Europe’s Soccer Elites Took Their Eyes Off the Ball

The failure of the recent European Super League shows what happens when enterprises put customers second and the pursuit of profit first

Soccer fans hold up a banner criticizing the European Super League outside English Premier League club Chelsea’s Stamford Bridge stadium in London. Image Credit: Justin Tallis/Getty Images

On April 18, a new European Super League of soccer was announced. Twelve of the continent’s top teams had joined, including Liverpool, Manchester City, Barcelona and Milan. But the backlash was immediate, with seemingly everyone weighing in against it—the fans; the soccer federations of England, Spain and Italy; even British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Less than 24 hours later the cracks began to appear. Two days after it was announced, the whole thing had come tumbling down. The European Super League was no more.

Critics were quick to say why the new league was a bad idea. It would “strike at the heart of the domestic game,” said Johnson (a man with some experience in getting out of things European). Former England national team player Gary Neville branded it “pure greed.” The head of European soccer’s ruling body, UEFA (the Union of European Football Associations), called the idea “a spit in the face for all football lovers” and the participating teams “snakes.”

The outrage against the new venture seemed universal. And it may well have been opposed for different reasons by different parties and vested interests, but the average fan saw the league for what it was: an attempt by the rich and the elites of the soccer world to squeeze out even more money by rigging the game in their favor. This was cronyism at play—and a demonstration of what can happen when any successful enterprise takes its eye off the ball.

The Competition Imperative

Whether it’s a business in the marketplace or a team of 11 players on the field, an enterprise that wants to succeed knows one thing for sure: It has to beat its competitors. Competition is good. It makes for a better product. The excellence of European soccer is a result of competition—and its excellence has made it wildly successful.

Take the English game. Soccer began in England, and some would say it’s the country’s best export to the rest of the world. The current English Premier League is probably the most popular, with a cumulative global audience of 3.2 billion. It’s fast, it’s exciting, and it attracts the most technically gifted players from all around the world.

The game in England—“the Working Man’s Ballet”—has been evolving since it began to take off in the late 1800s. As competition heated up, it wasn’t long before the Lancashire mill workers who once played as amateurs for the “work team” found themselves replaced by paid professionals. The same was true of other local teams that drew their players from the coal mines, the railways, the munitions factories and other blue-collar occupations. Yet even so, teams (which don’t relocate to other “markets” as NFL franchises do) remained grounded in the community.

A celebrated case in point is the Glasgow Celtic team of 1967. That year Celtic became the first British team to win the European Cup, a competition among the champions of the various European leagues (and a sort of predecessor of the short-lived European Super League). The game was played in Lisbon against the mighty Inter Milan. All but one of Celtic’s winning team members were born within 12 miles of Celtic Park, and the “outlier” was born just 30 miles away.

Fast-forward two decades to the team that Chelsea Football Club fielded on Boxing Day 1999. Not only did none of the players come from West London—none of them were English. The changes on the field were echoed by changes in the management and ownership of soccer teams. The Chelsea team of 1999, for example, was coached by an Italian and a few years later was owned by a free-spending Russian billionaire. Quickly dubbed “Chelski” by the tabloid press, the team went from strength to strength, with the 2004-2005 season the most successful in Chelsea’s history.

Other foreign owners followed: Of the six English teams that joined the European Super League, five are foreign-owned. In terms of popularity among those who wanted to watch and those who wanted to play, English soccer pulled ahead of other leagues. At some point, however, it began to lose the run of itself.

Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison and entrepreneurs everywhere have characterized failure as success in progress. But the reverse can also be true. In huge success can also be found the seeds of failure.

In the 1990s everyone wanted to play in the Premier League, and everyone wanted to watch it. At the end of each season, the league’s three worst-performing teams face relegation to the next-lower tier of English soccer, and the top three teams from that lower tier win promotion. Given the (financial) stakes involved, the playoff for promotion is considered the richest soccer game in the world. English soccer had become a very successful “product”—and it knew it. Fabulously wealthy, it started to focus on goals of a different sort.

The Love of the Game

From its beginnings, soccer has had an enormous appeal. It’s a simple game. The rules are few and basic. You win by scoring more goals than the other team. Somehow English teams (and teams elsewhere too) began to forget these things—even as they became more and more enamored of the wealth the sport was generating. Its authenticity had made soccer special. But the focus on profit began to undermine its authenticity and, if unchecked, could erode its success.

The rejection of the European Super League may well be a necessary check. Twenty teams from across Europe were to comprise the new league. The 12 elite teams that were announced on April 18 (six from England, six from the rest of Europe) were to form the league’s core—but they would enjoy a key advantage over the other eight teams. While the latter had to be promoted and could be relegated from the league if they did not perform, the “dirty dozen” could not. Win or lose, they would remain (like the U.S., Britain, France, Russia and China on the UN Security Council) as permanent members.

In Liverpool’s first Premier League game after the announcement of the European Super League, its opponents warmed up in T-shirts with two words on the front: “Earn It.” For many, that was the issue in a nutshell. Liverpool and the rest of the dirty dozen had been handpicked for the new league but had not had to compete for it and qualify on merit. Theirs was success that had not been earned. Soccer fans knew instinctively this was not right.

‘Non-soccer’ Considerations

What criteria had the European Super League used to make its selections? Likely, the decision was not based purely on criteria relating to the teams’ performance on the soccer field. But teams making “non-soccer” decisions is nothing new. For example, when Real Madrid bought English player David Beckham (husband of Posh Spice), did they do so because he was the best player they could find? Or because of the number of Real Madrid/Beckham replica shirts (which can cost $100 a pop) that they would sell?

Similarly, did Manchester United recruit Mexican player Chicharito Hernández purely for his soccer abilities? Or because they wanted to grow their fan base in Mexico? Did “Chelski” decide to recruit Andriy Shevchenko because the team needed a striker? Or did other considerations come into play in the owner’s recruitment of a onetime compatriot? Did Arsenal figure out it could make enough money by ending the season in the top four of the Premier League and not trying to win it? Might such a lack of ambition explain why a once-great Arsenal not only doesn’t win the league anymore but doesn’t even finish in the top four?

It might be easy for the most successful teams to do these things—but only for a time. Continuing to make commercial or other non-soccer decisions can undermine what made these teams successful in the first place (i.e., winning) and reduce the likelihood of their success in the future.

Of course, soccer teams aren’t the only enterprises that can make this mistake. A business that does well by providing goods or services that its customers value can decide it also wants to save the planet, combat poverty or engage in some other form of corporate social responsibility. Similarly, a church might hang up a banner at its entrance declaring, “Be the Church: Fight Racism.”

Fighting racism, saving the planet and combating poverty are worthy causes, but if they become the central focus, they can distract from an organization’s primary role. For a business, that’s providing goods or services that people want; for a church, presumably it’s spreading the gospel. And for a business or a church, concentrating on these primary roles might in fact achieve these desirable secondary goals also. By the same token, however, a focus on these secondary goals could undermine the effectiveness of the enterprise in every regard.

The European Super League is a case in point. Its focus on marketing, profits and other non-soccer considerations earned it the enmity of fans and resulted in almost immediate disintegration. Going into damage-limitation mode, repentant team owners took to social media to apologize for what they had done.

Winning Where It Counts: On the Field

For soccer teams, marketing and branding have become hugely important as the teams cultivate fan bases across the world. This has led to huge growth in “soccer tourism.” Tired of watching the “three-quarter pace” of Major League Soccer? You might want to get a firsthand experience of the high-octane, high-skill Premier League. Don’t have a particular team loyalty? No problem. With 20 teams in the English Premier League, there are plenty to choose from.

The result? Soccer tourists fly into town for the weekend, buy a “half and half” scarf depicting the two teams playing, watch the game, then fly home—having increased the demand for tickets, inflated prices and excluded local fans in the process. Yes, the market should and does determine who gets the ticket and who doesn’t. But there are clearly tradeoffs involved when considering the longer-term implications for a soccer team.

To be sure, the business side will always be important in professional soccer—if only so that the teams can continue to play. But for soccer to remain great, it ultimately has to be about winning on the field. If teams and owners don’t remember this, the fans are there to remind them. Last month soccer fans did—and brought the European Super League house of cards tumbling down. As they lick their wounds, the team owners who devised this crony carve-up should remember: Any venture that puts customers second and the pursuit of profit first will ultimately lose both.

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