ESL: Nothing like as innovative as football needs

Ben Wells

There was an amusing meme doing the rounds on Twitter this week: Things that lasted longer than the European Super League. Almost in the blink of an eye we experienced what felt like the biggest challenge to football’s status quo in a generation collapse quicker than the England cricket team on a turning pitch.

On Sunday night, these 12 European behemoths marched boldly towards untold riches and absolute power and by Tuesday night, not only was it clear that the scheme had collapsed but they had also ceded positions of influence within the European Club Association, certainly in England the ESL conceded any leverage they had over securing a bigger share of the PL pie and across the continent managed to cause ill will with FIFA, UEFA, fellow clubs, politicians, broadcasters, sponsors and in many cases their own players, managers and even some directors. Oh yes, and supporters, or “legacy” fans as they were described.

It appeared that part of the rationale behind the emergence of the ESL was the belief that more revenue could be generated from “future” fans, those fans of European football dotted all over the world who would be prepared to pay more to watch the big clubs play each other on a regular basis.

There are many things I find curious about the concept but also the timing:

  • Most clubs have not done anything like enough – over and above media partnerships and local language websites – to build a genuine rapport with supporters in those growth markets. Fans are often transient, following successful teams or those teams boasting their favourite players and then switching when one or the other changes. It’s a shaky foundation on which to stake your future.
  • Taking aside the apparent amazement with which, some clubs apparently met the (obvious to everyone else) opposition, why would you not consult your supporters, even surreptitiously beforehand when the means to do so are easier than ever?
  • One of the things which appeals about European – and especially English – football around the world is its atmosphere. If you have alienated – and I don’t doubt that many supporters of those teams would have thumbed their noses at their clubs had the ESL ever become a reality – the vast majority of those “legacy” fans, then however many people are tuning in around the world, the product is hugely diminished if the ground has vacant seats and a poor atmosphere. If football should have learned one thing from COVID it is that without live support, it’s an average product.
  • Speaking of COVID, when there is so much uncertainty about whether people will return to watch live sport as they did, why give them a further reason to vote with their wallets?

I remember watching my team when the post-Heysel ban was lifted and those European nights felt so special, even matches against some of the supposed lesser lights. Since then, the competition has been broadened and broadened and redesigned to favour the bigger clubs so that it was an ESL already in all but name. Indeed, in the 24 hours following the ESL initially breaking cover UEFA was due to ratify a further expansion of the competition and more favourable terms for the bigger clubs. There is a value in rarity, and more is not always more.

However ground-breaking its protagonists felt the ESL was, it was at best more of the same (just with even more money going to the same few clubs), at worst it was reductive. Although some of the games were to be broadcast directly by the clubs the indications were that the intention was to broadcast more traditionally. Rather than looking at a more progressive and long-term approach by which building more income didn’t need to be at cost to others, the plan effectively was protectionist, re-slicing the pie to give the big boys a larger share rather than a collaborative free-market approach whereby everyone benefits from a bigger whole.

Those European nights are special because they are rare, and those future fans would undoubtedly have become bored of seeing the same teams and players every week. What then? There is nowhere left to go: that is the endgame. The ESL for me represents a classic case of kicking the can down the road rather than taking the time to understand the wider challenges facing the sport as a whole, as well as the opportunity to build value for all.

More than ever, sport needs to work collaboratively to build mutual value – for clubs, leagues and federations but also for sponsors, media partners and critically, fans (both legacy and future) – because there were already more options for people spend their time and money pre-pandemic and in a post-COVID world, our natural ability to innovate in a crisis will undoubtedly accelerate that.

To do that it needs a strategic, long term view which puts its customers at its heart and understands what they want to buy, not just what it wants to sell.

Ben Wells

Ben Wells – Chief Commercial Officer at PTI Digital

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