In the broad view, the European Super League was all about money (It’s always about the money.) From the desperate Spanish clubs to the bored Italian clubs to the greedy English clubs, with all variations in between, it was about rich people getting richer (and, in the case of Madrid and Barcelona, not going bankrupt.) But one of the things that stuck out to me as a fan was one line from the internal communications about the venture that drew a line between “new fans” and “legacy fans.” From the perspective of men like Florentino Perez, the “legacy fans” are a constant. They’ve been supporting their clubs for X many years and show few signs of reducing or ending that support. That’s not a “growth market”, in economic parlance. In the unending search for profit, Perez and his fellow plotters felt that expanding the appeal of the game was the only path worth taking and, in his rather benighted outlook, that meant changing the very fabric of the game in a variety of ways; from a virtually closed European league to shortening the games for the short attention spans of those irresponsible young people. That’s how he and the rest of the ESL group thought they could tap that new, untold market. Let’s take a look at the response:
Notice anything about that group of people? They look pretty young, right? These people in the streets in front of Stamford Bridge, cheering their club’s departure from the ESL, strongly resemble the very audience that Perez thought would be his key to the future. Given that they were out in the streets in the middle of a work day and during a global pandemic, I find it difficult to assume that these people could be anything but members of the “legacy fans” that were so casually dismissed as a tapped resource. Just this one image makes it patently obvious that neither Perez nor any of his co-conspirators know very much about the market upon which their billion dollar/pound/Euro entities rely. “Old men have no idea about young people” is not a revelatory statement and never has been. But it’s also a reminder that rich people generally have little idea of what happens outside their bubble. You, as a fan, are just a number to them; just like the number that comprises your purchase of a ticket, a subscription, or a shirt.
I’ve been one of those numbers for a long time. I’m probably the ideal image of a “legacy fan”, as it would take a lot to keep me from being one of those people with subscriptions to four different streaming services so that I could see Liverpool every time they step out on the pitch. I’ve bought scarves and shirts from the club. I’m a constant that reassures them that they can get a little bit of revenue, every year, from me and millions more just like me. I’ve been there through the glory years and I’ve been there through the lean years. The most recent latter case was another set of owners- Hicks and Gillett -who also had no idea what they were getting into. But as bad as things became, I kept thinking to myself that the club’s bond with its supporters, the hordes at Anfield and around the world, would be prominent enough to remind those owners that they were just caretakers. They could make financial decisions that impacted what and who appeared on the pitch, but the spirit of the club, the soul of the institution, was measured by who we, the legacy fans, were.
Now, that sounds almost painfully naive. After all, this is big business. I’ve occasionally said in this space and elsewhere that a club like Liverpool really has little in common with a club like Morecambe anymore; other than that they both play football in England. I don’t have a particular attachment to the English football pyramid. While I’ve known people who think that “essential football”, for lack of a better term, is embodied by the neighborhood club where everyone fills the stands at 5 quid per and you regularly see the starting right back in the local market, the reality is that we’re a long way past that. Big money has been in the game since before the start of the Premier League and, given the global audience for that league and others, there’s very little way to turn back the clock. But I don’t think that means that the relationship between supporters and club needs to be solely defined by the merchant-customer relationship that embodies American sports. American sports leagues were begun as a way to make money, as the United States itself was. Most European football clubs were begun as a way to express civic pride. For the longest time, the aphorism was: “No one makes money in football.” That has become clearly untrue for those at the pinnacle of the game, but remains the case for everyone else. The question is: Is that what we want our football club to be part of?
I’ve seen feedback from Liverpool supporters in various fora, talking about how they don’t care what the impact on other clubs happens to be. They only want to see their club do well. It’s emblematic of the modern, dog-eat-dog, capitalistic outlook, where people are reduced to competing tribes that serves to keep the system running so that they, as a whole, don’t threaten the owners of said system. The difference that I always felt existed for clubs like Liverpool and Barcelona (“Mes que un club”) is that there was a higher calling to that identity. It wasn’t just “my guys are better than your guys.” It was “My guys are all of us.” The people. The supporters. The neighborhood. The humanity. No one can ignore the socialist, communal underpinnings of Liverpool Football Club; stated and restated by the man who revived its fortunes in the 1950s, Bill Shankly. That’s what our club is supposed to be about, above and beyond kicking a ball around on the grass. The focus is the football (Not the money!), but the spirit, the soul, is something greater. Nothing about John Henry’s venture into the ESL embodies that spirit, despite his assertion that said venture was done “with the best interests of your club in mind.” This is the dichotomy of the socialist club owned by billionaires who seem to repeatedly demonstrate the Oscar Wilde line: “Knows the price of everything but the value of nothing.” It’s an unfortunate consequence that the city of Liverpool is still struggling with the Thatcherite mindset that continues to be the worldview of people like Henry and Perez.
And we can’t escape the realities of the modern game and the way that money has shaped it. Michael Cox’s piece for The Athletic($) on Monday is accurate: many of the domestic leagues are broken. I wrote about that months ago. But I don’t think that entirely surrendering the roots of the game, the touchstone of community, to the rapacious American model is the answer to that problem; where sports leagues become billionaires’ exclusive gatherings, without risk and without responsibility to the fans that follow their teams and with more profit than ever funneling into their pockets (Part of the basic model of the ESL was a firm salary cap at 55% of revenue.) At that point, we might as well forget the whole socialist idea and just revert to there being two classes of people: those blessed as noble by the god of money, and those not. At some point, it becomes a question of what we, as supporters, want our legacy to be. Did we put a collective foot down and declare that money can’t simply rule everything? Or did we shrug our shoulders and cheer for another goal on the way to the ESL championship? When people look back to this era, not just in football but throughout, are they going to say: “There’s where everything was surrendered to the ownership class.”? Or are they going to say: “That’s where people said that money cannot be the be-all and end-all. And it had nothing to do with preserving Swindon Town or shortening attention spans, but instead was a moment where people thought about the community- local, global, human -and decided that there was something worth preserving.”