THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
For less than a handful of days the sports pages, both front and back, were covered with the story that resonated across the world. The most popular sport in the world, in participation and support, was under threat by a minority group that wanted to pull away from the traditions and foundations of what the game was built upon.
The European Super League. In fairness it’s an idea that has been talked of for many years, but now it seemed to be a full-blown operation. Teams were signed up, a structure was built, and it had the finances in place to support it. The only thing missing was the backing of the most important element of the game. The fans.
When the story was leaked, as so often these big announcements are, it was met with a considerable and immediate backlash, forcing a back-down from 9 of the 12 clubs that had initially agreed to be part of the plan. In England in particular, six teams were involved, all six were subject to protests and once one, Chelsea, said they were out, the other five soon followed.
One of the many reasons for the negative reaction - not just by the fans it must be said, but former players and majority of the media - was that the ESL would be a closed shop. In the proposed format there would be no relegation, meaning the founding teams as well as those “invited” would be competing against each other every year, in what was said to give a guaranteed cash flow amongst the already richest clubs in Europe. So where does this all fit in with the American side of things?
The trusted system of no relegation in the major leagues across the States is well known, but it also comes with its own unique set of rules. The parity that each league has in terms of money share, and salary caps to keep teams on a level field is an obvious example. Soccer does not have that in its competitions. It would not be introduced even if the ESL went ahead, meaning those in it would still be able to pluck players and staff from around the world.
The American connection goes further though as it was to be bankrolled by JP Morgan Chase to the tune of a €3.5bn (£3bn) loan. Early indications were that the loan would be at a low interest rate and set over 23 years. Of course, that would be dependent on the ESL’s success. CEO Jamie Dimon is a good businessman and even though a high roller he sees his bank as part of the community as well as those wishing to form breakaway soccer leagues. But the amount would be pocket change against the assets of a $3tn (£2.15tn) client base.
Breaking things down further we have owners and chairmen of English clubs that no doubt helped push the idea to the JP Morgan sports finance department. Arsenal owner Stan Kroenke, who also owns the Los Angeles Rams (NFL) Denver Nuggets (NBA) and Colorado Rapids (MLS) amongst many other franchises was a major player. Then we have John W Henry, part of the Fenway Sports Group who, as well as having Liverpool under their wing also own one of the hottest properties in baseball, the Boston Red Sox. Ed Woodward, a successful businessman who is on the payroll of JP Morgan, was made CEO of Manchester United after the Glazer family’s takeover of the club, which he helped advise during the time of the formal proceedings. Throw into the mix the chairman of Chelsea, Bruce Buck, and the influence he has at that club and across the Premier League, and it becomes easier to see the where and the why of how the ESL concept came about.
But the soccer world was shocked, and the idea fell within 48 hours of it becoming public knowledge. The thought that a select number of teams, or you could say their greedy owners, thought themselves bigger than the traditions of one of the oldest team games in the world was incomprehensible. The owners have since backtracked and made statements of how they misread the situation. The intent was, and maybe still is there. It will no doubt raise itself again in another form, so the angriness felt over the past week must not be forgotten or pushed to one side. Lessons must be learnt, and new policies must be implemented to safeguard against such a hostile approach to hijack the game.