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The proposed European Super League (ESL) is football for the Vine generation: condensed down to its most marketable essence, chopped into bite-size chunks for social media, bookended by adverts for betting companies, or telecoms providers in emerging markets.
Twelve of Europe’s wealthiest teams have announced their intention to form a breakaway continental competition, to run on weekday nights alongside the domestic season, with 15 founder clubs guaranteed a seat at the top table every season, regardless of their performance.
The proposals, which have been backed by six teams from England’s Premier League, would rip a hole in English football, denying smaller clubs even the meagre scraps they currently get from the vast riches swilling around at the top of the game. Meanwhile, a founder club like Arsenal or Spurs could lose every game in this new competition, and still be in line for hundreds of millions of pounds of television revenue. Fans and pundits are aghast, and UEFA – which runs European football – has threatened to throw the offending teams out of its competitions, and bar their players from competing for their national teams.
The ESL is a grotesque distortion of the most popular sport on the planet – a money-making monster wearing your loved-one’s face as a mask – but it’s also an inevitable consequence of the attention economy, which could be about to claim its next victim. The process is simple: figure out what people are watching, give them more of it, sell advertising against it, repeat. It’s helped the likes of Facebook grow into behemoths, trampling entire industries in the process, and now it’s changing football – powered not by an algorithm this time, but by pure greed.
For younger fans in particular, football has become something that’s consumed almost entirely through social media, stripped of context: here’s an unknown Brazilian doing a seal dribble, here’s every Europa League goal from a corner, here’s Jose Mourinho gesticulating wildly on the touchline about some perceived injustice. The modern matchday experience goes like this: turn on goal alerts, type the scorer’s name into a Twitter video search, watch a grainy clip with Arabic commentary, carry on with the rest of your day.
On YouTube, highlights reels of the world’s best players rack up millions of views. Kids play FIFA not as Man Utd or Arsenal, but as their personalised Ultimate Team, made up of a selection of the world’s best players. With instant access to the biggest moments, they save their actual live football viewing only for the biggest games, which naturally garner the highest viewing figures. The ESL is going after these “fans of the future” at the expense of what it disdainfully refers to as “legacy fans”.
The teams behind the ESL want to provide more of what they think fans want: more games between the biggest clubs in football. Capture more attention, sell more advertising. Why watch Fulham versus Burnley when you could have Barcelona versus Real Madrid eight times a season?
But, like journalism’s misguided pivot to video, this could all be based on faulty data. The cost of football has been rising steadily for decades – the game has been chopped up between satellite channels and streaming platforms, with the result being that if you want to watch your team’s whole season live on television you need at least three separate subscriptions.
That’s unaffordable, so yes, fans turn to social media to catch up on the action that they’re barred from viewing normally, or they save their time or money for the biggest games. But that doesn’t mean that’s all that they want to watch. On Facebook, millions of people watch whatever is served into their news feeds, so the algorithm serves up more of it, and rewards media companies for churning it out in a race to the bottom that’s great for advertisers and terrible for consumers.
Speaking to Spanish media yesterday, Florentino Perez – president of Real Madrid and Super League chairman – hinted at the logical end point of the scramble for attention. “If young people find football matches too long it may be because they are not interesting enough… or maybe we might have to make the football matches shorter,” he said.
It’s exactly the same misguided thinking that’s led to the creation of The Hundred in cricket – a Frankenstein competition with different rules to the rest of the sport that is attempting to pander to young fans but risks alienating everyone. After all, why stop at shorter matches? Twitter stats show that people love watching clips of goals, so let’s get rid of the offside rule to guarantee higher scores. Skill videos are really popular on social media, so let’s hand out bonus points for the sickest tricks. If the game is still tied with five minutes to go, why not chuck an extra ball or two on the pitch to really liven things up?
Threats of a breakaway league have cropped up every five years or so for decades – and the Premier League has, perhaps fairly, been accused of hypocrisy when its origins are in a similar schism from the top clubs in England (albeit one that preserved the principle of promotion and relegation on merit).
This is all a symptom of an underlying malaise that stretches back at least as long, but has been worsened by the growing revenues flowing through the game. Outrageous television rights deals have modernised football, but they’ve also broken the link between sporting success and financial profit. In the past, the teams that did the best financially were those that could get the most paying fans through the doors – the chairman would splash out for a tricky winger in the hope that the player would get fans into, and then onto the edge of their seats.
But now, revenues from ticket sales and matchday programmes are far, far outweighed by the money flowing in from television deals and lucrative sponsorship deals. It’s what enabled a club like Bournemouth, with a stadium that seats just 11,000 people, to compete in the top flight for five years. But it also brought in a new breed of owners who prize sporting success not as the goal itself, but as a means to an end: win trophies not for the innate satisfaction, but for the marketing boost you’ll enjoy. For them, the real ranking of interest isn’t the Premier League table, it’s the Deloitte Money League, which ranks the richest football clubs in the world.
It’s transformed football into an entertainment commodity, and explains why so many clubs have been willing to let documentary cameras behind the scenes for shows like All or Nothing, which streams on Amazon Prime and has followed Tottenham, Manchester City, Juventus and others.
It might generate controversy or compromise the work of the manager, but actually controversy is good because it means you’re more likely to be shown on television, your ratings go up, and you can attract a higher fee when you renew your official paint sponsorship. It’s why Jose Mourinho keeps getting work – if he says something ridiculous in a press conference, more people will tune in for the game the next day. Who cares if the actual action on the pitch is like watching paint dry?
This is sport as content, not competition – a high-budget soap opera where the characters never change. The Super League format guarantees hundreds of millions a year in revenue for its founding fifteen, and the fact that they can never be relegated means the tap will never be turned off, they’ll become a money-printing machine that will enrich their owners even as the leagues which they sprung from wither and die.
But, like the Premier League before it, this model only works with our consent. Fan protests are gearing up: banners were hung outside Liverpool’s stadium, on television Gary Neville exhorted fans to organise and push back, the government has launched a review.
But some of the most powerful people in football only speak one language. The money-printing machine runs on eyeballs. The attention economy cuts both ways, and fans who are angry at these changes, who have had their power and their clubs stripped away from them, have one last powerful weapon at their disposal. They can choose not to watch.
Amit Katwala is WIRED’s culture editor. He tweets from @amitkatwala
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