Before going any further, we are duty-bound to issue a health warning for all die-hard football fans. If that’s you, this blog will almost certainly upset you. There we are, health and safety over and now let’s have at it! 

European Super League

I don’t really know why but many of us at Athletz tend to be pretty contrarian & non-conformist by nature. We certainly respect history & tradition but aren’t bound by it. So when we heard the news on 18 April that a number of European clubs with solid backing from US investment bank, JP Morgan had launched a project to start a new permanent league, our first reaction wasn’t horror but excitement. 

We may not be dyed in the wool football fans but we are sports fans. That’s our business after all. We spend our lives finding and evaluating the best sports agents in the world and then powering them with help and capital to be even better! So we do get sport, in fact if you cut most of us open, there’d be more adrenaline than blood! 

But we’re also business people; commercial animals, we are absolutely convinced to our core that pro sport must turn a profit for it to be sustainable. It doesn’t matter if a team was founded in 1800 and was the first club to do this and do that – if today that club isn’t financially viable then it’s only a matter of time until the fans are left with just memories. Football has no more right to survival than any other organisation – sporting or otherwise.

So, it astonishes us that across the media in the last few days, only one side of the argument has been represented. Fans and pundits have espoused anger & vilified owners. Even more concerning has been the entry by the government into the debate – clearly an attempt to recapture the popular vote after shafting those very same people all through lockdown…

In addition, baseless claims of destruction to the football ecosystem have been landed from all sides. Perhaps we should have seen the outcry coming – remember back to mid 2020 when some clubs tried to furlough players? The media and fans hated it and volte face decisions were made. And yet, what possible reason was there for a business not to furlough staff whether it was Tottenham Hotspur or McVities Biscuits…

The ESL Project

So here it is, we fully accept that the ESL project as it was described a few days ago is dead but we pose a reflection to all those who have with one voice undermined it – be careful what you wish for. Perhaps it feels like a victory today but as your grandmother always used to say, pride comes before a fall… 

To explain what we’re driving at, we’d like to redress the media imbalance & consider the reasons for the ESL proposal & suggest a pathway of what will happen next.

Can we get the ball rolling and agree on one thing, statistically the majority of English (& European) football clubs are in very poor financial health. 2020 was the death knell for many clubs already struggling to keep the lights on. The misconception is that this is only a grass-roots problem. Not so. In fact the clubs with the big overheads are in the deepest hole.

The other misconception we must correct is that owners are the root cause of the financial woes. It seems to be fashionable to characterise these risk takers as robber-barons determined to destroy the beautiful game.

On the contrary, if it weren’t for these owners every single championship winning team over the last 10 years in the top 5 European leagues would likely not have won a single trophy.

Next up, did anyone actually read the ESL project proposal? We suspect that very few did because if they had they might have noticed all sorts of positive outcomes for the game as a whole ranging from a new raft of solidarity payments to the lower leagues (new money not recycled, rebadged money) and the opportunity to finally get the academy system working as well as it does in US pro sport by removing so much of the pressure to sell players for revenue reasons before they reach their full potential.

Undoubtedly owners were indeed acting out of financial expediency in large part when making secret whatsapp calls to other club owners as 2020 came to a close.

But consider this, if your club is bankrupt or headed that way, you have a fiduciary duty and a legal requirement to consider all possible ways of keeping your company alive. Mark our words, if you saw the finances of most clubs in the top 5 leagues in the world it would turn you to drink & drugs.

So rather than vilifying an owner for seeking a new way to make a lot of money for his club he should be applauded for not just sticking his head in the sand and hoping someone will bail him out. We praise Mr Agnelli in particular for his bravery and forthright attempt to secure a future for the largest clubs in Europe. 

A Trip To Wall Street

Now let’s leave Europe temporarily and take a trip to New York and specifically to the hallowed offices of JP Morgan on Wall Street. A bank, by the way, with a long history of supporting entrepreneurs and doing brave deals. For once, here was a project at full cost and funded with a blue chip bank bankrolling the billions required.

No need to take a ‘build it and hope they will come’ attitude or take a punt that spending, say, €125m on 1 player might unlock Champions League entry. I repeat, a secure, funded league enabling long term decision making. That ladies and gentlemen is what is in danger of being cast aside, put in the refuse and usurped in favour of the utterly broken model that is pro football today. 

We must not be so naïve as to think that other JP Morgan type deals are just waiting in the wings. If we say no to these guys we may not get another chance! Staying stateside for a moment longer, undoubtedly many of the ESL clubs jealously view the US model of franchise based pro sport where there is no cataclysmic financial impact of relegation because there is no relegation.

People say that this lack of jeopardy undermines the spirit of competition. The viewing & financial figures would indicate that this is poppycock. Telling isn’t it, that entrepreneurs from David Beckham prefer the US leagues to Europe right now.

Football’s Survival

Now, let’s really get controversial. There are a few handfuls of truly super clubs in the world that prop up all the rest. Does anyone truly imagine that the football pyramid could possibly survive without the commercial and media money entering the game at the top because of the existence of the super clubs with their big name brands and players?

Are Europe’s smaller clubs reliant upon the continued existence of the super clubs – absolutely. Vice versa? Not for a second. So before we take a pop at the clubs who joined the ESL project, maybe we need to think about the fact that without them being healthy, nobody is healthy. 

And what about the role of the fan here. Well, most fans want to see their team win, so they seek performance and by and large performance requires money. For every Leicester fairytale there’s 25 clubs that have achieved success because they have spent big.

And even that story is somewhat apocryphal given that the much missed Mr Srivaddhanaprabha gave that club considerable resources for many years. So it confounds us that fans who want to see success on the pitch seem to also want to see bankruptcy off the pitch.

Go figure… In reality if all the major channels broadcast a weekly game of the big guns playing each other viewing numbers would be sky-high, shirt sales would be massive, e-gaming would be exponential…and the clubs would recover from their current woes.

So what happens next. Sticking our neck out here, this ESL story has only just started. If this surprises you then go look again at the finances of the biggest clubs. If nothing changes in the next few months, at least 10 of the largest clubs in Europe will go to the wall.

Bankrupt, game over, stadiums empty and decaying, brands dead forever. Owners cannot afford to simply keep writing ever bigger cheques to keep a club going without clarity of future revenues. And if that happens then media rights money into football drops and the trickle down of money down the leagues stops. Is that really what the fans and pundits want?

Conclusion

So to sum up, it’s not complicated. If you lose the super clubs then the whole pyramid disintegrates. If the super clubs prosper and play ever more attractive quality competitions then the pyramid thrives. So we will actively support & assist any well thought through proposal that underwrites the survival of Europe’s biggest brand football clubs.