Future fans, legacy supporters and an eventual return to the status quo

From the announcement of the Super League on Sunday to Premier League sides pulling out by Tuesday, European football ended then came back to life in a span of three days. The narrative fallout continues to shift just as quickly, with supporters going from having saved the game to realizing that we’ve only returned to the imperfect status quo that inspired the Super League rebellion in the first place. We experienced the entire sequence in a 2021 way, refreshing our timelines, displaying our own outrage and protesting in person. The battle for the meaning and future of the game unfolded in our minds, our timelines, on the pitch, and behind closed doors we’d never get inside.  

In an age of hyperbole, we immediately recognized the significance of the potential Super League. But the day of truth was still surreal even considering the years of rumors that prepared our reactions for when theory turned reality. 

The rise and fall took distinct steps. There was the initial Sunday announcement and immediate pushback on Twitter. The online backlash turned tangible on Monday with Jurgen Klopp and Liverpool unluckily caught in the aftermath in a match in which Leeds wore shirts protesting the formation of the Super League. Klopp was left to fend for himself, stuck in an uncomfortable place of supporting fans while not offending his ownership group that backed the project. The Leeds social media team piled on to the resentment, addressing Liverpool as the “Super League” team. 

“I cannot say a lot more about it because we were not involved in any processes, not the players, not me. We didn’t know about it,” said Klopp of his powerlessness, as he and his squad unfairly became symbols of greed and took the brunt of the anger. Indeed, many of the game’s important figures professed to “not knowing” about the plan until its release.    

Players and managers became the easy faces of a project they had little power over. There was a distinct lack of public backing from founding member clubs save Real Madrid’s Florentino Perez and Juventus’ Andrea Agnelli. They messaged the move as a way to preserve the game for the globally-connected demographic of the future whose lives revolve around smartphones and short attention spans. They pitted the “fans of the future” who would sustain the Super League against the “legacy fans” whom the current popularity of the game was built upon but would no longer serve the futuristic purpose (the messaging that the Super League was actually going to save the game proves the storytelling adage that everyone thinks of themselves as the hero of the story). 

But where else were these rebranded badges, behind the scenes mini-series on streaming services, and references to matches as content headed? As we’ve written before, the Champions League isn’t competing with domestic leagues or other sports, rather with Netflix, Tik Tok, and beyond. And while you could point to outside investors buying Premier League sides as the initial seeds of the Super League idea, Juventus’ rebranding in 2017 becomes an even more significant inflection point as years pass. It was an acknowledgment that the matches by themselves weren’t good enough anymore – teams had to battle for 24/7 attention. 

We thought then that the end result would be new jersey designs here and there, more “day in the life of an athlete” videos on YouTube, or viral free kick challenge clips on Twitter. But the complete overhaul of the European game?  

When this is written up as a case study years from now, it could be presented as a misunderstanding of cultural differences between an open and closed model of sport. It raises the existential meaning of an open system, particularly the role of smaller clubs in a country’s footballing pyramid in context with the global brands. How do you quantify the value of something that could happen, no matter how unrealistic? Even if a League One team never plays Liverpool or Chelsea, there is value in the dream and possibility that it could happen. And as Liverpool generate exponentially more revenue than say, Blackpool in League One, there must be some value of being placed within the context and history of the English football pyramid. 

You could also pessimistically observe how the manner of the Super League’s dissolution further solidified the Premier League’s power in Europe. Many pointed out that the Premier League itself was a breakaway league, although the difference being they maintained promotion and relegation (heartfelt statements from the likes of Gary Neville were broadcast on Sky, home to the Premier League, so there is commerce even in protest). Regardless, Norwich City made $55 million as a parachute payment for getting relegated from the Premier League. Juventus were estimated to have earned $28 million for winning Serie A. The battle for the Super League is not over. 

In terms of positioning, not joining the Super League became its own political statement. There were no teams from the Bundesliga among the founding members, which many took as the league’s defining 50+1 rule insulating supporters from clubs leaving them behind. In fact, Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund and RB Leipzig went out of their way to condemn the project and reaffirm their place within the current Champions League setup. Bayern CEO Karl-Heinz Rummenigge said that all European clubs should come together to create a “more rational” cost structure, hitting out against player salaries and agent fees. 

Meanwhile, Leipzig, roundly criticized for lacking history after being funded by an energy drink company that skirted the 50+1 rule, rejected the Super League on the grounds of sporting fairness. They noted how the professional game is defined by “fighting to achieve a position in the domestic league table that allows a team to take part in an international competition.”  

So the billion dollar corporation is now the protagonist lecturing the world about competitive fairness? Narratives have us taking strange, unforeseen turns – and even more so when considering the country. In Spain, La Liga sides didn’t necessarily mind Madrid and Barcelona leaving the league as it proved conspiratory ideas that the system was controlled by backroom powers anyway. Serie A analysts wanted the three deserting sides to be kicked out of the league for good.  

Right or wrong, this again centers the Premier League as the hero.  

The fallout inevitably reached the board level, with Ed Woodward resigning from Manchester United. With reputations and trust in tatters, he will likely not be the last. Even JP Morgan was downgraded by Standard Ethics for its role in funding the ESL. On the other hand, Perez continued to dig, suggesting that matches may even have to be shortened from 90 minutes to keep up with the “future fans.”

This past pandemic year allowed us to deconstruct soccer in real time. Matches played without supporters made us understand what atmosphere adds to the game. Now, we’re forced to examine the very base layer of sporting competition and fairness within open and closed systems. What is the meaning of sporting competition? Optimistically, we may appreciate the concept even more knowing how quickly it can all be taken away.  

Far from a resolution, the failure of this current Super League isn’t the end of discussions over engaging future supporters, maintaining the dream of an open ecosystem and who ultimately profits. And we returned to a reconstructed “Swiss model” of the Champions League that emphasizes more matches for more revenue, for a global audience. As Ilkay Gundogan put it, it’s just the lesser of two evils.  

The optimistic analysis is that the events showed how supporters still have a voice in the modern age, that players, managers,and fans came together as one to wrestle back the game. In the analytics era, this was one for history, emotions and intangibles. But we’ve all seen this before; this is only a brief break until another proposal, and another after that. This iteration of the Super League lasted three days, but the battle for European football is only beginning.

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