Before the Super League scheming began in earnest, almost four years ago, before the plan that could break European soccer was hatched, I was chatting with Charlie Stillitano, perhaps the most well-connected American in the sport. Our topic was a much lighter one than today’s, the prospect of top European leagues taking matches to the United States. But it was a topic that nonetheless incited blowback. An idea that, to fans, hinted at the disintegration of soccer’s soul, which throughout the 21st century had been sold to wealthy foreigners.
Addressing the blowback, Stillitano said something that day that always stuck with me.
European supporters, he said, "talk about, 'We don’t want these [foreign owners] in our game, this is our game, you guys don’t understand.'
“Well what do you mean we don’t understand?!” he continued, as if speaking for the wealthy foreigners, all of whom he knows. “We own your game.”
We own your game.
Those four words, and the repulsion they induce, explain the fury that has engulfed soccer this week. The battle over a breakaway Super League is a battle over who owns the sport.
Several Americans, a couple petrostates, and other billionaires think they do because they’ve bought its most successful clubs.
What they forget is that the ancestors of fans literally created those clubs. That Europeans see sports teams not as commodities, but as public trusts, as community institutions, as sociocultural and emotional bedrock. They see sport, and adore sport, as something that matters to more than a rich man’s pockets.
How European soccer developed differently than American sports
Manchester United was founded in 1878 as Newton Heath LYR Football Club – by Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway (LYR) workers at Newton Heath. It was, quite literally, a recreational club formed to organize local football matches. The carriage and wagon department at LYR never could have imagined that it would one day appear on the New York Stock Exchange.
Dozens of similar clubs popped up around England in the 19th and early-20th centuries. Dial Square Football Club, which would one day become Arsenal, was founded by London munitions workers in 1886. Liverpool FC sprung from a rival club in 1892. And for decades, their members ran them.
England’s entire sporting structure developed from these amateur days. The top clubs became the top clubs by winning, and earning their way up through a multi-tiered league system, to the nation’s top soccer division. As they won, they drew spectators, and became sources of local pride.
Over the years, they learned how to monetize that pride. They learned that they had to, because they could pour the money back into the club, and fund facilities, and pay player salaries. If they didn’t, other clubs doing just that would leave them behind.
They also realized that, if they sold their clubs to outside investors, those outside investors could pour in their own cash. The first investors were local businessmen, the ones who’d offer up $500 to relieve debt in exchange for some control of the club. Over time, the new investors got wealthier. Soccer, gradually, became decently sized business. The money, and the competitive need for it, grew.
All the while, the members, the “supporters,” still felt ownership. They felt that the clubs and the sport belonged in some small part to them. That they were a club’s fans, but also its purpose, its human engine. Investors raised locally understood this.
The foreign capitalists, though, came in and saw economic properties. They saw businesses with massive growth potential; businesses that, if run well, would offer mind-boggling returns on investment.
The Americans behind the Super League
They are the ones who favor a Super League, who feel that stock price leaps justify Sunday’s announcement, who have assuredly helped drive the breakaway league.
They are the Glazers, owners of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Manchester United. Joel Glazer is vice-chairman of the Super League.
They are Stan Kroenke, owner of the Los Angeles Rams, Denver Nuggets and Arsenal, also heavily involved.
They are John Henry, owner of the Boston Red Sox and Liverpool, involved as well.
And Paul Singer, the new owner of AC Milan, an American hedge fund manager who seems to consider his existence a single-minded pursuit of billions in personal riches.
Precisely one-third of the Super League founders are Americans.
And they are doing this because a Super League will benefit them financially, because the clubs – er, businesses – that they run stand to make more money and increase in value. They’ve tagged in a massive American bank, JP Morgan, which shares their vision. All so that, what, they can buy a third mansion? A second private plane? A fourth boat?
The American billionaires, in the end, do not care what a club means to its longtime fans, the ones who struggle everyday for income and happiness, as long as some fans, somewhere, consume the company’s product. In their minds, they have bought the right to do that. To upend European soccer’s sporting structure. To bastardize the merit-based promotion and relegation system, which has persisted unchallenged for over a century until now.
This is why fans are so angry. Because a sport built by them and for them is being taken from them and changed against their wishes. It is not just that billionaires are making decisions, as they have in American sport for decades. It is not just that the Super League clubs are acting upon greed. It is not just that they’re strongarming away the threat of relegation.
It’s that the fans, the supporters, the members – they feel like a sport that once belonged to the people has been stolen.
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