Billionaire soccer club owners are being accused of self-interest and greed — and I for one am shocked.
News of the proposed European Super League stunned sports fans worldwide this weekend. Twelve of Europe’s most historically successful clubs are proposing the formation of a 20-team league to become the new top tier of European competition, superseding the UEFA Champions League and Europa League. The ‘founding members’ of the ESL cannot be relegated — which the British press has dubbed an ‘NFL model’.
That doesn’t seem like a fair comparison — the NFL is much more egalitarian. The American sports leagues may not have relegation, but they do operate a draft system which helps keep the rosters even over a 15-year period. No, this is the worst aspects of American and European sports combined by its worst characters.
One reason for that is the leading role of the Glazer family in the league’s formation. Joel and Avi Glazer possess both the reigning Super Bowl champions, the Tampa Bay Buccaneeers, and the reigning nothing-champions Manchester United. Two of the other clubs in the dirty dozen are American-owned: Liverpool, who Boston Red Sox owner John W. Henry acquired in 2010, and Arsenal, who Walton-in-law Stan Kroenke owns along with the LA Rams, the Denver Nuggets and several other sports franchises.
It’s this style of ownership model that really explains the logic behind the European Super League: domestic fans are viewed as largely irrelevant, clubs are thought of solely as money-generating entities, annual revenue is as important as winning titles and ‘success’ is measurable on the stock market.
But Glazer and the other ESL owners misunderstand the rapidly expanding appeal of soccer to American market. They are acting on behalf of the ‘football hipster’, with his peculiar pansexual attitude towards the top five European leagues, who views Chelsea v Wolves in the same manner as Real Sociedad v Levante. They are catering for the casual who only shows an interest in soccer games featuring names they’ve heard of — ignoring the fact that frequently such matches are cagey affairs where teams play defensive football to avoid defeat (trust me, I know — Jose Mourinho managed my side until this morning).
The entertaining viewing comes from watching the upsets, the unpredictable matches that turn expectations on their heads. It’s watching the likes of West Bromwich Albion put five past Chelsea, as the Blues’s weird little goblin manager hops around helplessly on the touchline. It’s watching teams like my hometown club, Brighton, rise up three divisions in 20 years and beat Liverpool and Spurs in the same week. I’ve watched European soccer in the US for close to six years — and no single moment drew more American interest than unlikely Leicester City winning the Premier League title in 2016. Those games are what pique the interest of the father in the Midwest who gets up with his toddler at 6 a.m. and sticks on NBC Sports in the background. Americans love an underdog story — and the European Super League will put an end to them.
What’s more, the harsh resistance to the ESL will mean the clubs who participate in it will win fewer trophies. The Premier League, La Liga of Spain and Serie A of Italy have said teams cannot play in the new tournament and in the domestic leagues. Tottenham Hotspur have not won a significant trophy in my lifetime — if they join the ESL, they probably never will.
What starts as the European Super League will only grow more cynical, more global, more detached from what people actually want. In 10 years, it’ll be offering a grueling 1-1 tie between FC Internazionale Nanjiang and the Washington Raytheons, live from Abu Dhabi — and no one will be watching.