the Association of European Clubs recognized by UEFA, feared that clubs would find it difficult to monetize new media. A “more innovative way of presenting sport to people with millennial tastes” was needed, he said. “The experience becomes more important than what you witness when you watch a game.” Elite clubs “were playing a different game” from the rest, Gandini noted. After years of regulation aimed at preventing them from “blowing off” to start their own competition, maybe it would be better if everyone let them go and do it.
Last Monday (April 19), AC Milan, where Gandini worked for more than twenty years, was one of twelve clubs (six English, three Spanish, three Italians) to have announced their intention to form a European Super League. separatist. The new competition, not governed by traditional football institutions, guaranteed the participation of its founding members. It was an attempt to separate the “elite” clubs from the rest of the European football pyramid. The league was backed by a $ 3 billion loan from investment bank JP Morgan and the teams expected to raise an additional $ 4 billion annually through sponsorship and broadcast deals, almost twice as much as the UEFA Champions League.
The announcement, which leaked early on Sunday April 18, was met with dismay from both inside and outside the football world. Sky has removed the option to watch games without artificial crowd noise (a feature introduced for stadiums emptied by the pandemic) to prevent viewers from hearing loud protests outside. Former Manchester United player Gary Neville called it a “criminal act against the fans”. Even the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge ‘shared fans’ concerns about the proposed Super League and the damage it could do to the game we love. The protests worked: within two days, the project collapsed, with one team after another announcing they were pulling out. Only three of them have yet to officially withdraw: Barcelona, Real Madrid and Juventus.
Most of the plaintiffs agreed that the clubs formed the league like a greedy cash grab. But greed comes in many forms. The owners (the distinction between clubs and their owners is important) signed up for a variety of different reasons: some to avoid what they see as an unfair distribution of broadcasting money in traditional competition. UEFA, others to avoid the financial ruin caused by the pandemic and others to avoid being left behind. The three clubs still attached to the idea have been among the most affected by Covid-19. Real Madrid president Florentino Pérez (CEO of Grupo ACS, a construction and telecommunications company with an annual turnover of $ 40 billion), gave a lengthy interview on Spanish television the day after the announcement initial:
Here at Real Madrid we have lost a lot of money, we are all going through a very bad situation… what is attractive in football is playing between big clubs, the value of television is increasing and more income is coming. generated. It’s not just the rich who want the Super League, we are doing it to save football because it is at a critical time.
When Pérez talks about “saving football” he means as a business and not as a sport. A number of elite clubs have made untenable financial decisions in recent years (mainly regarding player contracts) which have been exacerbated by the pandemic. Juventus, for example, use a fifth of their annual income to pay just one player: Cristiano Ronaldo.
AC Milan is now owned by Elliott Management, a $ 38 billion hedge fund founded by venture capitalist Paul Singer. Elliott is a vulture fund that is used to buying sovereign debt at low prices, then forcing countries (Peru, Argentina, Congo) to obtain assets in the event of default. In 2017, when the former owners of AC Milan (who bought it from Silvio Berlusconi) defaulted on loans held by Elliott Management, the fund took over the club. The team were in a rut on the pitch: they hadn’t won an Italian title in six years and failed to qualify for the Champions League in five of those seasons. “ I think it’s going to be very difficult to straighten out Milan and sell him for $ 1 billion, ” an anonymous source inside the club said. Financial Times in 2019. “I keep thinking that there must be a more obvious play here that I don’t see.” ESL was that game. AC Milan’s performance on the pitch would no longer matter to Elliot.
The main players in the English cohort were the American owners of Manchester United (the Glazer family) and Liverpool (John W. Henry). Their motivation appears to have been a combination of a desire to accumulate wealth and an ideological horror of how UEFA works. This does not mean, however, that the debate should be framed as a battle between defenders of football history and tradition (UEFA) and the franchise model of contemporary American sport (Henry also owns the baseball team. of the Boston Red Sox). UEFA was not against a European Super League in principle; indeed, the breakaway was an alternative to UEFA’s plans to reform the Champions League in order to guarantee the participation of the big European clubs in the future – a super league in short.
What made UEFA unhappy was not that the clubs were trying to consolidate their elite status, but that they were trying to do it on their own terms. UEFA chief Aleksander Čeferin called Manchester United vice-president Ed Woodward and Juventus president Andrea Agnelli ‘snakes’ and ‘liars’ for appearing to join UEFA reforms while secretly planning their own separatist league.
Despite the rampant financialization of football, “what you witness when you watch a game” seems to have been at least aesthetically resistant to what happens off the pitch. VAR is most often criticized for what it does to the flow and feel of the game, rather than for making it empirically fairer. Panelists at the LSE event in 2019 were particularly worried about football’s ability to attract younger fans (“ with millennial tastes ”) who, according to Gandini, did not have “ the level of attention for two hours ” of football. The Juventus president said the Super League was supposed to simulate “ what young people do on digital platforms … with Call of Duty, FIFA or Fortnite“. Pérez suggested “that if young people say that football matches are too long … maybe we need to shorten the length of the matches.” As David Runciman put it in the LRB in 2018, football is becoming less of a sport and more of a ‘subset of the entertainment industry’.