For decades, professional football (soccer in North America) in Europe and in most other countries worldwide have been structured in ways where there is a high level of mutual inter-dependence between the various league levels in the football pyramid. From this perspective, the recent breakaway attempt linked to 12 top clubs in the form of the European Super League is a huge problem for the integrity of competition in the sport. This article will strive to provide a pragmatic and scholarly founded analysis concerning the proposed ESL competition format and the current direction the football economy. It will dive into the reasons behind the ESL format, its future influence and how this proposal is also related to the global COVID-19 pandemic, historic commercial development tendencies in football and the influence of foreign ownership and private equity investors in the football economy.
Why is the ESL a threat to football’s integrity?
The ESL proposal marks the changing face of global football. On the surface, it may seem like the same game but in the league’s structure, it is a very different game. The character of club competition traditionally rests on the threat of relegation and the promise of promotion. The ESL concept removed the threat for clubs, players and fans. Right now, football fans worldwide advocate for improved standards concerning diversity, inclusion, social responsibility and additional critical reflections associated with ‘good governance’ and reasonable decision-making in the sports industry. On the other hand, we see the FIFA World Cup being hosted in Qatar despite problematic human rights violations in stadium construction projects. Professional clubs have also been involved in sport washing, i.e., where financial supporters and owners of sports teams are trying to ‘wash the images’ associated with for instance a country’s actions and international reputation to create a better portrayal than the actual reality.
#PSG cultivates a relationship with Qatar National Tourism Council/QNTC (@VisitQatar), formerly Qatar Tourism Authority/QTA as part of ‘National Branding’ https://t.co/3Pw17rbOON
— Łukasz Bączek (@Lu_Class_) May 7, 2021
In addition, the unilateralism of these 12 top clubs behind ESL is a direct conflict with football as ‘the people’s game’ and the foundational essence of the sport. Football has historic roots as a public service and community rooted product and historic and cultural legacies related to the working class. In recent decades, however, the sport has been subject for significant money flows, which have turned football into a ‘money game’ and distanced the clubs and players from its historic fanbase (Shaw, Shaw & Cortsen, 2020).
The increased commercialization of football demonstrates that UEFA already has accommodated the demands of top leagues and top clubs with the re-formation of the Champions League (CHL) competition in 1992. The CHL was a contrast to the former European Cup format, which was a knockout format open only to the national champions in the respective European countries. The changes marked an era of growing corporate and commercial influence in top football and the power of re-branded competition formats such as the UEFA CHL, the English Premier League or even the Danish Super League in a small football country like Denmark (Cortsen, 2018). Re-branding at the club level followed as in the example of Juventus changing its logo so there is an ongoing strategic and capitalistic driven negotiation of meaning in the football economy. Along came globalization, which was another commercial endeavor sought by top clubs to capitalize on global exhibition tours or training tournaments such as the International Champions Cup in the U.S. or Asia. As illustrated in Table 1 below, UEFA has really seen commercial growth when it comes to its CHL format over the past 15 years.
Table 1: UEFA CHL total revenue from 2005/06 to 2018/19 season (Statista, 2021)
With this development in mind, it is no surprise that many football fans feel that the ESL proposal may seem like extraordinary greed and self-interests from the involved clubs. The Americanized ESL format seems like a ‘single-entity’ similar to the organizational structure in the American major sports league system. This provides a huge gap from the romantic depiction of football’s historic identity: suddenly the sport is portrayed as ‘an exclusive club for the rich’ in a peculiar edition. I have worked in and with football for years so I totally understand that football at the elite level is an ego-business. This is even highlighted the higher you climb in the hierarchy of the football economy. Yet, football as a whole cannot live with a situation where the gaps between big (leagues and clubs) and rich versus mediocre or small and poor (leagues and clubs) are widened even more than we have seen in recent decades. From a holistic viewpoint, this is not sustainable although I recognize and understand the global top clubs, which are also negatively influenced by how the global COVID-19 pandemic led to a closed (at times) and devalued production system, thus threatening financial impact on the operations of these clubs.
There is a high level of polarization in football clubs’ ability to secure revenues in professional European football – England illustrates the top of the domestic league pyramid. For instance, clubs in England generated €272 million on average in 2018 according to UEFA. Moreover, the top 30 clubs in Europe reached accumulated revenues of more than €10 billion, which accounted for 49% of the revenues of all top-division clubs in 2018.
Figure 1: Revenue development of the five biggest European football leagues (Statista, 2021)
Therefore, it is not a coincidence that these 12 top clubs, although their negative operational reality is not necessarily putting an end to their ‘going concern’, are looking to reap the fruits of their lucrative brand equity levels. Still, their behavior is debated because this happens in a way where the paradigm of economic sustainability moves from football as a whole to a self-centered focus on the economic reasoning in the particular top clubs. Instead of benefitting football as a whole, as wrongly framed by leading persons in the ESL spectacle, this ESL stunt stimulates the top clubs’ abilities to manifest their positions in the very top of the global football hierarchy by enhancing their own economic and competitive sustainability at the expense of the entire European football system as we have known it for years.
Since March 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on the Club’s business, reducing opportunity to generate revenue and profit in the reported period. The main areas affected include all matchday revenue, through suspension of the 19/20 Premier League season, as well as a significant proportion of its nonmatchday operations including Retail stores and the Tour and Museum centre. The results also include the impact of a reduction in broadcasting revenues as a result of an adjustment to the distribution from the Premier League (Liverpool FC financial statement 2020)
On top of massive fan protests, the breakaway league proposal also caused turmoil in the backbone of professional football clubs’ own systems. The European Club Association (ECA) announced recently that they have worked tightly with UEFA after nine of the twelve clubs behind ESL apologized for their actions and reaffirmed their engagement with ECA and with the football structure under UEFA’s governing umbrella. Simply put, small- and medium-sized professional ECA clubs cannot silently watch these top 12 clubs destroy the long-term cohesion, which has been built over time. This cohesion is also a function of how clubs further down the ladder within the European football pyramid have contributed, e.g., Hamburger SV, Nottingham Forrest, RSC Anderlecht or PSV Eindhoven. ESL would remove the charming sporting opportunities of small-sized and medium-sized clubs associated with competing against these 12 global football powerhouses in domestic and European tournaments. If the opportunity to compete is determined only by the size of the wallet and by the inclusion into a ‘closed structure’ with no upward mobility (or downward), then it will lead to an inappropriate slippery slope of intensified economic and sporting polarization. Suddenly, the brand essence of ‘more than a club’, ‘you will never walk alone’, or ‘theatre of dreams’ would need a drastic re-branding phase. Upward mobility should be a function of sporting performance so please don’t destroy this foundational element of sport in professional football!
Billionaire owners have taken this decision and hidden, leaving their clubs managers and players to face the tough questions.
Greedy for money but not the spotlight.
Credit to Guardiola for defending the concept of qualifying for Europe on merit. Will the owners listen? https://t.co/kDkuhX77S2
— The FSA (@WeAreTheFSA) April 20, 2021
Statement from the PFA: pic.twitter.com/ZWN4wXMOTV
— Professional Footballers’ Association (@PFA) April 18, 2021
Who wants to own football?
Just like the professional leagues and clubs, football’s development is characterized by how FIFA and UEFA have moved away from a role with pure focus on tournament planning. UEFA’s current ability to capitalize on football rights is a huge contrast to the governing body’s role in its starting phase where tournament administration and regulations were higher weights than today’s revenue generation from astronomic broadcasting deals (Cortsen, 2018). Increased governance focus has also been part of the modern-day focus in alignment with much needed reforms to remove the negative impact of ‘where there is money, there is greed’. Moreover, these governing bodies have also become highly commercialized enterprises as of 2021. FIFA and UEFA have initiated constant attempts to re-position themselves over the years. The UEFA CHL format in 1992 has been very successful, also in terms of generating revenue, but this has also come with the prize that ‘enough is not enough’ (Cortsen, 2018). ESL was an uproar towards the proposed changes to the current but positive CHL competition known since 1992. Moreover, FIFA has tried to expand the world championship for club teams. Both examples are somewhat parallels to the ESL although the big difference is that there are upward mobility and thus access opportunities based on good sporting performances and co-existence with the open-access democratic models of football under FIFA and UEFA.
In his book “The People’s Game: The History of Football Revisited”, James Walvin (2014) wrote about early display of the meaning of sports in a country, “In order to form a just estimation of the character of any particular people, it is absolutely necessary to investigate [and understand] the Sports and Pastimes most generally prevalent among them”. As such, football is a platform for understanding social patterns in society and ESL clearly indicated that football fans as well as the governing bodies (and other stakeholders) want to protect broader public ownership shares of the business of global football. Fans and governing bodies both believe they own football along with the many football investors, who have injected astronomic amounts of money into the game over the years. Although, fans make the engine of professional football run, the ownership changes to the game in terms of foreign investors have changed the nature of football. Along with professional football moving away from being a purely local, regional and national pastime in which fans might meet their favorite players in the local pub after the game, football has become a global professional and business phenomenon where the access to the prestigious clubs and players are better than ever but also more distanced. If football is the people’s game, then many organizations and people will strive to claim possession.
Photos: Excerpts from my 2018 chapter about UEFA in which I discuss piracy leagues (Cortsen, 2018)
This is our game. Football is for the fans.
Buy an anti-superleague t-shirt and help fund our campaign for reform in the coming weeks & months: https://t.co/J8hRiC1Gf5 pic.twitter.com/k06OLT8tja
— The FSA (@WeAreTheFSA) April 26, 2021
🗣️ “Solidarity means actions and now is the time! Fans need to be involved in decision-making”
📰 SD Europe’s statement following the collapse of the European Super League #FutureOfSolidarity #NOEuropeanSuperLeague
▶️ https://t.co/J6e4W088Y9 pic.twitter.com/qii0hxsoxK
— SD Europe (@SDEurope07) April 21, 2021
🗣 “The real fight begins now.”
📣 We demand stronger regulation. We demand immediate action to safeguard our clubs & communities. And we demand this never happens again.#NoEuropeanSuperLeague #StopUCLReforms pic.twitter.com/isVQt7YjMb
— Fans Europe (FSE) (@FansEurope) April 21, 2021
The power of stakeholders
The entire ESL football discourse played out as one big power clash. It has been a clash among rights holders such as football governing bodies (e.g., FIFA, UEFA and national FAs), leagues (e.g., the Premier League), clubs (e.g., the 12 clubs behind the breakaway proposal and the rest of the clubs in the football pyramid) but also with the involvement of media companies, sponsors, new investors (e.g., JP Morgan Chase) and football’s main actors such as players and coaches. This emphasizes the complexity of the situation in which the power of fans has never been more vigorously demonstrated and with such effect as we have witnessed in the ill-fated and poorly conceived ESL. The owners have overexaggerated their own status and as such jeopardized the current structure of European football.
John W Henry’s message to Liverpool supporters. pic.twitter.com/pHW3RbOcKu
— Liverpool FC (@LFC) April 21, 2021
According to Professor Stephen A. Greyser from Harvard Business School, ESL mirrors “a greed-driven initiative that would emasculate the competitive character of European football”. Unmistakably, there is a lot at stake for many organizations and people when you try to influence the structure of the professional competition level in the world’s most popular sport in the European marketplace, which is the epicenter of professional football globally. Therefore, it would have been more sensible to touch base with these stakeholder groups, which feel that they somehow hold the keys to the game or at least play a central role in this regard.
I think that those owners should feel collectively ashamed that they were so insensitive to their stakeholders, especially the fans of their clubs (Professor Stephen A. Greyser, Harvard Business School)
The fact that the persons and clubs involved in the ESL proposal clearly did not sit down to discuss the context thoroughly with these stakeholder groups was a road to a big loss for these clubs and some of the key persons involved. As illustrated below, the fan response and how the governing bodies, leagues and the rest of the football pyramid stood strongly together in opposition to the behavior of the potential breakaway clubs prove the general thoughts from many stakeholders that ‘enough is enough’ and that the owners and managers of these 12 top clubs misbehaved. The latter leads to punishments in the tests of the response from football’s governing bodies and from the test of public opinion due to the loss of valuable public trust.
Interessant handling fra #UEFA – ‘for every action, there is an equal or opposite reaction’ ⚽️ #FodboldØkonomi #FodboldLedelse https://t.co/oPCFcawypA
— Kenneth Cortsen (@kennethcortsen) May 7, 2021
New owner incentives, consumption patterns and currencies
New types of ownership have influenced football over the years. First, football ownership at the highest level has changed from being a millionaire’s game to become a club for billionaires. Second, foreign ownership has skyrocketed at the highest level but also spread to medium-sized leagues in for instance Belgium or Portugal or small-sized leagues such as for instance the Danish Super League. Below, there is a list of English Premier League clubs with American majority ownership:
- Crystal Palace
- Fulham (recently relegated)
- Liverpool FC
- Manchester United
Clubs such as Aston Villa and Leeds United (49ers increased their share of ownership earlier this year) are among clubs with minority investments from American investors.
Third, ownership is suddenly tied to investment incentives associated with synergetic effects from the owners investing in portfolio models involving clubs across international borders or even continents (e.g., City Football Group). Fourth, ownership may also be bridged to investments from owners from other sports (e.g., Fenway Sports Group, baseball and the data cultivation from sabermetrics) and additional realms of the entertainment industry (e.g., LeBron James investing in Liverpool FC) or to the technology and data sector (e.g., ALK Capital’s investment in Burnley). Today, it has become more interesting for super stars such as LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Serena Williams or Beyonce to invest in the intersection between sports, business and entertainment. Fifth, ownership incentives transcending community goodwill and being motivated purely by financial ROIs paint a new picture of private equity investors buying their way into European football and building bridges to football leagues and clubs elsewhere. This is very much in alignment with the American founded investment idea of the ESL and JP Morgan Chase. For instance, I have earlier written about how the private equity group Silver Lake has invested approximately $500 mio. in City Football Group for a small minority stake (around 10%). This is linked to increased valuations over time and new avenues to secure the progression of economic value in football’s experience economy, e.g., as illustrated by actions on the transfer market. In recent years, the amount of American private equity investors in European football have really increased.
This makes sense as the valuations of teams in the American major sports leagues have gone through the roof. Even in MLS where investors don’t find the financial upside of playing in UEFA competitions and where the media deals are still relatively immature (Greyser & Cortsen, 2021), there have been growing team valuations reaching a level, which significantly exceeds what you can buy clubs for in many European countries and leagues outside the top of the football hierarchy. Investors have realized that there may be valid ROI potential tied to investing in football clubs in Europe and to profit from transfer activities (also linked to undervalued players in the investors’ exclusive network structure and network economy and the upcoming changes in how the valuation of player rights changes in harmony with digitization efforts), from increasing club valuations over time and from finding undervalued and distressed clubs in the corona window. These investors know that the football economy is subject to high financial volatility (but also high risk, high return potential) and that there may be bargains to be made over a longer investment horizon.
An area of focus is the player transfer market and wage costs, and the aim is to manage these costs within financial constraints, whilst remaining as competitive as possible. (Liverpool FC financial statement 2020)
According to Forbes, the following football clubs were ranked among the top 25 most valuable sports teams in 2021:
- FC Barcelona as no. 4 with a valuation of $4.76 billion.
- Real Madrid as no. 5 with a valuation of $4.75 billion.
- FC Bayern Munich as no. 10 with a valuation of $4.21 billion.
- Manchester United as no. 11 with a valuation of $4.2 billion.
- Liverpool FC as no. 12 with a valuation of $4.1 billion.
- Manchester City as no. 13 with a valuation of $4 billion.
- Chelsea FC as no. 25 with a valuation of $3.2 billion.
Ten years ago (2011), Forbes published team valuations at significantly lower levels:
- Manchester United was no. 1 with a valuation of $1.86 billion.
- Real Madrid was no. 5 with a valuation of $1.45 billion.
- Arsenal was no. 7 with a valuation of $1.19 billion.
- FC Bayern Munich was no. 19 with a valuation of $1.03 billion.
- FC Barcelona was no. 26 with a valuation of $975 million.
- Chelsea was no. 46 with a valuation of $658 million.
Italian clubs AC Milan and Juventus were also listed in the 2011 top 50 ranking but both clubs were positioned outside top 30. At the time in 2011, Liverpool FC and Manchester City did not reach top 50. Moreover, the ten year period until 2021 shows high team valuation growth levels for the world’s top clubs.
How football’s problems reach beyond the global pandemic
Although COVID-19 may have enhanced the well-known meritocratic rhetoric that football’s global top clubs (at least from their own perspective) deserve a bigger portion of the revenue pie, the argument isn’t new. However, the additional layer of realistic activation behind the discursive power battle was a breakthrough regarding the realization of this piracy league, which the governing bodies had to respond to with a zero-tolerance approach.
Foreign ownership and private equity investments in football are two elements, which have shaped the contemporary global football map significantly. These elements have formed the skeleton for how foreign investments in European top football have grown with rapid pace in recent decades. However, the American influence and thus private equity investments have seen new vitality as a result of COVID-19 and the billion-dollar check from JP Morgan Chase mirrors the development. COVID-19 has left some of football’s top clubs with a new economic and operational reality. The ESL clubs have been burdened by this due to their investments in talents to maintain competitiveness. In this regard, the sports economic ‘winner takes it all principle’ holds meaning in that heavy investments in winning may come at the expense of those clubs not succeeding in winning. Whether winning refers to winning the domestic title, qualifying for the UEFA Champions League or winning off the pitch commercially, all clubs cannot win and if a club spend to win or meet certain objectives and don’t fulfil this plan, it’s expensive! There is a high level of correlation between winning on and off the pitch.
Nevertheless, the pandemic has re-shaped the sports economic logic in the sense that with a closed or devalued production line in football, everything becomes more ‘expensive’. High costs levels coming from for instance increasing debt levels (e.g., FC Barcelona), transfer-related costs (e.g., agent fees and transfer sums) and salaries for the sporting roster, is not necessarily a catastrophic issue once you have sufficient revenue levels to cover your economic obligations. When a private person finances his/her house through a considerable debt level and has a high paying job, the new reality of getting fired and seeing the income stand still or being devalued is rough. This COVID-19 situation in football is no different. However, the global top clubs have just like UEFA CHL experienced solid growth rates over the years. For instance, Real Madrid and FC Barcelona, which have been the highest revenue generators in recent years, had annual revenues of respectively €275.7 mio. and €207.9 mio. in the 2004/05 period, which continued to grow as illustrated in Table 2 below.
|Period||FC Barcelona||Real Madrid|
|2004/05||€207.9 mio.||€275.7 mio.|
|2009/10||€398.1 mio.||€438.6 mio.|
|2018/19||€840.8 mio.||€757.3 mio.|
|2019/20||€715.1 mio.||€691.8 mio.|
Table 2: Annual revenues of FC Barcelona and Real Madrid (Deloitte, 2021)
Table 3: Development of agent fees in football (Statista, 2021)
First, Table 2 illustrates that COVID-19 has broken the revenue growth habit of global top clubs (decrease from 2018/19 to 2019/20) while pointing out that over the past 15 years, these two clubs have seen revenues grow by a multiplier in the range of approximately > x2.75 – x4. Nevertheless, the current situation also underscores the narrative of a global football industry, which is relative crisis resistant at this top level (professional football clubs usually maintain their ‘going concern’), but where the reasoning isn’t a matter of ‘free riding’ (Rascher, Brown, McEvoy, 2011). In European football, clubs cannot just ride the wave of the increased and shared revenue streams over time but is influenced by the competitive drive of constantly investing in their football product to remain relevant and competitive at the highest level in the decentralized European football economy in contrast to the centralized American sports economy. However, some American investors, e.g., Stan Kroenke in Arsenal, have been accused on wanting to pocket money instead of investing in the football product. However, the real problem in football is that despite the good growth level on the revenue side, the main actors (e.g., players, coaches and agents) have still taken a huge chunk of the revenue pie.
The Promised Land of German football
Some of the central persons in this ESL case are Andrea Agnelli from Juventus and Florentino Perez from Real Madrid. The Agnelli family owns Juventus and Andrea Agnelli was the President of the influential ECA organization but left this role due to a leading role in the ESL setup. In addition, Agnelli has also lost the position in European football’s most powerful organ: the UEFA Executive Committee (ExCo). The huge winner here seems to be FC Bayern Munich’s Chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, who also sits on board of the UEFA ExCo as an ECA representative with Paris Saint-Germain’s Nasser Al-Khelaifi. This proves to be a strategic benefit of reading the game well enough to know it was best to stand outside the ESL breakaway and football is a game in which it is important to read the next movement.
Although, the widened gap between rich and poor in professional football also play a central role in the German Bundesliga where mighty FC Bayern Munich has won all domestic Bundesliga championship titles since Borussia Dortmund won the title in 2012, the football economic model in Germany is based on solid solidary principles, which many other leagues could learn from (see bullet points below):
- The 50+1 rule: This rule emphasizes how the German football system has maintained a democratic and membership-based model in which the clubs are owned by the members and where clubs protect fan interests because the “clubs – and, by extension, the fans – hold a majority of their own voting rights. Under German Football League [DFL] rules, football clubs will not be allowed to play in the Bundesliga if commercial investors have more than a 49 percent stake.” (Bundesliga, 2019). However, there are a few exemptions to the rule, e.g., in the cases of Bayer Leverkusen and VfL Wolfsburg where the corporations have had interests in the clubs for many years (20+ years).” Therefore, foreign owners cannot buy the majority of a German football club but clubs in which investors have had an interest for many years (as written above) can apply for exceptions from the rule. TSG 1899 Hoffenheim (SAP) is an example of this.
- Fan Welfare Maximization: the German football model is very fan-centric and the strategic catering to the fans may help to explain why the German Bundesliga has the highest average attendance level of all professional football leagues worldwide. Fan welfare maximization is essential in German football in that the membership driven ownership and sports model forms an interactional level of allegiance between fans and clubs and where fans not only act as consumers of football products but also as influencers on club policies (Madden, 2012). The German ‘membership based model’ (Verein) is characterized by fans electing club representatives (also seen in for instance Spain, e.g., FC Barcelona) to execute vital strategic decision making. As written in a guest post on my blog by Bas Schnater, the tradition of German ‘Vereins’ highlights a paradigm of optimized fan welfare, i.e., where fans are allowed to buy reasonable ticket prices and to stand on Borussia Dortmund’s ‘Yellow Wall’.
- Cooperation: Even a powerhouse such as FC Bayern Munich understands the strategic meaning of cohesion in the football economy. In football, unlike other industries outside the sports industry, clubs are dependent on competition and the positive effects of co-creating and co-branding the football product. So, when other German clubs such as Borussia Dortmund or 1. FC Kaiserslautern have faced economic hardship, FC Bayern Munich has lent them a helping hand, e.g., in the form of exhibition matches where the proceeds went to the club in need.
Illustration: Ownership structure in the Bundesliga (KPMG).
All these changes integrated in the ESL proposal revolve around the ability to compete. The ability to compete has always been a priority in elite football and money makes a difference over time. This may also explain why strategies towards mergers and acquisitions as seen in for instance Danish football are manifested in plans to improve a club’s market potential and thus business and sporting competitiveness. FC Midtjylland and FC Copenhagen are two Danish results of mergers and FC Midtjylland and FC Nordsjælland are two examples of clubs benefitting from foreign ownership. Money certainly makes a difference over time in football. Yet, FC Midtjylland also say capital injections in 2011 but it was Benham’s investment in 2014, which took the club to the next stage in terms of matching the investment with a proper strategy and know-how to excel in the execution of the strategy. Therefore, money in football is associated with competitiveness and power and the football economy has always been characterized by these new ways of finding competitive advantage.
The shift of power in the football economy, which we saw as a result of primarily the Bosman-ruling in the mid 1990s and later due to factors such as strong unionization (e.g., FIFPRO), social media and similar technologies along with a fragmented media marketplace, provided a louder voice to players and thus more power to them. And just like in the real estate marketplace or in the stock market, intermediaries also influence football and whether you are a real estate agent, a stockbroker or a football agent, you have an interest in an increasing price level (transfer sums and salaries) as this will enhance your commission. The growing level of transfer sums combined with a similar development on the salary scale help to explain why global football clubs despite growing revenues over time have found themselves in troublesome corona realities and why some top clubs most likely will attempt to install financial periodization on the cost side (linked to transfer sums and salaries) and cross their fingers that the wind of change in form of corona will soon blow away.
Table 4: All-time transfer fee records in football (Statista, 2021)
At the same time, football is a business with a high degree of self-interest, also from the powerful actors (e.g., players and coaches) and the current reality is also a reflection of this as ‘the fear of missing out’ (FOMO) also plays a huge role in elite football. So, instead of attempting to fix the challenging balance between revenue generation and high costs and the risks of how soft budget constraints and a global crisis such as COVID-19 play together, the global top clubs have gone down the road of ‘ego avenue’ for a quick fix.
Over the years, the only constant in football has been change. The global COVID-19 pandemic has intensified this development along with fandom being characterized by global rather than localized content. This means that the 12 top clubs related to ESL have marketplaces to go to outside Europe in which the less critical consumer lens and the weaker historically and culturally manifested consumption patterns laid an interesting and new commercial basis for ESL. New and innovative sponsorship platforms also showed promising signs in association with top clubs and the best players as the commercial interest in top football follows the living promotional billboards of the players. Yet, I wonder whether the people behind ESL really thought this one through as the next question linked to the governing bodies’ zero-tolerance response is how the potential exclusion of players from prominent FIFA and UEFA competitions would influence players’ and coaches’ willingness to go with these clubs and the closed-ended competition format. Players and coaches know that it will affect their brand equity and market value if they stand outside the current and well-developed stages of global football and the associated spotlight.
So, how does history repeat itself. If you look at ESL and all these foreign investments in Danish football, I totally grasp why foreign investors are looking to buy their way in. However, clubs must guard themselves and assess the strengths of the European football model and ask the relevant and critical question of what the best scenario is to protect the holistic sustainability of the club and what encapsulates good ownership? For instance, Fenway Sports Group has taken Liverpool FC to a better reality than under the ownership of Hicks and Gillett and Mansour has also taken Manchester City to the most awaited status of serious CHL favorite given the club’s spot in this year’s final. Mansour has also invested in the neighborhood around Etihad Stadium but all investments come with a prize and the local soul is not the same in these clubs and fans MUST ask if this is what they want.
Photo: Excerpts from my 2018 chapter about UEFA – discussing Manchester City (Cortsen, 2018)
In Denmark, we have seen that the FOMO-approach to football led to many clubs buying into becoming professional multi-sports enterprises (which was highly disturbed when the financial crisis hit around a decade ago) with more sports under the operational umbrella although the total resource allocation didn’t match the intended reward of increasing revenues; it is tough enough to secure economic operational sustainability in football in Denmark so why did the clubs invest in more sports such as handball, ice hockey or basketball (FOMO was one of the answers). At the same time, there is also a FOMO-approach to foreign ownership in Danish football and in other football markets because cash is king. Yet, any monetary investments must be matched by proper activation of strategy and other forms of capital, e.g., human capital, social capital and thus the contextual understanding of the mechanisms in the peculiar football economy. In this regard, choosing the right ownership is also a matter of the strategy and the know-how of the club and the investors, e.g., can they produce the right data-model and algorithms and make these work in collaboration to take the club to the next level of sporting and business performance (Cortsen & Rascher, 2018). With the winner takes it all principle in mind, COVID-19 has shown that football’s commercial locomotive may slow down. Therefore, investors cannot rely on no fan saturation or continued increases in player values and valuation price multiples over time. Therefore, they must demonstrate good business acumen and the ability to tackle the managerial complexity challenges of running a football club (Cortsen, Hird & Kvistgaard, 2020).
The next wave we will see in terms of investments in international football will come from some of the organizations and persons linked to some of the digital-driven brands, which have found their way to the top of global brand rankings. Amazon already invested highly in eSport and in sports and football content via Amazon Prime. Amazon is also a global merchandising and consumption megastore so we will see this American giant or people with relations to the company sharpen their lens on football. COVID-19 may have been bad for football clubs but it hasn’t been bad for the likes of Amazon, Netflix or similar businesses and they are just testing the sports markets currently before intensifying their investment focus. News sources have linked Arsenal with a group of investors associated with football greats such as Thierry Henry and Swedish founder of the digital music platform Spotify Daniel Ek. Football clubs may be viewed as an interesting alternative media platform and marketing vehicle to support the aligned business units and to produce economies of scale through bundled rights of higher value. The value comes from activating strategic alliances and marketing opportunities.
Finally, there will be an increased influence in global football from fan tokenization, special purpose acquisition companies (SPAC investments) and how these trends interact with the establishment of new and more controllable (for the investors) digital currencies (e.g., virtual cryptocurrencies based on blockchain technology such as bitcoin). These trends may hold additional benefits for investors because it prevents too much outside interference. Therefore, the governing bodies must consider their attempts to increase good governance, transparency and sustainability in a changing global football economy.
Cortsen, K. (2018). UEFA. In Routledge Handbook of Football Business and Management. Routledge.
Cortsen, K., & Rascher, D. A. (2018). The Application of Sports Technology and Sports Data for Commercial Purposes. The Use of Technology in Sport-Emerging Challenges. IntechOpen.
Cortsen, K. H., Hird, J., & Kvistgaard, P. (2020). Målet om godt købmandskab i fodboldens kompleksitet og sammenhængskraft: AaB som case for den moderne fodboldklub. In Godt Købmandskab i det 21. århundrede (pp. 209-254). Aalborg Universitetsforlag.
Greyser, Stephen A., and Kenneth Cortsen. “MLS as a Sports Product—The Prominence of the World’s Game in the U.S.” Harvard Business School Working Paper, No. 21-111, March 2021. (Revised April 2021.)
Madden, P. (2012). Fan welfare maximization as a club objective in a professional sports league. European Economic Review, 56(3), 560-578.
Rascher, D. A., Nagel, M. S., Brown, M. T., & McEvoy, C. D. (2011). Free ride, take it easy: An empirical analysis of adverse incentives caused by revenue sharing. Journal of Sport Management, 25(5), 373-390.
Shaw, D., Shaw, L. 6 Cortsen, K. (2020). The Money Rivals. In Us and Them: New Journeys in Football Rivalry (pp. 93-107). Nil By Mouth.
Walvin, J. (2014). The people’s game: the history of football revisited. Random House.
Additional inspiration for people, who speak Danish (see video below):
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