ourEconomy: Opinion

To see how the European Super League will change football, look to America

The only alternative to the hyper-commercialisation of football is to put ownership and control in the hands of communities, supporters and players

Thomas M. Hanna
20 April 2021, 5.16pm
Liverpool fans hang banners protesting the club's decision to join the European Super League outside its Anfield stadium
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PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

For many people in the football world, the three most dangerous words in the English language are now: ‘European Super League’. On Sunday 18 April, 12 of the most famous clubs in England, Italy, and Spain announced that they would be breaking away from the existing structures that govern European football to form their own league backed by the giant Wall Street investment bank, JP Morgan Chase.

The creation of this European Super League (ESL), where some of the world’s wealthiest and biggest clubs will exclusively compete against each other in a closed and tightly controlled format, was a shock to many – including some of the sport’s senior officials. But given the relentless and thorough commercialisation of the beautiful game in recent years, it was also grimly predictable.

From ever-rising ticket prices and leveraged buyouts to the scheduling of games at odd times to fit TV schedules, football – and European football in particular – is increasingly being oriented towards profit over all other considerations.

Lessons from the US

For many of us football supporters in the United States, the ESL plan is depressingly familiar. According to leaked documents seen by the Financial Times, the proposed model “closely resembles the structure of top US sports leagues”.

Most major sports leagues in the US operate essentially as closed, centralised cartels – like the one the ESL is seemingly attempting to create. In other words, US ‘leagues’ are actually distinct business entities, which can (and often do) negotiate TV and sponsorship deals, control team merchandising, establish where teams will play and who can be an owner, and set and enforce numerous rules on team business operations, salaries, etc.

Critical to this structure is that there is no promotion or relegation. The same teams play each other year in, year out and new teams are allowed in only if the league decides to expand or if an ownership group is allowed to move an existing team to a different city. The former is relatively rare, especially in the modern history of the National Football League (NFL), Major League Baseball (MLB), and the National Basketball Association (NBA) – none of which have added teams since the late 1990s or early 2000s. The latter is more common as wealthy owners often move teams when they are unable to extract enough public subsidies from local communities (for things like new stadiums). Recent examples in the NFL include the St. Louis Rams and San Diego Chargers both moving to Los Angeles, and the Oakland Raiders moving to Las Vegas.

This anti-competitive structure is specifically set up to entrench elite control over both decision making and profit, and is illustrative of capitalism’s inherent monopolistic tendencies. By combining a closed cartel structure with profit maximising values, US sports leagues are able to ensure that economic benefits flow primarily to a small group of wealthy owners rather than to workers or communities.

“In short, the reason that American sports are all organised as cartels is so that the team owners can make a profit,” Tim Worstall of the free-market Adam Smith Institute writes. “Without the cartels all the money would flow to the players.”

The ESL may lead teams to ditch local youth development in favour of purchasing the best players developed by independent academies

Perhaps most egregiously, this anti-competitive cartel structure is combined with restrictions that explicitly entrench ownership by millionaires and billionaires and foreclose other, more democratic forms. The NFL, for instance, has a rule that states “charitable organisations and/or corporations not organised for profit and not now a member of the league may not hold membership in the National Football League.” This is commonly known as the ‘Green Bay Rule’, which prevents any other team in the league from adopting the non-profit community ownership structure that the Green Bay Packers have. As a team that predates the NFL, the Packers were grandfathered in and allowed to keep their unique ownership structure.

Community control and democratic ownership

The ESL is the next step towards European football adopting a US-style sports structure, and it is no surprise that the US ownership groups of several major English clubs appear to be helping to drive this effort. This includes Arsenal, Manchester United, and Liverpool, all of which are owned by super-wealthy individuals who also own major US sports teams. While the prospect of watching a few of the biggest football clubs in the world competing against each other may seem appealing to some, the underlying structure is one in which profit and elite control reign supreme and supporters, communities, and players are at best an afterthought, and at worst groups to be actively suppressed.

It portends a future in which a small group of clubs increasingly distance themselves from their communities and the rest of the sport – entrenching and codifying a two-tiered system of the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’. Taken to its logical conclusion, it is not difficult to imagine these clubs physically moving locations to chase profits, just as US teams do, or changing the rules of the game to entrench and preserve their elite positions (TV timeouts anyone?). Similarly, it may also lead teams to ditch local youth development in favour of drafting or purchasing the best players developed by colleges and independent academies, as is also done in the US.

But the issue is not simply the ESL, and the sport’s problems won’t simply go away if the current plan is defeated. As many supporters and pundits have pointed out in recent years, the only viable long-term alternative to a future of hyper-commercialised football is to embrace new models of community control and democratic ownership. For instance, in 2019, Common Wealth and the Center for Local Economic Strategies (CLES) published a report on “Democratising Football”, which laid out the many problems of the current approach, the benefits of alternative models of ownership and community control, and possible routes to get there.

Football is unique. A kid can go from kicking a ball in the street to playing against the best players from all over the world

Moreover, democratic ownership and community control of sports teams is a tried and tested model around the world. In addition to the aforementioned Green Bay Packers (who have around 361,000 individuals shareholders and restrictions to prevent any one individual from gaining control of the team), several lower league US teams also have or had democratic ownership structures. This includes not only teams with direct community shareholders, but also teams that were purchased by municipal governments to prevent them from being relocated out of the local community.

Perhaps the most commonly cited example is in Germany, where most football clubs have to comply with the ‘50+1’ rule, which states that the club (and by extension the local community and supporters) must own the majority of shares. Consequently, commercial interests are restricted to a minority-ownership position. This structure has allowed many German clubs to avoid the type of high-profile billionaire take-overs that have plagued clubs elsewhere in Europe (while remaining highly competitive with their investor-owned counterparts). Moreover, it is already being speculated that the 50+1 rule is one of the reasons major German clubs such as Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund have not yet joined the breakaway ESL.

Football without community is nothing

By almost any measure, football is unique. Perhaps more than any other sport or cultural activity it is global in nature yet rooted in local communities and experiences. A kid can go from kicking a ball in the local park or street to playing against the best players from all over the world in just a few years.

As supporters, we can be celebrating in the bar or in the stands with someone from our neighbourhood one day, and with someone from halfway around the world the next. And as we stand out in the rain or the beating heat, watching our team lose yet again to our local rivals, there always remains the hope that one day we will take on the best in the world.

Football is far from perfect, and toxic forms of nationalism and tribalism have always seeped into the game and culture, and must be rooted out. But its transformative potential to connect people and communities across borders and socio-economic divides is undeniable.

The ever-increasing commercialisation of football – and ill-conceived efforts to create US-style profit-making cartels like the ESL – seeks to sever the game from its base in the community and turn it simply into another multinational money-making business for the already super-rich. This is an existential threat, not only to local leagues, clubs, players and communities, but to the very future of the game as a potentially unifying global force. To adequately meet and defeat this threat, we cannot simply advocate for a perpetuation of the status quo of the past several years. Rather, we must coalesce around a fundamental reimagining of the sport’s structure that puts ownership and control in the hands of the communities, supporters, and players that truly love the game.

Is Britain breaking up?

With Scotland voting on Thursday in an election that could lead to a second independence referendum and increased talk of a 'border poll' in Northern Ireland, could the United Kingdom be on the verge of breaking up? And why? Where does England fit in this story?

Join us for this free live discussion at 5pm UK time, 6 May

Hear from a panel of experts from across Britain's political divides about the union's past, present and future:

  • Sarah Creighton Writer and lawyer from Belfast
  • Matthew O'Toole Social Democratic and Labour Party MLA for South Belfast
  • Adam Ramsay openDemocracy main site editor
  • Richard Wyn Jones:Professor of Welsh Politics, Cardiff University
  • Chair: Peter Geoghegan openDemocracy UK investigations editor and author of 'The People's Referendum: Why Scotland Will Never be the Same Again'
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