a story of divisions over money in professional sport

The world of European football experienced one of the greatest upheavals in its history when a future European Super League (ESL) has been announced. Supporters, football associations and even government united in condemning the new tournament, criticized as “a cynical project based on the interest of a few clubs”.

Described as a “new midweek contest“, the league was originally announced with 12 founding members from across Europe, including the six top English football clubs (who now have would have withdrawn, endangering the creation of the tournament). These founding clubs could not be relegated from the competition – one of the main points of contention.

The draw for these clubs is easy to understand. Each of the founding teams would receive 3.5 billion euros (3.02 billion pounds sterling) expected, plus 10 billion euros (8.6 billion pounds sterling) for an “initial commitment period”.

In a statement, the Football Supporters Association said:

This competition is created behind our backs by billionaire club owners who have no regard for the traditions of the game and continue to view football as their personal stronghold.

All the angry parties feel overwhelming that the owners of already wealthy clubs have sought to increase their financial dominance by distorting competition.

The initial outrage will give way to more measured reflection and criticism, but the burning questions are whether this model represents a realistic challenge to the current style of competition and what the consequences would be for European and domestic English play. The history of sport may offer some clues.

A story of ruptures and conciliation

The sport has always been mired in splits and divisions. Football experienced such episodes during the last quarter of the 19th century with the separation between football and rugby, then the latter into amateur rugby and professional rugby.

The Premier League itself was the result of a split from the Football League in 1992. The Football Association wanted to exploit developing business opportunities, including the sale of broadcast rights. The abandoned Football League legal challenge failed and Premier League clubs have since thrived, in large part thanks to the new subscription streaming model.

The great split in cricket occurred in 1977 over the allocation of broadcast rights to Australian cricket. television mogul Kerry Packer wanted the rights to broadcast Australian matches, but was pushed back as the traditional relationship with the state broadcaster (ABC) prevailed.

English cricket captain Tony Greig (right) was sacked after signing to join World Series Cricket.
David Hickes / Alamy

Packer’s response was to launch his own competition, the innovative World Series Cricket, and in great secrecy he signed the best players in the world, including England captain Tony Greig. Greig was duly dismissed and players earning a living in England who signed were banned from playing in England. The resulting lawsuit went in favor of the players and the bans were overturned. World Series Cricket ran for two seasons, embracing new ideas such as colorful clothing and games that were played later in the day and continued into the evening (known as day / night games), this which attracted spectators and made the offering seem more traditional jaded.

Financial pressure on the Australian Cricket Board led to an inevitable compromise and Packer was awarded the broadcast rights.

More recently, the Board for Cricket Control in India (BCCI) took up the challenge of the India Cricket League (ICL). A combination of player bans and improved cash winnings in existing competitions was used. However, this was the formation of his own competition, the very successful Indian Premier League, which turned out to be the trump card. The ICL was strangled in childhood. The Packer case and the Indian Premier League clearly demonstrate that new markets for a traditional sport could be developed and exploited.

Possible outcomes

These examples indicate possible outcomes for football.

Streaming revenue is a key driver of the sport and since the formation of the Premier League and the sale of the rights to Sky, new players – BT and Amazon – have entered the market, increasing the value of content. Big clubs want a bigger share of this and other commercial revenues, arguing that it is their profile and popularity that attracts subscribers and viewers.

A new formula for international broadcast revenues has already been agreed. Where previously the revenue from rights-sharing was shared equally, the top six clubs now receive larger sums. Any change in the system would undoubtedly exert pressure to approve a new national formula.

A threat to potentially ban teams and players involved in ESL of the Premier League will have focused the minds of clubs that depend on broadcast revenues for their viability. Smaller clubs have less entry and other commercial income and are therefore very vulnerable to any decrease in television income. A national league without the big six clubs has considerably diminished the value and the same arguments apply at the European level.

Fans protested the enrichment of wealthy clubs and the betrayal of tradition, but the combination of the attractiveness of the Premier League product, ironically created by an FA-orchestrated split, and the will of club owners to ‘harnessing their strengths suggests a willingness to actively pursue change. The decision of national governing bodies across Europe and UEFA itself is to accept and embrace change and inevitably cede some control or stand firm and fight the threat and with it lock in the professional football in a maelstrom of uncertainty.

Sara R. Cicero