The world of football has been thrown into turmoil by 12 of the richest clubs attempting to form a breakaway league that has drawn criticism from fans, pundits, authorities, and even players and managers.
If the whirlwind of news around the Super League has left you bewildered because football just isn’t your thing, let us break down what is actually happening, what you need to know, and what's likely to happen next.
Football, or soccer for some of our international readers, is risky. And very expensive.
To do well, you need the best players and there is no cap on how much the best players cost. Players cost whatever players cost, entirely made up figures based on how much other players cost, and every single club literally cannot afford the players they have or the players they want. But they have to keep buying them because that’s how you win. Every club, one way or the other, is in debt.
Isn’t that unsustainable? Yes.
Football should have done something about it a long time ago but the most influential clubs in the world are not owned by their fans, they are owned by investors who live thousands of miles away and see their clubs as an asset or family heirloom: Manchester United are majority-owned by the American billionaire Glazer family; Arsenal are owned by the American billionaire Stan Kroenke; Chelsea’s owner is the Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich; Liverpool are controlled by American billionaire John Henry and his Fenway Sports Group; and on and on.
These investors are not getting the returns they would like. Still, every summer, they are expected to buy more expensive players the clubs can’t afford to keep up with the other teams buying expensive players they can’t afford.
They’ve tried everything – everything! – to try to get the fans to cover all the costs: they hiked up ticket prices until the average supporter could barely afford to go any more; they released expensive new replica shirts every season; they did sponsorship deals with dodgy companies; they sold the names of their stadiums; and they did deals with TV companies that meant if you couldn’t afford those expensive match tickets for your family and instead you wanted to watch your team from the comfort of your home, you had to purchase an expensive TV package.
This wasn’t enough for the investors. Not only did they feel angry that they had to contend with their clubs not making enough money, but they also have to deal with the fact that their teams might lose matches and make them even less money. In other words: they have to contend with the notion of sport and being beaten by teams that they consider, historically, to be beneath them.
Fans understand that competition is at the heart of football and sport. Matches are only exciting because there is something to play for and something to lose, i.e. your place in the entire system. Remove that threat of ultimate loss, however, and suddenly nothing matters because there are no stakes. If you thought football was pointless before, imagine if you were still rewarded for losing. The problem is that that’s exactly what the biggest investors have decided to introduce. They have ultimately stopped seeing sport as sport. They have decided no more losing for them, they would like to get paid, win or lose. Striving to win is poetic, sure, but by no means should that get in the way of what really matters: making money.
So on Sunday, the owners of the 12 biggest teams in Europe announced that they would no longer be taking the financial risk that comes with competition. They’ve decided to create a tournament where it doesn’t matter if their team wins or loses, their team will still get paid at least £300 million every season. One of these clubs could lose every single game of the Super League season, and they would still receive £300 million, no questions asked.
Traditionally, leagues work by kicking out the worst teams every year and replacing them with teams that have proven themselves worthy, thus creating an incentive to cheer on your team less they lose their status in whatever league or competition they want to stay in. The Super League is doing away with all that – the places of the founding members are guaranteed in a closed-off tournament.
Fans have said they don’t want to watch their teams play in meaningless matches where there are no real consequences for losing. JP Morgan, which has signed up to help finance this new league, believe that fans, with nowhere else to go, will have no choice but to pay for this. The investors have gone with JP Morgan.
Where does that leave the hundreds of other football clubs not invited to this private members club? Well, nobody knows. They won’t receive any of this new money and the gap between them will only grow bigger the more the most influential clubs focus on where they are really getting their money: this new Loser-Still-Takes-All tournament. Millions of fans will have nothing to cheer as stakes are stripped from the sport.
The vast majority of supporters follow a team outside of the Super League, and many are fans of sides that in recent years have achieved more than some of the teams invited.
What comes next is still unknown. But, as you’ve worked out, surely the solution will be to stop the league from going ahead and then removing these investors and then giving fans control of their own clubs and not hinging the entire sport on money.
You would hope so. But the Super League has taken hope, too.