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Reflections on Sports Fandom and the European Super League

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In America, the Pac-12, and Washington — do fans matter?

Oregon v Washington Photo by Alika Jenner/Getty Images

The European Super League

Before their English Premier League game against Chelsea this week, players from the small coastal club Brighton and Hove Albion wore t-shirts emblazoned with the slogan, “Earn it; football is for the fans.”

Chelsea v Brighton & Hove Albion - Premier League Photo by Chloe Knott - Danehouse/Getty Images

That sentiment proved to be far more than an empty platitude over the following days. The plan for a dozen gigantic European football clubs to break away and form their own lucrative continental competition imploded in spectacular fashion. Widespread fan rejection catalyzed the colossal collapse. For American onlookers, it seems odd that fans would take a position on how their teams generate revenue and downright bizarre that the same fans would have the wherewithal to oppose and even prevent such brazen money grubbing.

For those who have not followed the European Super League developments, I will start with a brief synopsis. Twelve of the richest teams in Europe, spread between England, Spain, and Italy, agreed to form a pan-European tournament that would run concurrently with domestic competitions. Such a competition already exists — the UEFA Champions League. This tournament would differ in that the twelve founding members would control the rules and media rights for the competition. These clubs would be less financially beholden to other European clubs than the Champions League is due to its affiliation with the European football federation (UEFA). Crucially, the Super League members would not have to qualify for the competition through domestic success, so the financial incentive would shift from winning their own leagues to competing in this Super League.

To outsiders, this difference might seem neutral or slightly positive because it would mean more games between recognizable global “brands” and fewer against the likes of the aforementioned Brighton. The blowback gets to a critical difference between our American sporting model of “franchises” and the European “club” model, in which fans position themselves as active participants in team development.

The English Football Association (“FA”) includes 96 teams spread between four leagues, as well as hundreds of lesser clubs spanning professionals, semi-pros, and small neighborhood clubs. Teams who finish at the top of their competition can earn promotion to the next level and those who finish at the bottom are relegated to the lower division. Theoretically, a team could work its way from outside the English Football League (“EFL,” the top four divisions), all the way to the English Premier League. Rare as it might be, a small town club could even finish high enough in its top domestic league to compete with the continent’s giants in the UEFA Champions League. Small-town Italian underdog Atalanta is one such example currently living out these halcyon days. This competitive pyramid isn’t a cute incentive or a carrot to dangle for hopeless teams; the last week proved that competitive integrity across competitions is sacrosanct to many European football fans in a way that is unrecognizable to many American sports fans.

Most European countries have structures similar to the FA’s. One notable exception is the German league, which has a similar promotion/relegation rule, but also a “50+1” rule that prevents commercial investors from ever owning more of an interest in a football club than the fans own. In other words, fans directly choose club leadership and can vote out leaders who do not lead the team in the fans’ collective direction. As Borussia Dortmund CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke said in 2016, “The German spectator traditionally has close ties with his club. And if he gets the feeling that he’s no longer regarded as a fan but instead as a customer, we’ll have a problem.”

This mindset manifests itself with the lowest average ticket prices, the high average attendances, and a sustainable financial structure. Most recently, it manifested itself in Dortmund, Bayern Munich (the 2020 Champions League winner), and all other German football clubs rejecting the Super League. Paris Saint-Germain also resisted ESL overtures, but their exclusion had more to do with financial entanglements between the club’s Qatari ownership and media rights for the existing UEFA competitions.

Borussia Dortmund v 1. FC Union Berlin - Bundesliga Photo by Christof Koepsel/Getty Images

By Wednesday, the ESL was all but dead. Of the original twelve charter members, only Real Madrid and Barcelona were left in the plans, and even Barcelona’s manager and captain publicly condemned the venture. Every English team issued some variation of the same full-throated apology for not appreciating the wishes of the fans, the integrity of the game, and the traditional competition structure. Manchester United’s long-tenured Chairman, Ed Woodward, was forced out of his position. Domestic competitions are pondering penalties for the rebel clubs, and national governments have reportedly considered stricter ownership rules more akin to the German model.

I do not mean to deify European football clubs or their fans. Some of these clubs are owned by literal tyrants and oligarchs. Many clubs have horrible human rights records. Racism is rampant in the game and most governing bodies have failed to take adequate steps to address it. FIFA and UEFA have been rife with corruption for a generation. Granting all of these issues, the impact of the fan reaction has stuck with me. I’m primarily an American sports fan, so this idea of effective fan activism stands out as unique, and “revenue” as the target of the fan activism is even more stunning.

American Sporting Culture is Revenue-Driven

In discussing the ESL proposal, the panelists of The Guardian’s Football Weekly podcast noted that the tireless drive for sporting revenue evinced by these dozen clubs was something more reminiscent of American sports franchises than European sports clubs. As an American sports fan, the comments stood out to me because I take it as a given that the teams I follow — college or professional — would aim to maximize revenue. In fact, I’ve been so indoctrinated into the idea that revenue drives competitive success that I have become invested in my teams’ ability to generate revenue.

Consider the tenure of Larry Scott as Pac-12 Commissioner. In 2010, Scott tried to expand the conference to include Texas and Oklahoma. Over the next year, he negotiated a new TV deal with ESPN and Fox that would also launch the Pac-12 Network. All of these measures failed miserably. The pursuit of blue-blood additions to the conference flopped when Texas created the Longhorn Network to monetize itself, rendering any conference media rights functionally irrelevant. The Pac added Utah and Colorado instead, fine as a consolation prize, but not Scott’s grand vision. The Pac-12 Network never got widespread cable or satellite carriage, which cost the conference significant revenue and exposure. Conferences like the SEC and Big 10 surpassed the conference’s media rights deal and have largely surpassed the conference in the key sports of football and men’s basketball.

University of Utah Joins Pac-10 Conference Photo by George Frey/Getty Images

I do not mean to dispute the link between revenue and competitive success. There is more than enough evidence that programs that bring in more money are able to invest that money into coaches, recruiting, and facilities that help drive toward championships. My question is how we ended up in this reality where satellite carriage fees are part of the college football fan’s vocabulary and what we can do about it.

Undoubtedly, one of the biggest gripes of Scott’s tenure as commissioner has been his disconnect from football fans. He bargained away game schedules and start times so fans are stuck trying to get to or watch games on Friday evenings or early Saturday mornings. The scarcity of the Pac-12 Network has created obstacles to fans even watching some UW football games. The failure to staff and train a competent team of officials has become a nationwide running joke. Fans are aware that their interests have been shunted to the side, but have accepted it as a necessary evil in the pursuit of remaining competitive with the “It Just Means More” bullies from the South.

The Fate of Bury FC

Bury FC was a relatively small English football club located just outside Manchester, founded in 1885. The club got to the top division of English football in the 1920s and even won the prestigious FA Cup in 1900 and 1903. Through the 2010s, the club was promoted and relegated between Leagues One and Two (the third and fourth tiers of the EFL). The team played at Gigg Lane and often drew over 11,000 local fans to games.

In 2019, Bury faced significant financial difficulties, largely due to excess debt owed by team owner Steve Dale. Between Dale and previous owner Stewart Day, the club took on too high of a wage bill and too much of a tax burden for the club’s revenue to keep up. After months of missed payments, legal wrangling, government intervention, and failed takeovers, the EFL expelled Bury. After 136 years, they were a club without a competition and without players.

Radcliffe FC v AFC Bury - Pre-Season Friendly Photo by Lewis Storey/Getty Images

Even so, they were not a club without fans. A group of about 650 Bury fans came together to found Bury AFC, a so-called “phoenix club,” rising from the ashes of its previous team. The club is owned by the fans, who vote for a board to run the operations. The club secured a place in a lower division (Division One North, which includes several other fan-owned clubs) and arranged a stadium-share with another local club. The pandemic has held down attendance, but available tickets were sold out in the early part of the season before remaining games were called off.

The ownership club is now over 1500 members. Nick Hawker is the chairman of the fan group and quickly identified that the ESL plan demonstrated a disconnect between clubs and their communities. He said that financial conditions can drive a wedge between fans and the clubs they support. “I people are throwing money and we have playing budgets and operational budgets that are far beyond what the club actually makes operationally, that’s what makes it impossible.”

Bury AFC, while stable, remains a distance from its high water mark of the last decade, let alone its historical highs of the early 1900s. More importantly, the club has a distinct connection to its community and fans that cannot be broken by media rights, sponsorship interests, or the like. It’s impossible to say whether the fans would have preferred to remain in League One with ownership that would have removed their interests from the decision-making process. The reality is that these fans now participate in a very different model, and that such a model is possible.

What Would “American Football is for the Fans” Look Like?

A common slogan across Europe this week has been, “We are fans, not customers.” Again, this notion is entirely foreign to American sports fans. To the franchises and organizations we support, we are not fans and we’re hardly even customers. The Pac-12 has struggled to sell its network to TV providers because the carriage fees for the providers to show the content (i.e. “games”) is not worth the incremental ad revenue associated with the media rights. We are data points in a consumer demographic that makes up part of an algorithm to determine whether media rights drive enough marginal ad revenue to include sporting content in the overall programming package. That gibberish sentence is the direct and natural result of our willingness — conscious or unconscious — to let organizations strive for revenue at the expense of fulfilling fan needs.

I certainly didn’t become a sports fan because I wanted to marginally increase the revenue of a certain local brand. I became a fan because my dad told me to swing my whiffle ball bat like Kirby Puckett when I was three. Because we got tickets to the ’91 World Series and I got to stay up late to see Kirby send it to game seven. Because I happened to be watching Christian Laettner’s miracle shot against Kentucky, and soon after won a free throw shooting contest outside a Wal-Mart in North Dakota, earning a comparison to fellow tall white kid Laettner. Because fantasy baseball has kept me in almost daily contact with a dozen of my best friends from high school for over 20 years. Because tailgating next to the UW track every Saturday in the fall helped me build a new community of friends when I relocated to the area for school. These reasons are all deeply personal, but they get lost in the relentless pursuit of revenue.

1991 World Series Photo by Focus on Sport via Getty Images

This thought experiment is complicated because it doesn’t just introduce new variables to the way we think about sports; it approaches sports fandom in an entirely different way. While it’s Pollyannaish to imagine college football in which the teams are made up of the best athletes who happen to attend a given University, the fan-centered line of thought can still be instructive.

For example, I have always taken it for granted that University of Washington football scheduling is out of the hands of UW fans and mostly out of the hands of UW’s own athletic department. Does that have to be the case? Shouldn’t we loudly rail against 9 AM kick-off times and “neutral site” games in Dallas or Atlanta that our fans can’t reasonably attend? Is the marginal gain in revenue really worth the miniscule competitive advantage that it brings? Should we really accept that the only way to watch some games is to find an illegal stream on Reddit of a broadcast from another country?

So many current issues on the table for Washington and the Pac-12 implicate this line of thinking. The next conference commissioner should be someone who appreciates the conference’s major sports and its fans and keeps those interests at the forefront in decision making. Any discussion of conference realignment should keep the conference’s fan interests at least on par with revenue generation. Would a tiny increase in College Football Playoff representation for the Pac-12 be worth losing historical rivals like Washington State or Oregon State? Our next media rights deal cannot make it unpleasant to attend games, build community, and develop a fan-base at the expense of more East Coast eyeballs on a few of our games.

NCAA FOOTBALL: AUG 31 Boise State at Washington Photo by Joshua Weisberg/Icon SMI/Corbis via Getty Images

Of course, I might be entirely wrong. Maybe the only path forward for UW and Pac-12 sports is to nationalize the conference, mortgage any tradition, and secure as many official noodle and auto insurance partners as will write checks. Maybe a 5% increase in CFP odds over a decade is worth upending the competitive structure. In many ways, these are personal questions because they depend on how an individual values his or her own sense of community and emotional investment in a team, club, or organization. If nothing else, the rise and immediate fall of the ESL forced me to think about these questions differently because it made it apparent that the way we approach sports fandom is not set in stone.