The new proposed European Super League (ESL) has been described as pure greed and might be considered a natural development within capitalism, after all football is a business well on the road to being big business.
The ESL is therefore a perfect example of the concentration and centralisation of capital discussed by Marx in Volume 1 of Capital. The big football clubs are getting bigger, in some respects swallowing up smaller ones by ‘partnerships’ that use them for developing players, and are joining together to strengthen their market power through formation of a cartel that reduces competition, reduces risk and furthers monopoly profits.
Since monopolies simply raise competition to a higher level the new ESL will be sold as the best competing against the best and with even greater resources to acquire the best players and provide the most spectacular entertainment spectacle.
Of course, for many fans, football is not simply or even mainly an entertainment or spectacle but a cultural practice handed down generations, as part of their identity, an imagined community often based on locality and/or other social stratifications.
It is easy to ridicule the expression of such views, and I am reminded of the TV clip of a Sunderland fan beside the crest painted on the bonnet of his car explaining that Sunderland FC were more important to him than his children. Nevertheless, it is true that no ‘customers’ are quite like football supporters, who will admittedly follow the most perennially useless team through season after season of failure.
Even supporters of more successful clubs from smaller leagues will acknowledge that dreams of glory once achieved are not coming back – barring a miracle. So it is with any dream I might have of Celtic winning the Champions League, as it did the European Cup in 1967 with a team consisting wholly of players from Glasgow and surrounding area. Now that really isn’t going to happen again.
Football supporters cling to history, sneering at the recent arrival of Manchester City tops and Chelsea shirts before that, by people proclaiming a long-held support that was more invisible than these shirts before the clubs’ acquisition by mega-rich owners. So, while fans outside of the biggest clubs are naturally unhappy, so are many of the fans of the bigger clubs that are supposed to make up the new super-duper League.
Pissing off your customer base might seem to be a bad business move but these supporters aren’t the target audience. Football has been moving to a more competitive business environment for a number of decades and the English Premier League many are now rushing to defend was one such leap. The days of football clubs being run by long-established local owners, with players on a worker’s wage and without the drive for profit maximisation, have long gone.
However, commodifying sport has particular problems in that sporting competition has a component of unpredictability that business plans can address but not eliminate. A Super League that avoids relegation and reduces differential payments for performance is therefore to be welcomed. Shared revenue potential and increased power against player wage demands can mean greater returns for shareholders. Of course a problem remains that it not be too predictable, but there have been complaints that the existing Champions League has veered close to this anyway.
So it is not football that has become corrupted by capitalism to become a mere commodity – football isn’t the commodity. Lots of the complaints about the new League come from people who actually go to games but they aren’t the real customers. For the biggest clubs they are more and more walk on extras in the production. The commodity for sale is football on TV and all the advertising and commercial deals associated with the clubs and the competition.
Millions of fans in Asia for example will not expect ever to visit Old Trafford, Anfield, the Bernabeu or Nou Camp but they will still be Manchester United, Liverpool, Real Madrid and Barcelona fans. For many of these fans watching Arsenal play Juventus will be more attractive than watching Arsenal play Brighton. This is certainly more efficient and more productive in purely capitalist terms. Surely football fans should support the raising of the level of competition that sees the biggest clubs play each other more often?
Well, let’s look at this. While the supporters of the chosen few might relish this battle of the titans the supporters of all the other clubs may not be pleased that they do not see their own team playing against these clubs, or have any reasonable expectation that they will ever do so. On top of this loyalty to a club is often based on history and tradition but this new set-up has neither.
But who exactly cares? The sponsors of the new Super League will wager that more fans, even of those clubs not participating, will sign up to watch the ESL games because that is what many are already doing when they watch EPL or Champions League games. Many, perhaps older fans, such as myself, might get more and more disenchanted from the sport, but they won’t count. As noted many times, the only thing that counts in a marketplace is money.
Does this therefore mean we should simply accept the out-workings of the laws of capital accumulation as analysed by Marx?
Well, as we have just seen, football is made up of a number of markets and the concentration of super-clubs at the European level will be complemented by the continuation of fragmented leagues (of reducing importance), involving national and continuing European competitions (also of reduced importance). You will continue to be able to buy into your own favourite product, albeit marked by increased inferiority and lesser respect. Just look at the English FA Cup for an pointer.
The concentration and centralisation of capital are usually features of the growth and development of the productive forces and the expansion of capital. In this case however the timing of the ESL is a product of expected reductions in TV revenue; the EPL has just lost a Chinese deal worth nearly half a billion dollars, the French league’s TV deal collapsed in December and the German and Italian TV rights did not meet expectations.
On the other hand, the share price of some of the clubs involved, and of others that might, have already risen. The increased focus on the biggest clubs is all the more necessary as many of them have incurred astronomical debts, with the European Club Association’s annual report predicting that Covid would inflict €5bn of losses on clubs by the end of the 2021 season. Florentino Pérez, Real Madrid’s president who has been named chair of the Super League, has pointed to the current financial crisis at top clubs and in a Spanish TV interview said that they “are ruined”.
The biggest ones are looking after themselves and it remains to be seen whether what they are doing is expanding the industry or cannibalising it. Sport doesn’t work by eliminating ‘less efficient’ competitors even if capitalist production does.
In the meantime, those of us who support the majority of clubs outside this elite, and those supporters of ESL clubs who oppose their plans, should unite to fight for a more egalitarian sporting foundation based on fan and worker controlled clubs and leagues.
At the end of the day however, big business in football is determined by sovereign wealth funds, vulture funds and billionaires. Communication and media companies and advertisers all want a share of football as a business and are not interested in local traditions, fan loyalties or in football full stop.
Football is only one example of the way capitalism distorts human desires and needs. There is absolutely no point romanticising it when what we need is a movement to do away with and replace the system that has once again demonstrated the cardinal objective is accumulating capital.