Friday, April 23, 2021

In Sports, it turns out greed can cross the Rubicon

In the universe, the biggest and brightest stars live fast, die young and when they go out, they go out with a bang. Such was the story of the European Super League; 48 hours where 12 of the biggest clubs joined together to break away from the structures that had molded European club soccer since the 19th century. But like the biggest and brightest stars throughout the known universe, this lived fast, died young and when it went out, it went out with a big bang. 

No matter the might, influence and power of the men who put this plan in motion, they didn't see the outward force of gravity from the game's other great stakeholders pushing down on their fusion trying to push out. Under this pressure, the ESL collapsed under its own weight. 

We could continue the star metaphors, including how supernovas are great forces of creation, but what's been undersold in the spectacular collapse of the Super League is how the unchecked greed of 21st century sports now suddenly has a limit. A red line has actually been crossed, and the punishment for crossing that red line turned out to be extremely severe. 

Many of the people who spearheaded the Super League are extremely envious of the NFL's ability to continue to print money without fail. Some of the forces behind the Super League are part of that NFL money printing enterprise. But the NFL's magic touch isn't even finding ways to balloon their business to the tune of billions of dollars each year, it's how they do it without alienating the paying customer. Roger Goodell added a playoff team, a regular season game, turned the Draft into a traveling roadshow, expanded Thursday Night Football and put it behind a streaming paywall, and yet most fans have barely batted an eye. Expanding revenues this much while staying in the bounds of what's acceptable to the unwashed masses is an impressive tightrope to walk.

The European Super League's massive failure was falling off that tightrope spectacularly. It's not as if the current structure is truly competitive beyond the Super League founders anyway, but it's the illusion that competitive sporting merit still drives the bus that keeps the status quo in tact while the big clubs grab and grab. There have been more Champions League format changes in the last three decades than government changes in Italy; all slanted towards the big clubs getting a bigger slice of the pie and many of them approved under the threat of a Super League. A deft slight of hand and kissing the right rear ends kept this gravy train rolling, but it had rolled so far down the track, pandemic assisted too, that the Super League suddenly became much more than an empty threat.

A Super League in which clubs didn't earn their place at the big kids table by their own merit instead of just their brand was a bridge too far, particularly in England. No one, particularly the six owners of the Sky Six had any foresight to see it coming, whether they joined because they wanted their American sports model imported to Europe like the Marshall Plan or because they had to go along for the ride fearing they might be left out, had any ability to see the backlash coming. They couldn't realize that a Super League meant the Emperor had no clothes, the Wizard of Oz wasn't actually what he appeared to be and that would be what titled the field against them. In a world where there is still unchecked greed, particularly in sports, these Super League owners inadvertently found out that there is such a thing as too much greed, and that it can take you over the Rubicon. 

What comes next in response to the Super League's failure is an open question. Will England impose a 50+1 rule for club ownership such as is law in Germany? Will UEFA pass a new Financial Fair Play law that more resembles an American style luxury tax or even a salary cap? Will the "dirty dozen" owners get forced out? Can the uneasy truces that kept the system humming along, broken as it is, be repaired? All are questions that will not have answers for quite some time.

But what the 48 hours of the European Super League and its fallout have shown is that unchecked greed in sports is suddenly not so unchecked anymore. There is such a thing as "too far", and the fans, always left out in the battles of millionaires vs. billionaires, actually have some sway, at least enough to tip the balance in a situation like this. Authorities in soccer need to be mindful of this, and everyone in professional sports across the globe should now understand that even if something like this episode on their shores is unlikely, it's still possible. With the knowledge that a red line is out there somewhere, will that mean that some of the more out there ideas to increase revenue now get shelved, or is a simple change of tactics on the horizon?

A star is fundamentally a delicate balance of nuclear fusion pushing out and gravity pushing in. In the end, gravity always wins. With the European Super League, gravity won, and in so doing, proved that there is such a thing as too much when it comes to greed in sports. 

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