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The rise and fall of the European Super League: when the American challenge backfires

In the long history of America’s influence on the politics of innovation in Europe, the case of the planned football Super League stands out. This is not because of the project as such, but simply because, of all the variety of responses Europe has produced when faced with the latest American novelty, none has provoked enthusiasm and rejection—above all rejection—with such extraordinary intensity, unity, and speed.

The Super League scheme is well known to have precedents going back decades in a long line of efforts to “modernise” the organisation of football up and down the Old World. What is not recognised is how closely the vision—once taken over by American entrepreneurs—found its place in a grand historical catalogue of initiatives, corporations, movements, personalities which could emanate from any corner of America, and would set out to make their mark on the world outside the US, and Europe in particular, whether the rest of the world liked it or not. Embrace, adapt, or reject it, the great new challenge might be called Hollywood or the Marshall Plan, rock ‘n’ roll or hip-hop, Über, Google, Netflix,  or even the Black Lives Matter movement; in every case America’s disruptive innovations would end up providing a mainspring of change in Europe all through the 20th century and down to the present. The European Super League (ESL) proposals, and the reactions they aroused, demonstrate that this dynamic of asymmetric cultural confrontation is as active as ever.

On every such occasion cultural protectionisms are invented, diplomatic deals drawn up, international laws proposed, opinion makers and intellectuals mobilised and inevitably—sooner or later—the politicians become involved: the patterns repeat themselves over and over again. In the case of the ESL it was only when the American owners of Liverpool, Manchester United, Arsenal, and AC Milan backed by the billions of J.P.Morgan, took up the original idea of the owner of Real Madrid, Florentino Perez, that the challenge emerged on the scale and of the profile of a typical American entrepreneurial threat to an established European order. And as ever, the Europeans immediately split: six English, three key Italian, and three Spanish teams instantly signed up. The French and the Germans steered clear.

The ESL was launched in public late on Sunday 18 April. It was an announcement, said the New York Times’ soccer writer, James Montague, next day, “Made in America.” He explained:

“In American sports leagues, the norm is cartel-like structures, where owners control franchises and share revenue along the way. … But it is utterly alien to how soccer operates… promotion and relegation are in European soccer’s DNA but don’t exist in U.S. sports…Why plow money into a team when one bad season could cause you to lose your seat at the top table?”

The sale of football clubs as such in Britain goes back to the creation of the Premier League as a single commercial operation in 1992. It was a classic outcome of the free-market, top-down Americanizing views of the world which rode high in the post-Thatcher-Reagan era, and were translated into pay TV by Rupert Murdoch.   By 2020, 13 Premier League Clubs, and others, were foreign-owned—the Chinese alone controlling four. Yet suddenly, with the ESL project, a tipping point was reached. The proposed League would have a permanent membership with clubs turned into free-floating brands, enjoying total control over the crucial broadcasting revenues and the market in players. A vast nationalist reaction set in with quite extraordinary ferocity and speed.

Celebrated veteran footballers, such as Gary Neville and Alan Shearer, immediately gave voice to the opposition in unmistakable terms: clubs such as theirs, they said, represented a heritage rooted in decades of local working class life and loyalty; power, pride, and dignity were at stake and could not be sold off at any price to a cabal of vulture capitalists, oligarchs, Royal sheiks, and bankers, just so that these tycoons could make even more money. Seeing a populist wave of indignation arise before their eyes, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and French President Emmanuel Macron made clear their opposition in the Sunday night hours before the official announcement of the new League.

By Tuesday morning the political backlash had broadened to include even the governments of nations not touched by the ESL project. But it was Johnson’s Tuesday morning meeting with the chairmen and fan clubs of the 14 Premier League teams not involved in the ESL which, according to many in Europe, made the key difference. Here, Johnson spoke of a “legislative bomb” which his government was ready to drop on the project. By Tuesday night the project was dead in the water.

Later, Aleksander Čeferin, the head of football’s European governing body, UEFA, acknowledged that the proposal had arisen against a background of deep financial, pandemic-related, crisis for the whole sport. He called for “solidarity” not “self-interest,” and on 21 May announced a Convention on the Future of European Football, aimed at radically reforming the governance of the game in the whole of Europe.

Indeed, even when the American challenge fails to overwhelm its intended beneficiaries, such is its force that they cannot avoid dealing with its implications and its after-effects: sooner or later everyone adapts, willingly or otherwise. The next big cultural upheaval will have “Made in America” stamped all over it once more: it will arrive when the great streaming services—Netflix, Disney Channel and now Amazon-MGM and Warner Discovery, already threatening established cinema and television everywhere—decide to get into sport. Netflix alone, with its $17bn content budget and its typically American scale, dynamism, ubiquity, and “relentlessness” (a favourite Jeff Bezos word) could certainly “find ways to make streaming live sport a viable business,” wrote Alex Barker in the Financial Times in January;  “Netflix could buy a league or just create one from scratch.”  Even if that came about, after the ESL fiasco it would most certainly not feature a European league of football teams. In one very special case the soft power of tradition, loyalty, identity, and solidarity had won out spectacularly over the hard power of the billionaires and all their cash.

Featured image by Jack Monach via Unsplash

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  1. Darvin

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