Analysis: Don’t expect fans to play ball with dead rubbers

Meaningless games between Super League also-rans will be a turn-off for viewers – and there are many more reasons why the project could be doomed before it even begins

Emmet Ryan

Technology Correspondent @emmetjryan
20th April, 2021
Analysis: Don’t expect fans to play ball with dead rubbers
‘The format proposed by the Super League all but assures a lot of dead rubbers and low pressure games.’ Picture: Getty

Monday Night Football was pretty tense, wasn’t it? Jamie Carragher and Gary Neville absolutely ripping into everything about the European Super League, Jürgen Klopp facing a hail of bullets, and Patrick Bamford being broadly beloved while Irish fans once again feel regret that we never managed to get him to wear the green jersey.

Save for Bamford’s comment about how it would be nice if football could get more energised about other issues, including racism, there wasn’t much new in all of it. The breakaway 12 clubs knew the backlash would be substantial but they consider the reward to be worth it.

Yesterday the focus was on the presence of other financial powers at club level, today it’s time to ask whether the road ahead for the Super League is worth it even if everything goes right.

For the sake of argument, this is going to assume the teams don’t get booted out of their national leagues, players don’t get barred from national teams, and the competition somehow woos the clubs it wants as permanent members, namely Paris St Germain, Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund. Those are all big reaches but even if they are met, it doesn’t guarantee the competition’s financial success.

The sheen

The idea of Manchester City facing Barcelona one week followed by Bayern the next and Atletico the week after sounds thrilling. For a season or two it might well be, but there’s a limit to the upside of weekly heavyweight clashes, particularly as dead rubbers become commonplace.

That first year, the clash of European football gods on a regular basis is going to draw interest should it come to pass but it will eventually, and sooner than most expect, hit the same wall faced by the Champions League group stage now or the proposed Swiss model aimed at replacing it.

Those who watch football, or any sport, tend to have their interest piqued by the relative importance of a game. Even with big names, someone tuning in is going to be aware if a game doesn’t really matter. The format proposed by the Super League all but assures a lot of dead rubbers and low pressure games.

There’s already a good analogy in European sport, where two of the sides lined up for the Super League and one it wants already take part. Basketball’s Euroleague went to a semi-closed model awfully similar to the one proposed by the Super League. The idea was that more games between the best teams would generate more games that matter, instead it has made the regular season largely tired as fans know most of these superclashes don’t really matter.

The appeal of a big game is in the big part of it. The build-up and anticipation to something that has consequences sells it. In order to get more big games, increasing the value of the overall product, you need a balanced competition which is going to be difficult.

Somebody is going to be bad

At a local level, most of the clubs involved are regularly successful. Let’s take all jokes about Arsenal and Spurs as read. All of the clubs involved are unquestionably at the wealthier end of their leagues, enabling them to generally be towards the top of the table and qualify for Europe’s top competition, or at least be in the hunt to do so more often than not. Again, we already took the Arsenal jokes as read.

Wealth is relative. West Ham, after all, are on another planet to Leyton Orient financially and Shamrock Rovers will generally have more resources than UCD. The same will be true in the Super League.

The idea of being the perennial cellar dwellers of the Eastern or Western conference of the Super League, however the split is formed, is going to bore and turn away fans of the clubs that end up in those roles. That goes beyond gate receipts to all the other ways those fans financially interact with a club. Even the idea of staging games in far flung locations, the emerging markets the founding clubs want to tap into, will lose its sheen if Spurs are playing Atletico with neither side having hopes of making the knockout stages.

A balanced league in terms of financial might could change that but there’s just one issue.

Balance can’t happen

The natural analogy since the plans were announced has been to the franchise model used by sports in the United States and Canada. The major sports operate in a closed system designed to ensure nobody stays at the top too long while hope of a turnaround is always just around the corner for those struggling.

The two mechanisms that enable this are salary caps, limiting the amount a team can spend on salaries, and draft systems, where the worst teams get first dibs on the best players entering the market. European employment law basically scuppers the former from the off but even if that could be overcome, none of the clubs would agree to it. The richest clubs want to be able to buy their way out of trouble. Then there’s the matter of the wealthiest of the clubs outside the Super League, who wouldn’t have to abide by such a cap and so could outbid the Super League clubs for top talents. There’s not many such bidders but one would be enough to make a difference. There won’t be a cap.

A draft? It’s beyond alien to the sport but so is a Super League. The issue here, again, is European employment law but also the unwieldy nature of it. At what stage does a player go into a draft pool? What impact does such a concept have on investment in development of talent? It’s just too messy for the Super League to consider.

There’s not realistic means to ensure competition, which wouldn’t be so bad if the allure of domestic success was retained, which brings us to our final predictable point.

Domestic devaluation hurts the Super League’s pockets

The devaluation of competitions is nothing new. The FA Cup in England is the most glaring example but we’re already seeing it as an issue in national leagues. With near-perennial champions an issue across the continent, fans of these teams have understandably treated each national success with less fanfare year on year. Even GAA fans can relate, Kilkenny and Dublin’s fourth straight titles in each of the last two decades weren’t exactly followed with carnivals by their own supporters.

Those clubs that fail to be competitive on a regular basis in the Super League are going to find that domestic success matters less year on year. The products themselves, including the Premier League, will also drop in value to broadcasters and other commercial partners. With any form of entertainment, to drive engagement and spending you need to give those opening their wallets reasons to care. The alternative to European success is national success, or in Liverpool’s case for a long time the reverse, but that success can’t have an air of inevitability to it.

Competition, narrative and the stakes around such are inherent to the value of any entertainment product. Consumers won’t invest as much, emotionally or financially, without that. Collectively, these factors amount to the clubs involved potentially seeing the amount they make shrinking in the medium term.

All of that, remember, is assuming the Super League clubs get their way. Tomorrow, I’ll address the financial ramifications of sanctions and the need club football, even at the highest level, still has for the international game.

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