Reflections on the non-revolution

Why the Super League never happened; a case study in bad decision-making.

This week: a few thoughts on the Super League fiasco which I promise are interesting even if you have zero interest in football/soccer. Plus the usual rattle bag of good things.

SUPER SCREWED UP
Background, in simplest terms possible (skip this if you don’t need it). In European football each country has its own domestic league. There is also an annual European competition (Champions League). When teams place highly in their domestic league, they get to enter the next year’s Champions League, which brings further glory and lots more money. In theory any club can do this; in reality, only a few teams from a few countries regularly succeed. These teams have become big global brands, and their owners think they could make more global media money if they didn’t have to split the proceeds with all those annoying smaller clubs. The idea of the elite clubs breaking away to form a trans-national ‘super league’ of their own has been discussed for many years without coming to anything since the owners were never able to agree terms among themselves. A super league would radically disrupt the existing competitions, in which supporters - the actual people who (in normal times) stand in stadiums and shout and wave flags - are emotionally invested. Last weekend, however, twelve of the big clubs issued a dramatic joint statement that definitively proclaimed their participation in a new European Super League (ESL), launching next year. All hell broke loose. Pundits, politicians, players and managers spoke out angrily and fans marched on stadiums. The plan collapsed within days as one club pulled out after another. A Super League now looks like a more distant prospect than ever. Yup it really was that bad. A few lessons:

  • Elites can be stupid. To issue a short explosive statement late on Sunday night, without preparing the ground for it, and then failing to communicate - neglecting to make any pitch to the public at all - well, that really was breathtakingly idiotic. The plan itself was thin but defensible; its presentation was not. It was classic elite arrogance: why do we need to explain or persuade or sell our vision? We’ve made the decision. It speaks for itself. No further questions. Well, if you don’t tell a good story, everyone else will tell your story for you. Including, in Britain’s case, every football pundit, plus the Prime Minister and the heir to the throne. And the story they told was an old but potent one: greedy rich bloodsuckers are betraying the people (speaking of monarchy, Europe’s kings and queens usually learned, sometimes the hard way, that the exercise of power depends on popular consent). In the wake of the EU’s vaccine failures, we shouldn’t need reminding that elites can be incompetent, but it’s always tempting to assume that successful people in lofty positions are going to be collectively smart and reflective. A borked decision-making process will, however, produce idiotic outcomes, regardless of the intelligence of individual participants. (Plus some of them probably are idiots the moment they move outside a very narrow domain of expertise, be that sponsorship deals or ski resorts).

  • Beware feedback effects. With hindsight, the thinness of the plan, its dreadful presentation, and the failure rate of past attempts all should have made it immediately obvious that this wasn’t going to fly. But because even incompetent elites retain an aura, and because the ESL declared its intentions with such implacable confidence, observers were hypnotised into assuming the plan would succeed - which raised the amount and intensity of opposition, causing it to fail.

  • Image counts. When you neglect public opinion, you spook potential partners. The decision to launch without a broadcasting partner made the whole enterprise seem unconvincing. A fatal blow was landed when Amazon came out against it. Why did Amazon do that, when in theory it was well placed to be the ESL broadcaster? I don’t know but it might be that the fiasco of the launch was enough for it to sense the whole thing was heading south, and to calculate that the immediate cost to its brand would be higher than the future value of hypothetical new users.

  • Beware Zoom. I wonder if the ESL executives would have screwed up as badly in a year when people were meeting face-to-face. OK probably they would, but I feel there’s something quite Zoomy about this whole thing. I’m imagining lots of abstract, passively joined, unreal discussions and no reading of rooms.

  • Eyeballs follow eyeballs. The ESL executives, at least in galaxy brain mode, regard football as game of screens. Those folks who stand in stadiums cheering are very sweet but their opinions can be discounted since they’re not the ones bringing in advertising or subscription dollars. For screen viewers, the action on the pitch is all that counts, right? Not quite. I’d advise the ESL to read Rational Ritual, a book I discussed last year. Humans like to see what other humans are looking at - that’s how we get a feeling for what’s important or not; for what to pay attention to. Inside a stadium, everyone can see everyone else watching the game, which creates atmosphere, and even outside it, TV or smartphone viewers feel more emotionally invested in a game when they can see others seeing it. That’s why the broadcasters now play fake crowd noise, which has a diminishing usefulness because it plays on our memory of the real thing. Real crowds are an essential component of virtual experiences.

  • Global is local. That’s not the only reason stadium fans are valuable (even setting aside, for the moment, revenue from ticket sales). Those fans are the ones who visibly create and sustain the culture of each individual club, in how they act, what they wear, what they chant and the stories they pass on. It is a mistake, purely on a marketing view, to assume that local cultural identities don’t matter in a world of global consumption (the problem with the ELC gang is not that they were cynics, it’s that they were naive cynics). Netflix deliberately creates content which is soaked in local cultures; content which has global potential, because, not despite of its cultural specificity (call it the Narcos or Lupin model per preference). Actually, the future of football is probably a longer tail of global brands, as consumers seek to differentiate themselves by picking their own hipster niche and sticking to it. There will be increasing numbers of Burnley fans in Malaysia, Leeds fans in Taiwan.

  • Symbols matter. Football might seem trivial but the pandemic ought to have taught us that the seemingly unimportant things in life are in some ways the most important. Sport is too often compared to religion but it’s true in the sense that it creates congregations - “affective communities” which bond over rituals and symbols, making connections to each other and to previous generations. You can say the same of patriotism, and indeed the popular reaction to the plan embodied a kind of progressive, federalised patriotism, with football supporters standing in allegiance to both country and to each other across national boundaries. Historically rooted, inclusive, organised sentiment trumps financial and legal power, which is why the left makes such a mistake when it gets sniffy about national pride.

  • Populism works. For all his manifold flaws as PM, this week we were reminded that Boris Johnson has decent political instincts. His fast and emphatic declaration against the plan was in tune with how even casual football fans felt about this move, and it looked even better when the plan collapsed (the collapse had the added bonus of meaning he doesn’t have to actually do anything, which isn’t his strong suit). You might sniff and say, well, it’s just populism, but responding empathetically to what people care about is almost the definition of good politics. Actually, Johnson is not really a populist, because he doesn’t whip up anger against enemies. You know who is a populist, and a startlingly effective one? Gary Neville. His polemics followed the classic populist storyline of betrayal by avaricious elites in hoc to foreign powers. He targeted Manchester Utd’s owners, the Glazers, and called them scavengers who should be kicked out of the country. That is red meat.

  • Britain is different. Speaking on the Totally Football podcast, Adam Crafton observed while there was anger and discontent across Europe, Britain is seen as having led the revolt. British opposition was the most vociferous and unequivocal, both top down (the PM, Neville etc) and bottom up (Chelsea fans demonstrating outside the stadium). Crafton noted that while Real Madrid fans, for instance, were relatively open to the idea, no fans of the big English clubs were. National and regional cultures matter everywhere in Europe but Britain seems to cherish its own with a special fervour. As if anyone needed reminding.

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