BY LUCAS GILLARD
In this week of European finals, it’s impossible to ignore the spectre haunting Baku, Madrid, Munich, Manchester, Liverpool and every other football field on the continent. While it is commonly referred to as the European Super League, the root of this evil is a familiar one: money. Where money flows, corruption, special interests, and middlemen follow.
That is why a European Super League could be football’s redemption, not its grim reaper. At the elite level, football is unmistakably a game for the mega rich. The game we grew up loving still exists, but it’s not at the Etihad, the Allianz or the Nou Camp. That version of football is an absolute version of the sport – the absolute peak of human endeavour. But football fans don’t need perfection to be engaged. It’s one version of the game but not the only one.
In a free market, football fans would just flip toward the best product, and we’d all follow a Champions League contender. But football isn’t like a normal market. It’s a confusing mess of nostalgic childhood experiences, family associations, hero worship, and local tribalism.
The game we fell in love with is today the deconstructed mess that exists at our local park as much as it does in the depths of League One, or Ligue Un or in Huddersfield Town dropping 11 men behind the ball against Chelsea in 2018 to pray for their survival.
Football is (or was) a fundamentally “modernist” pursuit. It evolved rapidly to feed the working class who drove the industrial revolution, often in industrial towns, and mutated with the World Cup to add imperialist virtues like natural ability (genetics), superior tactics (intellect) and effort (love of the motherland). Football’s stories are about trials, tests and battles being overcome by superior virtue.
Even now football narratives are still couched in modernist norms but have been skewed to fit in a post-industrial world. Now – in England in particular – finishing 2nd, 3rd or 4th equals success. An away goal in a 3-1 loss in Europe is a moral victory, and coaches are either geniuses or failures depending on whichever YouTube tactics video you watch.
Something is broken at the top level of football, but it isn’t the balance sheets of the elite clubs. The unprecedented rivers of money pouring into football are coming at the expense of fans of clubs at all levels of the pyramid, whose own club narratives are increasingly driven mad by speculative owners.
This is the heart of the problem. There is just too much money in football, held by too few. When there’s so much money on the line those who have it won’t share it. Administrators and regulators become easily seduced by it, which means the odds of those without it winning some become even more remote. Supporters of clubs like Everton can only really finish 7th. Is that success for Everton? Is 8th a failure? How much money should Everton invest to finish 7th, or is finishing 8th on a fraction of that investment a more noble outcome? Why even bother with either outcome?
Deloitte recently released their “Annual Review of Football Finance 2019” report, which is summarised in the document with the superficial call out:
“The continued revenue growth of the Premier League and Football League has contributed to overall revenues in the European football market reaching record levels”
The document, and its focus on the top leagues presents a rosy picture for investors of the 2017/18 season. On aggregate in the “top 5 leagues” revenues are up, broadcasting revenue has never been higher, and wage costs as a % of revenue are mostly flat (FFP has made this a necessity).
But dig a little deeper in the report and there are alarm bells; bells that are chiming across the continent. Profitability in the EPL and the Bundesliga is positive and trending upward in Serie A after years in the red. But La Liga and Ligue 1 have seen major dips in profitability in the last season, driven largely by increasing wage bills (France and Spain observed the greatest increase in wages). Indeed, Ligue 1 clubs lost nearly €300M in 17/18, more than double the previous record deficit.
The % of revenues invested in wages is also inversely related to league position. Manchester City strolled to the 2017/18 Premier League title spending only 52% of revenue on wages. West Bromwich Albion finished last spending 74%. These percentages seem skewed, but the absolute figures paint a more Hieronymous Bosch style picture. City spent £260M on wages to West Brom’s £92M (or 280% more), while earning 402% more revenue ($503M vs $125M).
The problem here for clubs like West Brom isn’t cost but revenue. Champions League football, coupled with Premier League TV revenue, is a prize like no other. The average Champions League club from England took in £475M in revenue. Premier League clubs who finished between 6th and 17th took home £149M. Relegated clubs averaged £127M. Stop-in at the Championship and parachute clubs took home £51M. Championship clubs without parachute payments averaged £21M. All that means that the top 4 of the Premier League earn nearly 23 times the revenue of clubs like Birmingham City.
From a pure free-market perspective that makes sense. Clubs good enough for Champions League football deserve the money and exposure on offer. But football isn’t a free market. The supply of that nebulous consumer “the supporter” is completely inelastic. 22 thousand fans on average attended Birmingham City matches this season (roughly the same or more than six Premier League clubs), and each of them are equally entitled to “hope” for success. The football business doesn’t sell football. It sells hope. Nostalgia and hope. Birmingham City fans who reminisce about the 2011 League Cup victory are equally entitled to provocate for investment, for transfers, and for the highest possible quality of players. Hope, in an overly inflated market, spells trouble.
This provocation, excitement and expectation is essential to football fandom – something many club owners seek to connect to or embody themselves – and in football financial terms that often leads to speculation. The pot of gold for promotion and, heaven forbid, European football is so intoxicating that lower level Midases put their clubs into compromising fiscal positions. Birmingham City themselves were fined 9 points this year for financial losses. Historic club Bolton Wanderers danced delicately around insolvency before being put into administration while relegated to League One. QPR played last season under a transfer ban for historic losses.
Sadly, this isn’t new news, but the potential solutions presented don’t seem new. As long as there is the hope of cash football-Ponzis will gamble their club’s future on a big pay day. French clubs who aren’t PSG are wearing losses today because what alternative do they have? Fans won’t want their clubs to cede the league to PSG just because they’re mega-rich. They didn’t earn it. But in today’s football their only alternative is debt and possible destruction.
PSG’s state-owned Qatari benefactors have perfectly established the need for a European Super League. Gulf states aren’t going to become less wealthy. The Chinese economy isn’t going to slow to a halt, and US club owners aren’t going to find leveraged buyouts harder to come by. Where one or a couple of clubs hold the balance of power in a domestic league – by good planning or infinite resources – there cannot be real competition. Leicester City style lightning can strike, but the more likely scenario is this 18/19 season where the Champions of England, France, Germany, Spain and Italy all went back-to-back.
European football has become the plaything of the elite, and the divide between the elite and the rest is increasing. As this gap increases, local competitions become more imbalanced, dangerous speculation at lower level of the pyramid will increase, and more and more fans will suffer the injustice of their 100+ year clubs going to the wall or becoming shadows of their former selves.
If your only hope to compete is to pray for a messiah out of a Gulf state, second world oligarch, NFL franchise owner or a Chinese state-backed investment fund, then the imbalance in football has become its millstone.
Football’s redemption can only come from harnessing the grassroots passion that drives thousands of people to non-global-elite matches. It won’t come from capping the supply of funds into the elite level. Above all football just won’t or can’t prevent that. If we are expecting FIFA or UEFA to legislate for fans at the expense of the interests of the global elite, then we are at delusion DEFCON 1. Where money flows, so does the football regulator.
FFP doesn’t cut it. FFP works in favour of the mega rich, especially those with inelastic revenue streams like those owned by Gulf states. Speculative investments in sponsorship by Etihad are seemingly infinite (not to mention casually overlooked by the regulator). Other instruments like a salary cap are so antithetical to operations in the last 50 years that it would be impossible to introduce without the elites dropping restraint of trade lawsuits by the dozen. Or the cap would have to be so high that 99% of clubs wouldn’t get anywhere near it or drown in debt trying.
There is only one reasonable solution. A European Super League. Allow the G-14 or some other elite cartel to exit their local competitions completely and form their coveted European league competition at weekends. The TV rivers of gold would flow immediately toward the cartel at the expense of domestic TV revenues. With the Manchester clubs out of the way, (as well as Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool) – with their unbalanced revenue lines – the EPL would suddenly become more even. As the TV revenue follows the elite players into the Super League, the financial incentive to mortgage your club desists throughout the pyramid. Fans of clubs like Everton, Birmingham, or Accrington Stanley won’t suddenly jump ship and follow Manchester City because football doesn’t work that way. Heck, Everton could conceivably win this new Premier League!
Fans throughout the pyramid follow their clubs in the hope that they can achieve success at the highest level possible. With mega revenue now not as theoretically achievable (and therefore corruptible) clubs would be more likely to practice fiscal responsibility.
Would Spurs be able to hang onto Harry Kane or Christian Eriksen as long as they have in a slightly poorer Premier League? Likely not. But they would be able to find them as juniors and play them. The transfer cycle could shrink, but fans at all level would still have access to “one of their own” local (or inexpensive) talent that comes good and heroically reflects the virtues of the jersey… for a while at least.
For some degree of connectivity, this Super League could start with 12 or 14 clubs and add one every year – let’s say the winner of the old Champions League. They could add 1 per year until they get up to 20 teams and a 38 game season before adding promotion and relegation from the Super League to the old Champions League (and back into their domestic associations, cap in hand). With 6-8 years of unbridled mega wealth, any original club who then gets relegated would utterly deserve it.
Turning the top tier clubs into a sandpit for the mega wealthy creates an immediate balance throughout every other level of the game, making them more even and “success” more relative. Yes, on some level it would be sad to see clubs like Manchester United exit the Premier League, but progress is inevitable – and optional for the club in question. The Glazers may be more nostalgic than we realise and decline the Super League to stay in their historic digs. But it’s extremely unlikely. As soon as clubs started being purchased by the mega rich with little appreciation for a club’s cultural significance, football’s modernist innocence was lost – and it’s not coming back.
FOLLOW LUCAS ON TWITTER @ljgillard