European Super League – What Football Needs to Learn from Other Breakaways in Sport
Over the past few days, the world of football has been turned upside down by the announcement of the European Super League, and the 12 large clubs who have joined the breakaway competition.
The opinion of fans and commentators has been unanimously furious, and quite rightly so. It is a decision which rides roughshod over the history and traditions of the game, purely for the financial benefit of the elite clubs involved.
You can certainly see how the decision of just a few clubs to join puts enormous pressure on the others. Even if only a few clubs join the new European Super League, they will all want in.
The world of money, profits and sport have always collided, with far reaching consequences, not always for the worse.
The early years of baseball in America were riven by in fighting and ruthless competition among rival leagues. The first professional league was the National League, established in 1871. It came about after it split from the amateur National Association of Baseball Players to go professional.
The National League was rivalled in 1881 by the American Association, a.k.a the ‘Beer and Whiskey League’, which made good profits by selling copious amounts of alcohol to fans, which the National League was reluctant to do.
In 1895, rugby was split in two over the issue of paying players. Up to then, the Rugby Football Union insisted on all players being strictly amateur. Clubs in working class northern English towns lobbied hard for allowing players to be paid but were refused. In August 1895, 22 Northern clubs met in Huddersfield and broke away from Rugby’s governing body, forming what became known as Rugby League. Rugby Union went professional one hundred years later in 1995.
More recently, cricket faced its own challenges with breakaway competitions, driven once again by the issue of money. In the 1970s, Australian television entrepreneur and owner of Nine Network, Kerry Packer, wanted to buy exclusive TV rights to Australian cricket.
When Packer was refused, he lured dozens of the world’s best players away from the official national teams to form World Series Cricket in 1977. He was able to do this because top cricket players were paid extremely poorly at the time.
Kerry Packer eventually made a deal with the cricket establishment and won exclusive TV rights for Australian cricket. He disbanded his rival competition, but World Series Cricket changed the game forever. For the first time, coloured jerseys were worn by players, players were well paid and became fully professional. The punishing schedule led to players becoming fitter. Crucially, the style of one-day cricket became the most popular form of the game.
Incidentally, Packer also had a leading role in the Super League War, a dispute over control of rugby league in Australia in the mid-1990s between himself and Rupert Murdoch, which for a time saw two rival competitions. Once again, it was sparked by money, TV rights and control of the sport.
Let’s not forget the noble sport of darts. In 1993, the world’s top darts players were fed up with the decline of TV coverage and prize money in the sport. They didn’t feel the old-fashioned British Darts Organisation (BDO) was able to fix the decline and so sixteen of the world’s best players broke away from the BDO and formed the World Darts Council (WDC).
The WDC (later the Professional Darts Corporation, PDC) partnered with genius promoter Barry Hearn and quickly became top dog. The PDC was always considered the superior competition, attracting the best players, more TV coverage and much higher income for players.
Other sports and competitions have seen takeovers and buyouts from entrepreneurs seeking to profit from the sport, especially when the true value of TV rights began to be realised in the ere of pay-per-view TV. Bernie Ecclestone’s takeover of Formula 1 TV rights is a prime example and saw a huge increase in the sport’s popularity.
The establishment of the Premier League in English football in 1992, which was a league commercially independent from the English FA, reversed the decline in English football in the 1980s and became the most financially powerful league in the world.
Rugby Union is going through its own internal battles on this point, with investment company CVC Capital Partners buying stakes in the Six Nations and the All Blacks, seeking to control TV rights and revenues.
The history of many sports is shaped and created by breakaway leagues, schisms and battles over TV money. Up until now, football has stood alone as a sport with unrivalled unity among leagues and national associations, largely driven by its meritocratic structures, massive popularity, loyal fans, huge TV incomes and very well-paid players.
How the European Super League will change the history of football is yet to be seen but looking back over the history of other sports it is clear that breakaway competitions and associations are extremely hard to stop. Even in ones that didn’t last, they have always changed the dynamics of the sport’s structure, sometimes even the sport itself.
Many have proposed banning any players or clubs who take part in the new competition, but the experience of other sports should be a stark warning. If players and clubs are banned from existing competitions, as they were in World Series Cricket and darts, football will become a financial arm wrestle, with both sides vying for the best players and fan interest.
In cricket, the establishment eventually backed down, a wise decision in hindsight. In darts, the BDO lost the best players and therefore, fan interest, TV revenue and control of the sport.