Sports

The Super League Debacle Deserved To Fail, And It Will Deserve To Fail Whenever They Try Again

The executives of the 12 clubs that attempted to create the Super League made exactly one bet in their ill-fated attempt at breaking away from the existing structure of the sport: The one thing they were broadly correct about would make up for all the things they got categorically wrong.

These clubs — six from England, three from Italy, and three from Spain — all believed that they would be able to weather any PR storm that popped up solely because they were correct that UEFA’s signature competition, the Champions League, has some pretty serious flaws, some of which will be exacerbated when the tournament’s recently-approved reforms (which, it must be said, had the public backing of some of these clubs) go into effect in 2024. Make no mistake: The Champions League is one of the most remarkable things in all of sports, but the new reforms had been dreaded even before they got the green light.

UEFA, like just about any gigantic profit-driven organization, cares about its bottom line. Its No. 1 priority, from now until the end of time, will be its bottom line — the new reforms, for example, add 100 new matches over the course of the tournament. Everyone knows this, everyone dislikes this, and the bet made was that fans wouldn’t care about the selfishness of their beloved clubs because of the selfishness made by the organization they already don’t like, that they don’t have a personal connection to because they’re not from Manchester or Barcelona. They’d still stay in their leagues, but when it came time to make money for European competitions, it’d go right to them and not to everyone else.

As a result, the executives behind the clubs came together to make a system where they were the sole beneficiaries of everything that goes into the bottom lines. The pandemic, of course, impacted every single club in the sport, but the ones with the heftiest bills — which is a problem for clubs in normal circumstances, and to quote Soccernomics, “Football is not merely a small business, it’s also a bad one. Anyone who spends any time inside football soon discovers that just as oil is part of the oil business, stupidity is part of the football business.” — really wanted to get some sort of financial remedy to their problems, as they spent in recent years without, you know, the assumption that a global pandemic would cause everything to come crumbling down.

Add in to all of this that the main power brokers in the Super League were clubs with American owners (Arsenal, Liverpool, Manchester United) who ostensibly wanted to move more towards a style of management that runs teams like a business (ex: the NFL) and a pair of clubs in deep financial despair due to years and years of lighting money on fire on building dominant squads (Juventus, Real Madrid) and it is not hard to see why this was viewed, to them, as a way to turn this entire project into a way to achieve financial viability or whatever nonsense businesses put out to justify making things worse. It is also not hard to see how, once those clubs came together, the rest would see it as an opportunity to get paid, not be left on the outside while top sides competed, or whatever else.

Does this make their thinking sound, or good, or moral, or whatever else? Of course not! For a moment, think of European soccer the way you think of Minor League Baseball — the teams are part of the social fabric of both their communities. The gripe that people have had as MLB has actively worked to carve up its minor league system is that these teams do not exist to make money. Instead, it is that they are there to provide a communal experience in cities across the United States, a good thing that serves as a bridge from past to present, and are so important to these places that not making a profit is something you live with.

While these 12 teams would not have sought to leave their domestic leagues, giving the sort of hyper-concentrated wealth among a dozen squads that would have came from the Super League would have ruined them forever. These 12 sides would have a perpetual advantage over everyone else, cementing their places in the top-3 or top-6 on an annual basis. Solidarity payments to leagues were kicked around, but money and power would have been so concentrated that this would have been for show.

To go back to the social fabric thing, the people below the very top of a club view themselves as part of a footballing society. Coaches, players, fans, 9-to-5 employees, they love their club and love the sense of community that comes with all of this. Those fans don’t just include schmucks like me — as Gab Marcotti of ESPN said in his fantastic write-up of things, the backlash was so widespread that it caught decision-makers off-guard.

First, they failed to “read the room.” They completely misjudged what the reaction would be, from fans to media to politicians to UEFA. They expected pushback, but not to this level. One example: By Tuesday night, Liverpool legend Jamie Carragher was on television saying that owners Mike Gordon and John W. Henry should consider selling the club rather than show their face in Liverpool again. And this is an ownership group that, until last week, had been adored, partly for bringing the Champions League and Premier League titles back to Anfield, and partly for the way they were so mindful of being in tune with the spirit and mentality of their fans.

Sam Lee of The Athletic, on the Why Always Us? podcast, posited something similar, speculating that the reaction from the very top of the British government played a role — “I think they underestimated [British prime minister] Boris Johnson getting involved. Because he’s such a populist and he’s such an opportunist, I think the opportunity to be seen as the savior of the world game and the savior of the English clubs led him and his ministers to really put the hammer down and say we’re not gonna let this happen, to divert eyes away from everything else they’ve been doing.”

So consider all of this, and consider the fact that players (lots of players!) and managers (them too!) were publicly not on board with this, and you get to the truth about the league: from the perspective of what this product is, that stinks, too.

The idea of a Super League involving 12 teams that occasionally adds more and they all play one another is an idea totally antithetical to what makes people love the Champions League — getting the opportunities for matchups between mega clubs is special exclusively because it is so rare, because a few balls bounce in a specific way and two heavyweights get drawn into a group together, or Bayern Munich has to play PSG in the quarterfinals because of a draw. It’s all because fortunes come together to give fans something special.

The thought is that Real Madrid vs. Manchester United, or Liverpool vs. Juventus, or any of these high-profile matchups would feel special solely because it exists. Instead, it would turn this beautiful thing into soccer’s version of a sleepy August game between the Yankees and the Dodgers, or a midseason tilt between the Knicks and the Lakers — sure, the names are huge, but we’ve seen this already and will see it again this year, so what’s the point? It is a good idea if you do not understand what makes this silly little game special. It is evidently clear that the power brokers who cooked up this half-assed idea — the same ones who, and I am still baffled about this, called existing supporters “legacy fans” but wanted to target “fans of the future” — do not.

What ultimately happened with the Super League was a bunch of rich, out of touch people thought they knew what the people wanted. (Shocking, I know.) They were wrong (Again, shocking), and this was made loud and clear. But rich people have done things before, and have been told by people they’re wrong, and they’ve gone ahead with it, anyway. It is a testament to everyone who spoke out against this horrific idea that it is not happening.

There will be more attempts at this general idea, and hopefully some sort of serious Champions League reform stems the tied on that. Ideally, the shame that led to this falling apart never goes away, and any efforts at the next Super League collapses before us legacy fans have to get involved.

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