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Restructuring of sports leagues – case of the Danish Super League

Skærmbillede 2015-06-17 kl. 12.07.21Skærmbillede 2015-06-17 kl. 12.07.27Skærmbillede 2015-06-17 kl. 12.07.34

Photos: The Danish Super League product (source: Superligaen)

In an era in which globalization and media development has merged, the commercialization rates and the inflow of money in sports have been very visible. The right to logo placement at the local stadium or via one of the traditional media platforms associated with a specific sports entity in return for money does no longer explain the depth of sports marketing. Postmodern sports marketing holds so much potential whether that relates to the activation of the business side or the sporting factors. However, the business and sporting development of sports entities has to do with transformation concerning adaptation to the surrounding market and societal trends.

“Today’s various codes of football (e.g. FIFA, NFL, CFL, AFL) each have established rules, standardized equipment and facilities, carefully plotted tactics, well-defined positions and roles, and myriad statistics and records to quantify and compare performances across time and space.”

(Hardy et al., 2012, p. 485)

As evidenced in the citation above, today’s sporting development as well as the branding and commercialization of football (soccer) point towards dynamic and market-oriented product development whether that is tied directly to the brand of the football offering or indirectly associated with the brand development via tailored changes of the rules, technologies, equipment, competition format of the football product. In the case of the Danish Super League, the interactions between the dynamic and innovative sporting and business changes and the vital stakeholder activities came in play in the league’s investigation of whether, why, what, how and when it would be beneficial to change the competition format in the Danish Super League? In that sense, the Danish Super League (and league administrators Divisionsforeningen) deserves praise for establishing an in-depth, high-quality and democratic investigation process and dialogue that entails perspectives from the various essential stakeholder groups of Danish football, e.g. the Danish FA (DBU), representatives of Danish football fans, the players’ association (Spillerforeningen), the elite football clubs, media representatives etc.

Football is a fantastic entertainment product and it is the ‘best show in town’ when measured in the context of the popularity of sports in Denmark. In that regard, it is a shame that the Danish clubs couldn’t agree on the terms for a change of the current competition format. Therefore, the current format with 33 matches and no playoff will stand as of right now although the quantitative and qualitative outcome of the research process conducted by the experienced Dutch consulting company Hypercube showed that a re-structured competition format including a playoff was the optimal solution.

With that being stated, there were challenges to account for, e.g. the distribution of broadcasting revenues and polarized interests depending on the size and position of each club (FC Copenhagen compared to a small Danish elite club). However, the democratic and transparent research process was initiated to find a holistic solution that would accommodate the various interests of the Danish clubs in the best possible manner and to meet the requirements for what proved to be best for Danish top football so it a SHAME that the clubs couldn’t agree on an optimal solution including a playoff. Looking at some essential factors for professional football clubs, e.g. sporting quality and level, financial figures and catchment areas, there is no doubt in my mind that a solution with a playoff would be the best solution.

My argument is that the playoff solution (especially the Venus model proposed by Hypercube’s research) turns out to be a much better solution than the league’s current model based on sporting quality, competitive balance and competition progress. This development transforms into a more interesting Danish football calendar, better attendance levels and a higher quality as a TV-product, which should be of high interest for all clubs. For a league that is highly fan and event driven, revenue-generation is derived from how the league format influences different revenue sources, e.g. potential broadcasting, matchday and other types of commercial revenues. Additionally, a format including a playoff is thought to affect the European performances and ranking of Danish teams, which will enhance capital injections and the investment opportunities for Danish clubs and thus form a positive reinforcing performance circle. Research (Hardy et al., 2012, p. 484) highlights that the league would benefit from increased value of functional, emotional, and self-expressive advantages that will surround the events, clubs, players and other stakeholders of the Danish Super League when the optimal format is found in consideration of the needs of different stakeholder groups and the current position of the clubs.

From a sporting perspective, the Danish Super League holds the potential to accommodate a 14-team format (more than 14 teams would not be feasible) that maintains a fine balance between the business and the sporting sides and if there is a playoff that will counterbalance the differences between the best and worst teams by giving the top teams more matches at a high level.

An all-encompassing discussion includes the consideration of different levels, i.e. local, regional, national and international levels. In Denmark, football is very local or regional game and there are various examples that the events of a Super League team have enormous local and regional meaning without having the same impact on a national scale. Football is important in Denmark overall but my point is to emphasize that a new and more dynamic model with a playoff offers renewed storytelling potential for local and regional media and that helps to stage football as a product positively. A couple of examples include AaB’s campaign during in the 2010/2011 season when the club was on the verge of relegation. The club succeeded in creating the support needed to ‘help’* the team avoid relegation and it also did well in raising attendance although the sporting performances weren’t good. Another point is that it means a lot for Hobro IK to play against AaB and Randers FC or for Viborg FF to play against FC Midtjylland in local/regional derbies. These derbies provide new energy to the Super League. Football has to do with cultural management and the players must also learn to cope with playing more meaningful matches so from a qualitative standpoint a new format will underscore the quantitative points that speak for a competitions format including a playoff. This debate is correspondingly relevant when assessing the future potential of any sports league and given the socio-economic position of football in Denmark it is significant to assess brand-building through a changed league format as this must resonate with the desires of the most important stakeholder groups. Finally, this debate must entail future development and in that sense a new league format including a playoff would be a great strategic match for the convergence between sport, entertainment, technology and media in a sports world that becomes more data-driven.

*Of course, winning matches takes place on the pitch but the overall support and attendance levels are important to maintain even in problematic periods.

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