The European Super League is on its way, and fans should be worried
In the sports world, as in life, the future is always more interesting than the present.
Cap room and draft picks can be anything! Is this the summer of Mbappé or Sancho or Haaland or Raphinha? Should we switch to a 4–2–3–1 or a diamond? Hypotheticals are fun. The sports economy runs on them.
But what’s happening around Liverpool at the moment, the hypothetical at play, is bigger than how Jürgen Klopp and the club’s recruitment staff plan to evolve the current squad. It’s a little more existential — what do we want this sport to be? And where/what should Liverpool be in that area? It’s a conflict that pits the supporters against the club’s ownership group, Fenway Sports Group.
Read through all the leaks about the proposed European Super League and expanded Champions League and there is a general ‘are we the baddies?’ aura attached to everything.
Helming those Super League talks is FSG and Joel Glazer, Manchester United’s chairman and co-owner. He is also the head of a raft of NFL committees in his capacity of co-owner of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, where he sits as the chairman of the league’s international committee.
Over the past year, I have detailed FSG’s long-term plans: the idea of building a pseudo-megaplex at Anfield; how and why they will invest in the squad; the cultural ramifications of their recent moves in both Liverpool and Boston; what their dealings with the Red Sox tell us about their investment in Liverpool and their other properties; they will sell a stack in the group (including Liverpool).; what the short, medium and long-term impact of all those decisions will be.
The financial impact of the global pandemic has simultaneously stalled and turbo-charged parts of the long-term vision. Elements of the ownership group’s plans that are antithetical to those of Liverpool’s supporters have been revealed — the furlough scheme, the Project Big Picture power-grab (or before the pandemic, when the ownership group tried to trademark the word ‘Liverpool’). Then there are the more nuanced issues, like showing financial prudence in the transfer market in the middle of a crumbling market and a meager title defence.
One of the crucial issues hovering over everything: The proposed European Super League.
The very concept of a Super League is a pet project of Liverpool’s principal owner John W. Henry and the club’s chairman, Tom Werner. The grand plan: A league owned and operated by Europe’s biggest and brightest clubs, separate and apart from the Champions League run by UEFA. Why, the theory goes, should a governing body collect a cut (and a massive one at that) of the money off the backs of Europe’s biggest football clubs when those clubs could just organise a competition themselves? (that theory is too flawed to discuss in detail in this piece.)
Dig through the latest leaked Super League proposal, as outlined in The Times, and you start to get a clear picture of FSG’s sporting worldview: Minimal risk; maximal profits. It’s an ethos that runs through every decision the group makes, across its ventures, even when that means investing more money into a squad or bumping up their preferred outlay to land a world-class manager.
Minimal risk can carry a pejorative connotation. But that’s not how Liverpool’s ownership group sees it. They view it as sensible, as a positive, as, at times, particularly when operating a frenzied marketplace beset by short-termism, as a market inefficiency; they’re able to step back and play the long game while others panic and flail. Across two continents, that approach has been proven correct over and over again.
Along with the Glazer family, Fenway Sports Group is the only ownership group to win a major championship on two different continents (the Premier League and World Series) and a continental title (the Champions League). And the Henry-led group has done so without saddling either of its ventures under mountains of debt. Quite the contrary: Liverpool and the Red Sox are cash machines — not always in spitting out cash at the end of the financial year, but in increasing their overall value so that the ownership group can then borrow against that sum or so that they can eventually cash-out (perhaps only in part) for an enormous profit.
If it often sounds or reads like they’re trying to be the smartest guys in the room it’s because, as even their ardent critics (in baseball and football) will confess, usually on background, they are.
The leaked Super League proposal offers a fascinating insight into the ideal world of the game’s top power brokers. It is, in essence, the Football World According to John and Tom.
Here is the proposal in full, via The Times:
So, we have an, umm, payment (gratuity?) to Barcelona and Real Madrid to garner their support at a time when both clubs are bordering on financial ruin. There is a soft salary cap akin to MLB’s luxury tax system — not a ‘hard cap’ in which a league states ‘you cannot spend more than X’ but a more malleable system with the cap shifting on a team-to-team basis. Then there’s the team’s own TV networks, a shift towards a modern, streaming model and away from the current broadcast partnership deals, as lucrative as those deals have proven to be.
And then the key: A closed-door policy. Revenue and profits are guaranteed. The sporting risk is minimal. The financial rewards are out-of-this-world. It is, in essence, the franchising of the game that concerned supporters and commentators alike at the start of the century.
Owners are like relationships: When you have a good one you find a way to nit-pick the flaws. But a bad one is soul-sapping. It feels impossible to escape.
Look at Manchester United. For years, Sir Alex Ferguson was able to cover-up for the Glazer’s inadequacies. Through the early part of the Glazer’s run, United experienced the most successful period in the club’s history. Trophy followed trophy. Parade after parade. A team featuring Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney, Carlos Tevez, and a hoard of world-class players was the envy of everyone home and abroad. It was easy to sneer at those United fans who saw the Glazers as an issue, who paraded the yellow and gold scarfs and dreamed of the Red Knights riding in to save the club — save them from what, exactly?
But the whole thing was a house of cards. You can only mask incompetence in football for so long. United, as a club, was and remains rotten to the core — the Glazers understood nothing of the culture or ethos of what made the place successful. They were and are professional leeches, burying the club under a mound of debt while ripping out any profits. They spend to get into the Champions League in order to make debt-loan payments without having to dip into their own pockets, and then they sit back and drain as much as possible out of the club. Rinse. Repeat.
As soon as Alex Ferguson and David Gill, the club’s long-time CEO, walked out the door, the whole thing came tumbling down. With them went any semblance of success as the club had come to know it. Stability was out. Debt payments skyrocketed. The club was sapped of some of its soul, not to mention the Champions League cheques. The owners panicked, leaping from one manager — one philosophy — to the next. The fan’s worst fears were actualized. The only way the ghoulish owners could think to restore it? Hire a fan as manager whose career credentials up to that point included an underwhelming stint with Molde and guiding Cardiff to relegation.
Think back to those early days of the Glazers. Liverpool fans remember all too well the calamity of Hicks and Gillette, two men who dragged the club to the brink of liquidation.
Back, then American owners were all the rage. America still had the whiff of exoticism, of exceptionalism; maybe they know something we don’t about this running of sports thing? Robert Kraft sniffed around Liverpool . Words like “franchise” were being bandied about. The MLS had had some nominal success, but it was just a drop in the soccer bucket. Ironclad broadcasting contracts, booming franchise values, freewheeling banks, and the FA’s lack of regulations meant that American sports owners could pick up a Premier League club on a never-never deal if they so wished. As long as they had the cash or collateral to operate the day-to-day, it was free money.
The Glazers decided to get in on the Premier League party. Then Stan Kroenke followed. Pearls were clutched, supporters shuddered. Surely, the NFL’s leading impresarios, the two titans of the American sports game, Kraft and the Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones would follow suit? Kraft certainly had an interest, trying and failing twice. Jones decided he had no interest.
It was not a flood of owners. The franchising of the game did not happen. A steady drip of American owners continued to churn through the sport. But the landscape shifted under their feet: The financial crash hit; venture capitalists could no longer compete at the very top of the sport unless it was an exceptional circumstance (*cough* Liverpool *cough); it was the age of the oligarch and the crown prince now; oil-money was in, old money was out.
Still: Though the dreaded ‘franchise’ element did not arrive overnight, the Premier League has steadily come under more of an American influence. This, of course, is not necessarily a bad thing. The issue is the cultural blend, in a sports sense; of vulture capitalists arriving on British shores to treat points of local heritage as another Excel sheet in their portfolio.
Just this past month, Burnley was taken over by a US-based consortium, headed by former CitiGroup executive Alan Pace. Pace and his group, like FSG, are venture capitalists. They fatten up distressed assets and sell them for profit. Like the Glazers — unlike FSG — they purchased Burnley through a leveraged buyout. Essentially: Buying the club with its own money, saddling it with debt, and allowing the owners to reap all of the benefits (the profit) without taking on any more of the risk.
It’s those kinds of purchases that have so distressed supporters over the past two decades.
FSG are in a different position. They saved an institution. They resurrected it from the brink of bankruptcy and through all the means that brought them success in baseball, built a sustainable model that brought all-manner of success on and off the field.
The Super League is just the next evolution of that, right? A move that has become so inevitable that it has drained any sense that it can be stopped out of the souls and minds of supporters.
And isn’t it a win in a way — the notion that these breakaway super clubs would flee domestic football always felt nonsensical, but there it is in black and white. Domestic football will still matter. The Super League will just replace the Champions League; a shame, perhaps, but not a disaster. It’s a win-win, club owners will say.
But the reality is a little more insidious than that. It’s about the owners of the Premier League’s two biggest clubs — driven by those with a franchise mindset, not Oligarchs or Crown Princes — transforming the entire outlook of the sport. Where supporters see a club or institution, they see Starbucks.
The proposal essentially splits the game into two: Midweek action that is played, ostensibly, by a Liverpool franchise; a round of weekend games that is played by the Liverpool Football Club.
Sure, the document states, you can have your hipster, cold brew on the weekends, put up your banners, sing your songs, take the bus to Cardiff or Birmingham or Southampton or wherever. But on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, we’ll be churning out Pumpkin Spice Lattes in Madrid and Munich. And you will love it. And all of our resources and planning and strategy will be built around the midweek churn: Guaranteed money; guaranteed outgoings; guaranteed incomings; guaranteed profits.
Risk is legislated out of the game — it is a league contained in its own orbit. Soaring profits are rigged in the favour of the owners. For the fans? No mention of guaranteed ticket prices or covering the cost of European trips for away supporters. No, as with the NFL and NBA and MLB, wage suppression and owner dividends will be sold under the false guise of ‘parity’.
Back in the early part of the century, as Roman Abramovich was transforming the complexion of the Premier League, banks were falling over themselves to hand funds to potential American investors into English football’s top-flight (England writ large, really) — particularly those with some connection to the sports world.
The fear among the self-dubbed sports writing intelligentsia and worried fans was that such owners would bring the Walmart mindset to the Premier League. It would be less local, less grounded in reality. And this wasn’t an old-timey, stuck-in-the-past, xenophobic point of view. It was about culture and meaning. Come, one and all, no matter your race, gender, or creed. Invest into what our club ethos, not just the sporting enterprise. Don’t support the team, support the overall institution. Respect what it represents to those for whom it is about so much more than kicking a ball and collecting paychecks from advertising firms.
That has all been expunged now — leverage buyouts and fake owners continue to rip the soul out of football communities. But there are still the last vestiges of community outreach at certain clubs, only that reach has gone global — from Kirby to Korea to Tanzania.
There has been a regeneration of the old Bill Shankley mindset at Liverpool, thanks to Jurgen Klopp and the platform laid by Michael Edwards and FSG; this is about the collective, not the individual. As they have done every step of the way in Boston and Liverpool, FSG prides itself in using the old to create interest in the now to bring success in the future; a savvy cycle that, as success builds, can always repeat itself. History, they figured out, should not be an anchor to success. It should be the reason you have success, therefore giving you even more history to be successful.
It is a brilliant model. It has worked.
The next model, bringing all of Europe’s most historical clubs under one umbrella is a play on that idea.
Yet to indulge in the Super League is to bastardise so much of sports history in the first place. It is the worst element of the Premier League as a #brand.
Hypotheticals are supposed to be fun. This is not. In partnering with the Glazers and the rest of Europe’s top power-brokers, FSG’s long-term objective is clear. If anything, it would be nicer if it was a little more brazen, sold as an attempt to help correct a broken system, and a little less Machiavellian.
FSG as a group like to operate in the shadows. But the ultimate fear — the franchising of football — is being played out in plain sight.
Originally published at https://www.liverpool.com on February 10, 2021.