The shameful European Super League proposal should prompt a rethink of how club ownership works

Now is the time to give fans more control over the way their club operates

April 20, 2021
Photo: Stephen Chung / Alamy Stock Photo
Photo: Stephen Chung / Alamy Stock Photo

If one thing has become clear over the last 48 hours, it’s that proposals for a new European Super League have come from the owners of some of the biggest clubs in Europe—not the managers, players or fans whose interests have been kept in the dark. 

The proposals would see founding members Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur form a new competition along with the top three clubs in Spain and Italy—as well as eight more teams, only five of which would enter on merit. 

The ESL would therefore be a closed shop for 15 of the 20 teams as they would be guaranteed a place every season. Part of the magic of the Champions League is that teams aren’t guaranteed to play each other every year, making it even more special when they do. The ESL won’t deliver that excitement when, year after year, the same teams are guaranteed to play each other at least twice. Supporters will very quickly become bored of the repetition. 

In effect, the ESL would turn football into something more akin to US sports competitions like the NFL, NHL and NBA, with no relegation for the worst-performing teams and those in the middle of the pack left with nothing to play for. 

It’s perhaps not surprising that this is the model the ESL appears to be taking, given who has control of clubs like Arsenal. Stan Kroenke, Arsenal’s sole owner via parent company Kroenke Sports & Entertainment, also owns the NFL’s Los Angeles Rams, the NBA’s Denver Nuggets, the NHL’s Colorado Avalanche and the MLS football team Colorado Rapids. 

The motive for the ESL’s creation is clear: for owners to make as much money as possible from their investment in these clubs. 

Given the disregard and lack of understanding these owners have shown for the history of the game in England and for the views and opinions of supporters who bring life to their clubs, this feels like the perfect time to reassess the rules and regulations around club ownership in England. 

Rules are already in place across the football league in England to “prohibit an individual from becoming an owner or director of a club” in certain circumstances. The Owners’ and Directors’ Test, first launched in 2004 as the so-called fit-and-proper-person test, is designed to stop clubs from being owned by people who may have been convicted of a range of offences, have been banned by sporting or professional bodies or breached regulations. 

But nothing is in place to prevent clubs from being bought by people who only see them as a way of increasing their own personal fortunes. 

In recent years the Premier League has been flooded with overseas owners with enormous wealth. Undoubtedly that has brought some of the world’s best players to the league and made it more exciting—but it feels as though it has also started a process of taking clubs further away from their fans than they have ever been. 

Germany’s top division, the Bundesliga, serves as an interesting example of a better approach. Prior to October 1998, clubs entering the Bundesliga were run as not-for-profit organisations with no commercial ownership allowed. A change to the rules opened the door to commercial investors but ensured that a club’s members—ie the fans—must retain the controlling stake in the club. The rule therefore guards clubs from exactly the type of behaviour that we’ve seen in the last 48 hours from the owners of the ESL’s founding members. 

It also has other important effects on the way clubs in Germany’s top flight operate. Ticket prices for games are some of the lowest in Europe’s top divisions and average stadium attendances (pre-Covid, of course) were some of the highest on the continent. 

Changing the rules in England would not be easy because football is already much further down the road of commercialisation and private ownership. The biggest hurdles in moving towards the German model are that current owners are incredibly unlikely to surrender the control they’ve built up over time and the government or supporters’ groups are unlikely to be able to find the funds to buy out private owners and put more power in the hands of fans. 

That’s without getting to the impact on players, many of whom may look to move abroad for higher wages which would negatively impact the quality of the league itself and in turn would reduce the revenue generated from broadcast deals. 

Some of these issues will be relevant to the ESL too if the plans get off the ground. Players may be lured in to play for clubs in the ESL for higher wages and the gap between the top clubs and those slightly below them will widen. Broadcast revenues for domestic leagues may also drop because the top players are playing elsewhere. 

The German model may not be the perfect solution to the discussions that are sure to take place in the weeks and months ahead about the state of English football and how best to prevent the ESL proposals from becoming a reality. Already Fifa, football’s world governing body, has condemned the plans, as well as Uefa, the Premier League, English football league and both the players’ and managers’ association. 

The UK government is also exploring the action that it might be able to take to prevent the six English founding members of the ESL from taking part. Given the role that the Premier League plays in projecting the UK’s soft power overseas, it is likely that they will try to be as strong as possible in stopping the proposals as early as possible. With that said, government’s next steps are currently unclear. 

The ESL proposals have opened English football up to a host of conversations about how far commercialisation can creep into the game, the value of sporting competition and the state of club ownership. None of these conversations will be easy for anyone, but they might be the only positive to come from plans that could change football forever.