Amy Roberts: Capitalism gets a red card
You don’t write a column called Red Card Roberts because your favorite sport is tennis. I love soccer — watching it, playing it, coaching it — being part of the sport in any way I can.
I’m not sure why or when or how I got hooked. At some point I must have just realized that when half the planet is invested in one thing, it must be a pretty special thing. There’s no cultural practice more universal than soccer. It’s played in every country, by every race and every religion. More people understand soccer than any single language, it has more followers than any one religion. And every four years, billions of people all over the world act in unison by watching the World Cup final.
It is that international unity, the oneness that soccer represents, that killed a multi-billion-dollar European Super League in less than 48 hours. Its implosion was nearly as quick as its creation.
Across the European continent, there are two leagues — the Domestic League, where teams play other teams in their own country — and the Champions League, where the very best domestic teams compete across the continent.
And while every fan wants to see their team qualify for the Champions League, the heart and soul of soccer lies in the Domestic Leagues. No matter how good (or bad) the team is, no matter who the players or the manager are, fans don’t stray. They have somewhat of a spiritual ownership stake in their team. In some cases, rivalries span more than a century, and loyalty has been handed down from generation to generation. The Champions League is where the money and glory are, but the Domestic League is where you find the grit and devotion.
Over the past 20 years American hedge funders, Russian oligarchs, European industrial tycoons and Gulf royals started buying scrappy teams and pumping eyewatering amounts of money into them. There’s a bit of an unregulated free market in European soccer — no salary caps and no draft system mean the teams with the most money are usually the most successful. For the most part, soccer fans didn’t care about the influx of cash because at the end of the day, teams still had to earn their spot. The playing field was by no stretch equitable, but dollar bills weren’t on the pitch, and all the money in the world doesn’t protect a team from an upset. There was a sense that because teams had to qualify to be in the Champions League every single year, the smaller, less funded teams still had a chance, at least theoretically.
But on Sunday, April 18, that theory was kicked aside with a surprise announcement from the owners of the top 12 teams stating they intended to create a closed European Super League, effectively replacing the Champions League. The plan, which had been concocted in secret, was to ensure the dominant 12 teams would always have a place in the Super League. No qualification needed, just membership in perpetuity. Between broadcast rights and sponsorship deals, the revenues would be staggering.
What the owners of these 12 teams didn’t bank on was the outrage of the fan base. When the announcement was made, the fans went berserk. They took to the streets and demonstrated, even if their team was one of the 12 to be included. They protested on behalf of the collective unifying interest in soccer — their loyalty to the game came before their loyalty to their team. Government officials across Europe blasted the idea. English Prime Minister Boris Johnson called it a “cartel.” Even Prince William spoke out against the Super League. Then, it was the players’ turn. It seems athletes actually like earning their trophies rather than having them guaranteed.
In less than 48 hours after it was announced, the Super League unraveled, with all 12 teams pulling out. The owners were blindsided by the fury.
It shouldn’t be lost on anyone how 12 members of the world’s financial elite collaborated behind closed doors, neglected to consult anyone who might be impacted, came up with a plan that would benefit them and then seemed shocked to realize not everyone was on board.
The irony in all this is that the owners of these teams were undone by the very thing that made them fall in love with the game in the first place — the rabid nature of the fan base.
There are still inequities between teams. But for now, the power dynamic has shifted towards the fans. The game belongs to them.
Amy Roberts is a freelance writer, longtime Park City resident and the proud owner of two rescued Dalmatians, Stanley and Willis. Follow her on Twitter @amycroberts.
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