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The Unwritten Rules of Breakaway Leagues

The European Super League (ESL) made headlines over the last few weeks, but not the positive headlines that the key protagonists had hoped for. ESL president Florentino Perez claimed that the Super League would ‘save football’, yet the ESL’s intent was immediately challenged by fans, governing bodies and the media, and ultimately met its demise within 48 hours. As a business we like to see evolution in sport, so it was alarming to see a project like this get rejected on such a large scale. However, our industry is driven by the market and evidently the market decided that the ESL was pushing things too far.

This episode will no doubt form case studies for years to come, about how not to effect change in sport. Nevertheless, what is important for sport is that an incident like this doesn’t discourage innovation and change, as these are essential for professional sport to maintain its position amongst other forms of entertainment.

The evolution of professional sport over the last century has seen a move from a mostly amateur past-time to a global industry worth around £280 billion in 2020. This commercial evolution has created some of the most popular sporting events we know and love today. Without the professionalisation and commercialisation of sport there would be no investment in things like stadia and broadcast technology, which are integral to creating a positive fan experience.

In many cases this commercial evolution has manifested itself in a breakaway competition or league; if we continue to look at football, many forget that the Premier League itself started as a breakaway league and look at success that has achieved. But why do some succeed and others, like the ESL, get rejected so quickly?

Between the 1860s and 1960s, when the amateur ethos prevailed in sports governance, breakaway competitions were instrumental in the rise of professionalism. In 1888, a dozen football clubs who wanted to turn professional (at the time infringing FA rules), signed up to the Football League, a breakaway league outside of the FA’s governance. Similarly, in 1895, after being denied permission to pay their players, 21 rugby clubs in the north of England left the sport’s governing body to set up the professional Rugby League code.

In these examples, the sport had grown to the extent that the framework that governed them no longer served the stakeholders best interests, and there appeared to be an opportunity to acquire greater control of their destiny. In some cases, the top teams grew tired of being the main breadwinners and not seeing a fair share of commercial success. In other cases, athletes have grown frustrated by the lack of credible action by governing bodies to drive the sport and protect their ability to earn a living as a professional.

In the 1990s, the First Division football clubs in England felt that they were not receiving their fair share of the commercial value that the league was delivering. In 1988, English football had a terrible image and despite on-field success, hooliganism was widespread in the game. With violence prevailing and old stadiums becoming dangerous, the sport was in need of a revamp. Due to stadia renovations gate receipts were down, and revenue started to falter, leading the top-tier clubs to seek an alternative. With support from the FA, and partnership with BSkyB and the BBC a plan to create a new top tier in English football was created, and so the Premier League was born. TV deals were still extremely new and the thought of being able to watch elite games each week was a desirable step for the sport for all stakeholders.

A £305m offer was tabled by BskyB and the BBC in 1991 for the first TV rights to Premier League games, and broadcast revenue has spiralled upwards ever since, with the latest domestic deal worth £5bn. The amount of money that has flooded into football at the highest level in England in the 28 years since is probably beyond anything the old big five could have anticipated. The vast resources available to clubs has meant that the Premier League teams can attract the best players and has become the most lucrative football league in the world.

The Longines Global Champions Tour (GCT) & Global Champions League (GCL) are great example of evolution driven by the frustration of athletes. The CGT and GCL were created by Dutch Olympic gold medallist Jan Tops, who like many other riders was frustrated that showjumping was not growing, and US Sports investor Frank McCourt. Believing that the sport could reach the same level of excellence as sports like Formula 1, these events were set up outside of FEI governance. The FEI initially did not accept this and responded by implementing an exclusivity clause, suspending GCT and GCL participating riders from competing in FEI-promoted events, including Olympic Qualifiers. Following a protracted legal dispute, the FEI and GCL finally agreed a settlement that provided the GCL with FEI sanctioning.

What is interesting about this scenario is that whilst the governing body was not supportive of this innovation, all the other stakeholders in the sport were from the athletes to the sponsors and of course the fans. Putting aside the legalities of the governing bodies sanctions, it was the commitment of the investors and weight of support from the rest of the market that push through this evolution.

So, what do these successful breakaway competitions have in common, and what was it that the ESL lacked?

All sports are defined by their individual cultures, history and practices, so it is hard to directly compare the success of evolutionary and revolutionary change. English football was in need of a revamp to be safer for fans and deliver growth for the clubs through increased commercial opportunity. Show jumping needed something new that would allow the sport to move past its amateur routes and begin to compete with other globally significant professional sports. What does appear to be similar in all cases, is the need for a movement to have the majority support of the market to be able to fend off attack from those stakeholders who are resistant to the change.

‘Greed’ and ‘hyper-capitalism’ are words that continue to surround the fallen ESL. Yet, to a certain extent, commercial power and greed is a factor in many successful sporting revolutions, but the benefits to the key stakeholders allowed them to look past this. The ‘Big’ football clubs in Europe have for many years been looked at negatively due to their significant financial wealth. Fans have increasingly grown frustrated at club’s lack of support with accessible ticket prices, whilst TV revenues have soared, and player wages have exploded. The launch of the ESL was seen as a step too far, removing the traditions of the game that are so important to the fans all for the commercial gain of the club shareholders.

The six Premier League clubs who signed up to the ESL failed to realise that without the support of the fans they were doomed to fail. The question that still remains unanswered is how they could have got this all so horribly wrong?


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