The European Super League (ESL) was crushed as quickly as it was suggested. It was, by way of the response, easy to dismantle. But its long-term significance is yet unknown. The Times reported this week that the ‘big six’ were set to receive a combined £20m fine and agreed to a points deduction if they tried to breakaway again. Gary Neville’s response to these punishments being “an absolute embarrassment” rather blatantly points to there being a question mark around whether or not the sanctions imposed will do enough to dissuade these clubs from attempting another coup. The distaste for the ESL was rooted in the lack of respect for the fundamentals of football: competition and the fan. The former made the concept never possible; the issue of the latter is more deep-rooted. The question of how something like this never happens again is difficult to tackle, yet there is scope for understanding how fans need to begin to be placed further up the hierarchy at all football clubs. There is also scope for assessing the impact that such a seismic shift would have on the relationships that clubs have with their sponsors. Finally, talk of an independent regulator has re-emerged, a body to represent both the collective fan as well as the good of the game when it comes to long term economic stability. Maximising revenue is not the problem, all fans want to see their team win. But the consultation of fans and ‘partners’ must be enhanced.

As mentioned, one of the key reasons why the ESL was so widely despised was because of its attack on competition. The closed-shop system was a direct challenge to the fundamentals of the sport. The economic impact that a breakaway league may have on the lower leagues of the game was a secondary concern for supporters across the country. In that sense, it is fair to say that the competition was stopped by the fans. Mass protests highlighted the outrage of supporters and 12/15 of the clubs involved issued almost immediate apologies and quickly backed down. It sparked conversations around a deeper discussion on club ownership, with a general feeling that the owners of what is (by the way) an ever moving, transient top-six do not represent the lifeblood of the football clubs that they run. Calls from fans for their owners to sell have since emerged alongside a more general demand for fans to have a greater say in the key decisions taken by their respective clubs. A governmental fan-led review is under way, exploring football governance as well as working on ways to improve scrutiny of clubs’ finances, assess claims that too much money is concentrated in the Premier League, and examine whether more cash can flow down to lower leagues.

            The German model of 50%+1 is to be analysed by the review and is an intriguing concept when it comes increasing the power and voice of the supporters. Yet replicating a system that itself has been manoeuvred by RB Leipzig, would most probably prove to be virtually impossible. As Uli Hesse writes, though it is an admiral intention, it is “hard to see how the ownership of an English club could be changed without forcibly expropriating the assets of those who acquired the company fair and square.” The strength of the German system lies in the power of the fan, which is best explained by the chasm between ticket prices. In England, the most expensive season ticket on the market is the £2013 needed to get the best seat at the Emirates. The same money could buy 15 season tickets at Germany’s biggest club, Bayern Munich. While the system may not be easy to replicate, finding ways to increase the power of fans is clearly essential.

Impact on Sponsors

Prevalent in the world of commercial sport is the idea that a partnership is formed by the two parties when a sponsorship deal is signed. Greater emphasis is placed on the word ‘partner’ than on ‘sponsor’. It connotes a relationship, in which both are benefiting from the agreement. Are these cash injectors really ‘partners’ if they weren’t even consulted on such a colossal issue? It is worth noting that these sponsors may well have had a better opportunity to tap into newer, developing markets. The eyeballs that would have been on the ESL are difficult to refute. Particularly in growing football markets across the world, the idea of regular world class fixtures would have led to vast viewing figures globally which could have been monetised to great effect via a pay-per-view or subscription model, delivering lucrative sums directly into the pockets of the 15 clubs. This is presumably the reason why the ESL clubs didn’t consult their partners. On the flip side, the likelihood is that rather like the Champions League, commercial rights would have been centralised, risking the devaluation of the deals of the individual clubs in competitions away from the ESL. Moreover, the core values of the brand are also at stake when they enter a new partnership and for some, the ESL was a step too far. Almost immediately after the announcement was made, Tribus Watches announced they were withdrawing from their agreement with Liverpool FC, stating that the brand’s values are “at the forefront of everything we do”. As Ben Cronin wrote for SportBusiness, the consideration of fans for sponsors is “essential to extract value from their partnerships”. Partners gain traction when value is brought to the fanbase. It means that one consequence of not consulting the fanbases for the ESL is that partners of these clubs were left in an extremely awkward position.

The Role of UEFA

UEFA have unsurprisingly strongly opposed any suggestion of a breakaway league and are continuing to challenge the three clubs who are refusing to budge. UEFA’s President, Alexsander Ceferin, said in response to the clubs’ accusations about UEFA violating EU competition laws that the approach they have taken has only served to “paralyse themselves”. As the matter has been handed over to the European Court of Justice, it is fair to say that the situation is muddying before it gets resolved. UEFA have aligned themselves with the fan with regards to the ESL, yet themselves have a major role to play in the distribution of wealth and the general good of the game. The new Champions League format outlined means more games which has itself had a mixed response. Many managers have criticised the increased congestion of fixtures from a player welfare point of view. More pertinently, more match days has an unquestionable, trickle-down negative impact on the English Football League. Competition for match day slots means that the EFL Cup, the League’s biggest revenue generator, is directly challenged by UEFA’s new model. Crystal Palace chairman Steve Parish has previously said the 36-team Champions League would have “a devastating effect” on the English game. The desire of UEFA to have a monopoly on European football is therefore perhaps further evidence that the importance of the fan is not necessarily top of UEFA’s agenda and this best explains why many people think that the re-emergence of the fundamentals of the ESL is a matter of when, not if.

What Can Be done?

The dispute between UEFA and Europe’s top clubs is more than likely to continue as both parties attempt to fulfil their own self-interests. Here though, lies the crux of the point. Football clubs are well within their rights to protect their own interests. But as they do, they must consult their own supporters. As shown, in not doing so, the clubs risked their relationships with their commercial partners as well as their fans. Perhaps the answer lies in having a fan seat at the top of the club. Indeed, Liverpool and Spurs have both revealed their plans to do so. At Manchester United, the Glazer family are attempting to appease discontented fans by developing a new equity structure in which supporters would own shares in the club, carrying the same voting rights as Glazer family shares. By also establishing a Fan Advisory Board, the American owners are trying to reconnect with their largely disillusioned fanbase.

Clearly, greater communication between the clubs and their supporters is the essential way to avoid a repeat of something like the ESL. The call for an independent regulator, spearheaded by Gary Neville, has gained momentum after the petition easily collated over 100,000 signatures. The argument is that the game and the fan need to be more greatly protected than is possible under the current three-way governance in English football. Neville has said that the regulator would “need teeth” and the ability to step in on behalf of the fans. Former Premier League Chairman Richard Scudamore believes that there would have been enough power in the current bodies to prevent the Super League from going ahead and that an independent regulation is a utopian, unachievable goal. Scudamore also mentions that the 15% of Premier League revenue that is given away is the most generous anywhere in Europe. Nevertheless, the vast wealth gap exists and the extent to which the fan is protected is questionable. Tighter regulation, protection from unsuitable owners and solidarity payments to the EFL are all on the agenda for the independent regulator. Could an independent regulator also weigh in on televised fixtures, where away fans have had to travel obscene distances at unfriendly hours to watch their team live?

The timing of the ESL announcement was as misguided as the concept itself. It came at a time where clubs in all divisions are experiencing unprecedented economic shortcomings. The intimacy of the bond between a club and its fans has been, if anything, enhanced by the pandemic, with perhaps a greater mutual appreciation of how important it is to have fans in stadiums. The vast majority of football fans will have no qualms about the prospect of an investor pumping money into the club that gives it a chance of winning major trophies; it is the nature of the beast and will never change. There is indisputably a drastic wealth gap between those at the top of the English pyramid and those at the bottom, and any grab for power at such a crippling economic time was therefore always sure to be met with contempt. In many ways, the ESL was met by an independent regulator, as the overwhelming backlash of the supporters signposted the end of the league before it had even started. The power will always remain with those with the money, but for the game to survive the paying fan and indeed club sponsors must be a part of the conversation.