THE COLLAPSE OF THE EUROPEAN SUPER LEAGUE - WITH JUST A MODICUM OF PLANNING, IT COULD HAVE BEEN OH SO DIFFERENT
The unceremonious collapse of the European Super League within 48 hours of its announcement heralded the death knell of what surely must go down as one of the most spectacularly ill-judged ventures in sporting history, putting paid to the notion that the billionaire owners of clubs like Man Utd, Liverpool and Arsenal have any affinity with the fans and tradition of the clubs whose interests they claim to represent.
The fact that these clubs capitulated so quickly following a vitriolic reaction from the entire footballing community suggests that they weren’t expecting the vitriol (something even the most casual football fan could have predicted) in the first place and their inability to ride out even the initial storm of indignation confirmed a bewildering lack of coherent strategy, the presence of which might just have seen them make more of a fist of pulling this off.
Perhaps the most detrimental side-effect of such a botched hijack of the beautiful game is the gushing romanticisation of a status quo which has long been a far cry from the bastion of financial parity and utopian level playing field which (in comparison to the proposed ESL) it is now being venerated as. How is it that 12 of the wealthiest, most successful men in the world could have bungled this to the point of beggaring belief? Taking bold steps to reinvent the most popular game on earth was never going to be easy, but lessons could so easily have been learned from another sport’s successful attempt to do something similar.
In 2008, the Indian Premier League (IPL) reinvented the nation’s cricket league, dispensing with the traditional five-day and one-day formats and transforming a drawn out game into a thrilling three-hour drama befitting any Bollywood epic, with stars to boot. Before that, the Board of Control for Cricket in India had a monopoly over a lucrative industry with little motivation to deviate from the status quo where cricket was already the dominant national sport and the domestic league was geared far more towards players than spectators.
The IPL generated colossal demand from audiences who had hitherto ignored the traditional form of the game. The opening season was watched by 200 million Indians on TV and 10 million overseas viewers, smashing previous records. Within just two years, the IPL became the world’s sixth-biggest sports league and it reaped these huge financial rewards by placing the common cricket fan at the forefront of its revolution. If only the owners of the 12 ESL clubs had not done the polar opposite, they might just have been able to push through a palatable version of an elite European league - something which has been looming ominously for decades. Instead, their dumbfounding disregard for fans’ devotion to footballing tradition and bona fide competition has only served to ensure that any version of a super league is unlikely to see the light of day for at least a decade or two more.
These days the Indian Premier League final is like the Super Bowl and the owners of Chelsea, Spurs, Man City et al could have done a lot worse than look to the NFL for inspiration on how to at least mitigate the fury of those who would accuse them of further lining their own pockets at a devastating cost to everyone else. The inevitable damage to the financial pyramid of English football and the exacerbation of an already huge disparity between the richest and poorest clubs have left the so called “big six” English clubs scrabbling around in damage limitation mode as they batten down the hatches against a tornado of nightmarish PR.
Despite a flimsy defence in which lip service was paid to the notion that the additional billions generated by the ESL would benefit the sport as a whole, its orchestrators again seemed completely ill-prepared to offer any suggestions as to how this would actually be done. Nor were they able to offer any plausible explanation as to how a closed-shop league (from which the majority of teams could never even be relegated) was in keeping with the sacred sporting notions of healthy competition and jeopardy.
At least the NFL (another example of a closed shop league) has the hugely successful televised draft system whereby each of the 32 clubs receives one pick in each of the seven rounds. No one’s naive enough to deny that the draft itself is controlled by money, hype, marketing and more money. But the fact that the order of selection is determined by the reverse order of finish in the previous season (with the team who finished last getting to pick first) has augmented the perception of a collective desire within the sport to ensure parity, fairness and maximum competition - something cherished by true fans and something the creators of the ESL seem to have given astonishingly little, if any, thought. Only time will tell if they’ve learned their lesson...