The European Super League was not a sudden phenomenon and did not happen overnight, rather it was a culmination of the financialisation and commercialisation of football and the global economy in general. The very foundation of the Premier League reflects this commercialisation, more recently the extortionate television deals and inflated transfer fees and player wages represents this however, focusing on the birth of the Premier League, it was formed as a breakaway from the Football League which was the governing body for English clubs since 1888. The purpose of the breakaway was initiated by 22 clubs who were in the Football League’s first division at the time. The debut season of the new Premier League was backed by a £305 million broadcasting deal with Sky Sports. The broadcasting deals have since reached about £1 billion annually with BT Sports and Sky holding the rights. While the format of the Premier League was effectively identical to the old first division with regard to relegation and how the winner is decided, the Premier League was made and to this day is run as a corporation with the clubs acting as the shareholders of the company. Given how liquid football is from a commercial aspect it is no surprise that some of the wealthiest people and organisations in the world have identified the sport as a viable business and given how successful the breakaway to create the Premier League was, it is intuitive that some European clubs believed they could replicate the success at an international level.
A contemporary and pertinent example of the commercialisation of aspects of our economy is housing, an area which Ireland offers a fitting case study of. Housing has transformed from something which was seen as more of a service and now has transformed into a commodity often invested in by international private equity firms who are not strictly interested in developing housing but rather, had identified that the Irish market post 2008 crash was at its lowest point in terms of price and with little to no insolvency and working capital domestically in Ireland, large international investors were able to purchase large swathes of land and as the Irish economy has recovered, these investors, largely from the US, have made a handsome profit. However, this approach and ideology that housing is an investment has led to record high rents, minimal public housing being built and the worst housing crisis in the history of the state. While emigration is not a new trend among young people in Ireland, the current wave of emigration has not been inspired by lack of opportunity and a lack of decent paying jobs, but rather no affordable options for young people to move away from home.
Rumoured €200-300 million welcome packages to spend on new players, possible television deals with Amazon Prime, Facebook and Disney, which would exceed the already lucrative deals, were apparently too much to turn down for these owners who have already been accused of seeking only profit while doing little to invest in their clubs by fans. However, not every European elite club was privy to the idea of the Super League. Current Champion’s League holders and European giants Bayern Munich and their “Der Klassiker” rivals Borussia Dortmund, who have had more recent success and more historical success than some of the teams involved did not join. Much of the reason for this is credited to how German clubs are owned. The German Football League rules stipulate that the clubs must retain 50%+1 of the shares of the clubs and keep it for members, i.e., the fans. This would prevent, let’s say, an American businessperson, a Russian oligarch or an Emirati Sheikh from purchasing a majority share in the club and with the majority share would be able to effectively run the club as they please.
While the German’s are at least 50+1% fan owned, there are some clubs that take it further such as St. Pauli who have generated a cult following for their political stances and their anti-capitalist structure. Closer to home and operating as a tangible success story in a turbulent league, Dublin’s Bohemian FC operate as a 100% members owned club. The League of Ireland has become synonymous with instability. Many teams see sudden success in tandem with cash injection but then, experience an equally swift decline as the money dries up. Bohemians take a different route. As a fan owned club, their revenue is largely raised by fans paying for their annual membership leading to a financially sustainable club and a more authentic experience for fans who have a say in the direction their club is headed. The fan owned model allows the club to be more than a vehicle for people to enjoy football. It can act as a social movement, an anchor institution and a valued stakeholder within a community which can increase social cohesion within an area and act as a catalyst for community involvement.
The proposition of the Super League should not be looked at as a gamble by Europe’s top football clubs to create a box office spectacle but rather, it should be viewed through the paradigm of our society and our economic system. A group of people who are members of the top 1% of society have used an institution, which they did not establish, to extract maximum profit from while disregarding the voices of the community whether it be workers in a corporation or in the case of football clubs, fans and players. The same narrative can be replicated in major parts of our society over the course of the last number of decades. Our planet is being overused and exploited with the aim of maximising profits for corporations, housing in Ireland and globally has become an investment tool as opposed to a right to be enjoyed by everyone, similarly, healthcare across the world is as commercialised as it ever has been in the likes of the USA for example where large medicine corporations are some of the wealthiest corporations in the country. After outrage from every fan base and just about every football fan in the world, the planned breakaway league has been left in doubt. Outside Stamford Bridge, hundreds of fans delayed kick off for Chelsea’s Premier League fixture vs Brighton as the team bus was halted by the protesting crowd. Furthermore, Manchester United’s home fixture vs Liverpool, one of the season’s marquee fixtures was cancelled as protesting Man United fans made their way onto the pitch pre match. The displays of opposition against the ownership of Man United has not stopped there as their home match against Fulham which saw the return of some fans saw many in attendance draped in yellow and green, the colours synonymous with the faction of fans who want to see the owners out due to their opportunistic capitalisation of the club where the owners have invested as little into the club as they can while extracting maximum returns. While mass movements like the anti-Super League process achieved tangible results, imagine if this energy was channelled into the other areas of our society which have been a victim of commercialisation, areas such as housing and health as well as climate change. Or better yet, we could operate our society on a different structure more akin to the likes of the German clubs or Bohemians where the community members or workers have more say and ownership over their own workplaces and businesses in the community.
Louis Brennan is a research assistant at TASC focusing on issues of climate action and Just Transition. He is a current undergraduate student of sociology, politics and international relations in University College Dublin.