Soccer

The Plutocrats, the People, and the Globalization of World Soccer

It's good to be reminded that, sometimes, greed and venality do not carry the day in the global marketplace

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As the Volokh Conspiracy's Special Soccer Correspondent (self-appointed), I spent a good part of the day this past Monday preparing an essay on the proposal, put forward the day before by twelve of Europe's largest and best-known soccer clubs (including such global giants as Real Madrid, Barcelona, Liverpool, Juventus, and Manchester United), to form a new "European Super League." I hoped to explain (a) why this would be a true catastrophe for the world of global soccer (and its many, many fans), and (b) why you might want to pay attention to that, even if you care not a whit for soccer (European or otherwise).

As for (a), the bottom line was that, given the rather complicated structure of Europe's professional soccer leagues, the Super League would drain much of the competitive juice out of many of the thousands of games played across Europe, at all levels of the soccer hierarchy, week in and week out.  A huge swath of games would involve teams with less at stake, less to play for, and less of an incentive to play well, and, as a consequence, much of what makes those games so engaging for so many people would disappear (along with much of the money that sustains the whole system).  All so that a few already-fabulously wealthy clubs could become even more fabulously wealthy.

As for why you might want to pay attention even if you have no interest in anything that takes place on a soccer field … Well, for one thing, while it may not be a matter of life-and-death, many hundreds of millions of people derive considerable pleasure from the global soccer enterprise; I can't think of many other global activities (popular music?) that deliver more HHUs—Human Happiness Units—than the aggregate of the various institutions and organizations that make up the world of professional soccer. So anything that rocks the foundations of the system through which people experience these activities is an important international development—not on par, surely, with the Covid-19 pandemic, or the fate of Syrian refugees, or climate change, but perhaps just one tier below.

Beyond that, world soccer is also a wonderful case study of how the global telecommunications revolution of the past several decades has created immense new winner-take-all markets, concentrating vast amounts of money in the hands of a small number of superstars, and of the stresses this creates for existing institutional and organizational structures.

Events, though, outpaced me. On Tuesday—a mere 48 hours after having announced the formation of the Super League to great fanfare—the whole thing collapsed, with most of the break-away clubs backing out of the deal.  As one of those clubs (Arsenal) succinctly put it on its official website:  "We made a mistake, and we apologize for it."

The breathtaking speed of the Super League's collapse turns out to be an even more interesting story than the floating of the proposal itself. This was, among other things, a big international commercial transaction; tens of billions of dollars were on the line, the lawyers and investment bankers had spent months (and surely millions of dollars) preparing the organizational documents, obtaining financial commitments (reportedly worth $4.5 billion) from broadcasters, organizing for an initial round of public financing, hiring administrative staff, designing a logo, hiring a London PR firm, … And then: POOF!  It was all dismantled. After two days!  It's as though Toyota and Ford announced that they were merging, and then, two days later, dropped the whole idea.

So what happened during those two days? What happened was that a lot of people—ordinary fans (many of whom, in Europe, are organized into cohesive and vocal supporter's organizations of many years standing), sports commentators in the media, players and ex-players (some of iconic stature), coaches and ex-coaches (ditto), including many who are themselves affiliated with the Super League clubs who were supposedly the beneficiaries of the new plan—felt as I did about the catastrophic consequences of the proposal, and they took to the streets, to the airwaves, and to the Internet, in furious and ferocious protest.

I highly recommend the reporting by Rory Smith and Tariq Panja in the NY Times, and by Sam Wallace in the London Daily Telegraph to anyone seeking more detailed information about the entire affair.  See, e.g., "Europe's New Super League, Explained" [the beginning] and "How the Super League Fell Apart" and "Europe's Elite Suffer Sport's Most Astounding Humiliation" [the end].

The owners of the break-away clubs, apparently, were completely unprepared for the reaction; with the exception of a single Sunday night appearance on late-night Spanish TV by Real Madrid Chairman Florentino Perez, not one official or spokesperson for the break-away clubs offered a single word in defense of the new plan—not on television, not on Twitter, not on any official club website. They had simply not seen it coming, and when it came they instantly backed down and abandoned ship.

It was a truly ignominious and humiliating retreat—the 2021 version of 1985's "New Coke" debacle, but with a great deal more at stake, and at warp speed.

You have to ask: Really?! Could they possibly not have seen it coming? What in heaven's name did they think the reaction would be?! You announce a plan to suck more money out of the system for your own private benefit at the expense, and to the detriment, of everybody else with a stake in the system—and you didn't think lots of people would object to that?  Did it really not occur to any of the geniuses in the boardrooms at Liverpool FC or Barcelona FC to present an outline of the plan, beforehand, to their players, or to their coaches, or to their supporters' groups, or their season-ticket holders, just to get a sense of what the reaction might be so that they would be prepared with a response?

Apparently—mind-bogglingly—it did not.

This may be nothing more than proof of the maxim: Just because you're rich, doesn't mean that you are smart.

But it might also be more interesting than that. At the risk of overstatement, it was the People vs. the Plutocrats, and the People, for once, emerged victorious. A harbinger of, perhaps, a shift in the balance of power?  Time will tell.