The Super League Is Dead, and German Clubs Were Key to That. What Can We Learn From Them?
In the end, the fans, the coaches, and the players killed the Super League. The project's opponents benefited hugely from the fact that the plans for it were half-baked when they were dug up and made public—by journalists at, among other places, The New York Times—which put the Super Leaguers on the back foot from the jump. Real Madrid's Florentino Perez, Manchester United's Ed Woodward, and other club executives driving the project had secured financing from JPMorgan Chase, but they had not yet secured a TV broadcast deal or even a structure for the competition. What would this new trophy everyone was supposed to want to win even be called?
The project's exposure to public view at a stage where only its real priority had been hashed out—more money for the world's biggest clubs—made it abundantly clear that offering an actual better product to fans was a secondary concern. The failure to seek buy-in from players and coaches also demonstrated that their interests were not a major consideration, something that might have been obscured if the organizers were able to design out the new offering behind closed doors and present it to the public with a sparkly sheen and a nice bow on top.
But it still required massive, united resistance from fans of normally adversarial clubs to do this thing in, best encapsulated by Chelsea fans blocking the team bus from reaching the club's home stadium, Stamford Bridge, ahead of a Premier League match on Tuesday. They appealed specifically to Chelsea's Russian oligarch owner, Roman Abramovich, to pull out of the project, and by the evening, the club had done so. They were aided by a chorus of players and coaches who spoke out in defense of competition and sporting merit over entitlement and greed. Liverpool's captain, Jordan Henderson, organized a meeting of major-club captains in England that seemed to signal the players would soon be in revolt. And soon enough, the public messages from big-time players started to roll in. The 14 English Premier League clubs left behind by the big grab also organized in united resistance. Once the English dominoes started falling—all six were out by Tuesday night—the league was hobbled, beaten back for now. The damage has been done, however. As a fan of one of these clubs, it's left more than a bad taste in my mouth, and it's cost us something even more than the sporting dignity of institutions we've devoted ourselves to: it robbed us of the time and space to properly savor Jose Mourinho's downfall.
The news report of Chelsea's withdrawal from the European Super League has reached the fans outside Stamford Bridge who were protesting 🔥 pic.twitter.com/231CXhM5Fy
— 𝐀𝐅𝐂 𝐀𝐉𝐀𝐗 💎 (@TheEuropeanLad) April 20, 2021
Perhaps the project will, inevitably, return. These are multinational oligarchs and large, financially mismanaged organizations seeking money, the very definition of an unstoppable force. So far, they've met an immovable object. Surely part of that immovability, besides the muckraking that exposed the plan early and the popular resistance from cultural stakeholders in the game, was the literal stakeholder status that most German fans enjoy.
After all, it was likely crucial that the league's self-styled Founding Members—a claim even more embarrassing for some than for others—only hailed from three leagues: England's Premier League, Spain's La Liga, and Italy's Serie A. As the clubs scrambled to go public on Sunday following the Times story, they did not have anyone from the French or German leagues on board. There was no Paris Saint-Germain, perennial Champions League contenders and finalists last year, or Bayern Munich, the 2020 champions and one of the historic Great Houses of the European game. The PSG outlier status was interesting: owned by the Qatari state, which is to say the Qatari royal family, they did not seem a likely holdout. (Manchester City, owned by the Abu Dhabi royals, was a Founder—though it was, with Chelsea, an early backtracker.) But the PSG club president, Nasser Al-Khelaifi, is on the executive committee of UEFA, which organizes the Champions League, the competition most at risk due to the Super League. There's still a lot of money sloshing around the current hierarchical system—there are few selfless heroes in modern professional soccer—and either PSG likes its position just fine currently, or they felt the wind blowing against the Super League from the beginning and tried to pick the right horse. Whatever the reason, they were out.
Photo credit: Esquire
German clubs opposed the idea in principle. The biggest clubs—nearly all top-tier German clubs, actually—are majority-owned by fans. This is by policy. Called the 50+1 rule, teams in Germany's Bundesliga are essentially banned from having a single majority stakeholder, as has become common in England and Italy. (In Spain, Barcelona and Real Madrid are fan-controlled, but the clubs are in such desperate financial shape that executives pursued the Super League's guaranteed Super Windfall aggressively. It's unclear whether this reflects fan sentiment within these bases of support.) In rare cases, people who have invested lots of money and, more crucially, time, can apply for exemptions to the rule. But Bayern and Germany's other biggest team of the modern era, Borussia Dortmund, are controlled by fans. They vote to elect a president to lead the club. They never considered joining the Super League, and they emerge from this fiasco as more than unscathed. They look honorable.
Oh, and it's not just telling on this issue. Three years ago the Bundesliga website was bragging about the 50+1 system, and they had a point even then. German teams have astonishingly low ticket prices for a top-level league, and they have extremely high attendance as a result. This makes for a phenomenal atmosphere in the stadium, like the famous Yellow Wall at Dortmund's Signal Iduna Park. German clubs are by and large in healthier financial shape than their top rivals in other countries. The league credits this to the 50+1 rule: "In essence, this means that private investors cannot take over clubs and potentially push through measures that prioritise profit over the wishes of supporters. The ruling simultaneously protects against reckless owners and safeguards the democratic customs of German clubs."
Photo credit: picture alliance - Getty Images
The rule traces to the German legacy of running clubs as not-for-profit institutions controlled by members' associations. When some private ownership was permitted starting in 1998, the 50+1 was instituted to try to hold onto the core principles of the nonprofit era: that these are cultural institutions that belong to the community of fans who have invested so much of their time, energy, money, and lives in them. They should not be turned into machinery churning out product for customers to consume. Yes, they are businesses, but even big businesses can exist to serve purposes beyond just the generation of more capital.
Well, in Germany, anyway. The Super League was in many ways an American invention, not just in its aim to turn clubs into franchises immune to consequences for poor performance on the field. The project was led by American owners looking to impose the Milton Friedman style of American corporate governance on these European institutions they had acquired. More money, more guaranteed cash flow. That was all they needed to hear. Nobody's interests—fans, players, coaches, other clubs—were in the least bit relevant. (Worse, the Super clubs seemed to be trying to take advantage of the economic disruption of the pandemic to practice some disaster capitalism, using their size and power to gobble up everything amid the disarray.) Countries like Germany and Japan have by and large opted for a different model of corporate governance, where employees have seats on the board of directors, union membership is standard and accepted as a countervailing force to executive power, and things can be healthier as a result. Collectivism as course correction.
There's already talk that the United Kingdom is looking at a 50+1 rule for English clubs in the wake of all this, as both the Tories and Labour look at regulating football more generally. It should certainly be a teachable moment for the United States, a nation trending towards monopolized markets and oligarchic political economy for some time now. If you let more people with a more varied array of stakes in the organization have some say in decision-making, it's likely to lead to healthier outcomes for the organization and the surrounding communities (and environment) it operates in. It might even save you some embarrassment. Or we can just let Stan Kroenke do whatever he wantsand see how that works out for us, the plebs.