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the super league: neoliberalism, culture, and digital networks

It’s rare that my personal interest in football overlaps with my academic interests. The recent debacle surrounding the proposal of a “super league” is one of those moment. It even made national news in the US.

First, here’s my take on the larger situation. Football is deeply intertwined with the cultures of most European nations. In England, which is roughly the size of NY state, there are 92 professional clubs divided into four leagues with a system of promotion and relegation that allows clubs to move between the leagues. There are another 7 leagues beneath them that are semi-professional as I understand (meaning playing football isn’t your day job for sure).

The club I support, originally because my dad was born in North London and supported them, is Arsenal. They were founded by workers at a munitions factory in 1886 and have been in the top division of English football for more than a century. There’s a long and contentious history there which I won’t detail, but the point is that Arsenal, like virtually every club in England, isn’t some jumped up marketing-entertainment venture but is woven into a community of multi-generational supporters. We don’t have anything like that in the US. Maybe baseball for some communities, but there aren’t 92 professional baseball teams in NY state with decades of communal history and fans.

Then media and capitalism comes along. Growing up in America, I never got to see Arsenal play. There wasn’t must coverage of the English Premier League (EPL) in the US until the 21st century, but even in England for my generation if you weren’t at the games in person you wouldn’t have seen much. In the last decade though, there’s been an explosion of coverage. Currently I could watch every EPL match, Championship (the league below the EPL), Bundesliga (the German league), Seria A (Italy), La Liga (Spain), and League Un (France), plus matches from many other leagues–Holland, Turkey, Argentina, etc. Oh, and yes, the MLS here in the US. Streaming also gives me access to more, including women’s leagues. Until the pandemic closed stadia and led the EPL to broadcast all the matches in the UK, I think I had easier access to all the games than most UK fans.

30 years ago, EPL clubs made their money primarily from fans in the stadium and in the UK. Now the sport is a global, televised/streaming/digital entertainment property… sort of. I say “sort of” because it is only a small portion of these clubs that drive that larger appeal. Arsenal is one of them, but only on the periphery. Nevertheless, Arsenal is one of 20 or so European clubs that have garnered the interest of billionaires looking for investment opportunities. Arsenal is currently owned by Stan Kroenke, who also owns the LA Rams, Denver Nuggets, Colorado Avalanche, and Colorado Rapids. His spouse is a Wal-Mart heiress, and they’ve made their billions from strip mall real estate. Of the other “big” clubs in the EPL, two are owned by Americans: the Glazers own Manchester United (and the Tampa Bay Bucs) and John Henry owns Liverpool (and the Boston Red Sox). Tottenham is owned by a British hedge fund. Manchester City is owned by the United Arab Emirates in the form of Sheik Mansour. And Chelsea is owned by Roman Abramovich, a Russian billionaire. I think all of those descriptions provide a clear picture. The other big clubs in Europe have similar ownership profiles.

Let’s not be shy. Football is a multi-billion dollar global industry that remains “untapped” in many markets from the US to China to Africa. But it isn’t really there for everyone. There are more than 200 clubs in the European Club Association (which are comprised of clubs that hope to compete in competitions outside their national leagues). But the number of clubs who can compete for a global market share is far less. Certainly there’s no place for 80+ of the 92 professional clubs in England!

So there’s a weird symbiotic (or parasitic) relationship between these giant global football franchises and the rest of the football culture. The former get to expand their fame and wealth but there is some lasting expectation that they will not leave the others totally behind. It’s almost like some parody of noblese oblige. Except in this case, the “nobles” are clearly a bunch of avaricious billionaires, oil countries, and hedge fund managers with zero interest in the lives of fans except to the degree they represent profit.

Meanwhile the rest of the nation is mixed. Like here in the US, the UK exist in a neoliberal morass. So, on the one hand they want to grow the multi-billion dollar value of the EPL. They want these big teams to spend lots of money to sign the best players and keep eyeballs on the league. At the same time, there’s this cultural obligation to support the rest of the “pyramid:” the other 80+ teams. From a neoliberal perspective it makes sense to insist that you be allowed to pursue maximizing your investment and limiting your pay out to others who, in your perspective, do little or nothing to add to the value of your investment. As an American broadcaster, for example, I imagine that you’re really only paying to broadcast the “big six” and that the other games come along in the package much like the rest of us would view the value of un-ending breadsticks at Olive Garden. So, in neoliberal fashion, the big clubs want a bigger slice of the league profits and want more control over their costs. That makes sense from a neoliberal perspective but it ignores the cultural history part.

In short, the problem comes when one expects neoliberals to give up profits to pay for your culture. They’re never going to want to do that.

As I’ve already been suggesting, all of this intersects with digital media and networks. We’re closing in on 4B global smartphone users. For owners of the biggest sports franchises representing the so-called “global game,” those are billions of eyeballs. 325 million copies of the latest FIFA video game have been sold. That probably means close to a billion players. England’s population is under 60 million. The millions, even tens of millions, of English football fans are a drop in the bucket of the global profit potential. In short, if there are a billion potential fans of the EPL, those English fans represent a tiny fraction of them. And the rest know little and care less about the passion for cultural history that overturned the Super League earlier this week.

So how do we move forward if the aim is to maintain the cultural heritage of this sport without destroying the economy that makes it sustainable? It’s a question that likely can be asked of many aspects of our cultures.

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