Could thinking about meaning have kept England’s most-moneyed football clubs from going offside?
When 12 of Europe’s top football (or soccer!) teams banded together and announced on April 18th that they would form a breakaway Super League to loosen UEFA’s death grip on top tier inter-league competitions, they didn’t expect the reaction: the 130 million soccer fans in Europe’s big five markets (Spain, England, France, Italy, Germany) unanimously decried it as the death of football. In England, where the so-called “Big Six”– that is, the wealthiest clubs in England’s top league: Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester United, Manchester City, Liverpool, and Tottenham – signed on, the response was most febrile. Outside of Elland Road (Leeds Utd), Stamford Bridge, Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, and Emirates Stadium fans protested. At Old Trafford, they even managed to breach the stadium and force a postponement of a match. Owners were bewildered by the strong and at times violent response of their fans. The question then becomes, if the top brass at England ’s most-moneyed clubs had considered what their fans were saying, had understood the context, and had cared to consider meaning in football’s cultural environment, could they have been better prepared for this reaction? A look at MotivBase’s system says yes.
Our engine gathered and examined over a million structural connections from the language of fans prior to the announcement of the Super League. The results are not that surprising: fans outright discussed how a super league would ruin football, contravening the spirit of the sport and putting profits over the beauty of the game. These weren’t just words, but together represent a universe of language that can reveal the meaning behind the fans’ reactions – you know, the people who pay the gate fees, buy merchandise, and generally drive profit for clubs by increasing their marketability. By studying the structure of their language, we see that it was not a rejection of England’s richest clubs making more money that rankled fans, but that a super league would not be a proper competition.
In other words, winning not buying success is what should give teams the opportunity to make their mark in Europe. This seems like a subtle difference and daresay even an obvious one, but the owners and their brain trusts missed it. Had they not, maybe they could have built an alternative to UEFA’s Champions League more palatable to fans, one that wouldn’t have collapsed only 48 hours after being announced.
European Football Competitions at a Glance
The landscape of European football can be confusing. Almost every country has their top-tier domestic league and below that extends a football pyramid, from which teams can be promoted or worse, demoted. Each country has their own football association that governs the sport and the leagues domestically. Now, there are also intercontinental competitions between teams from Europe’s various domestic leagues, and these are overseen by UEFA, the Union of European Football Associations. Every year, teams from all of Europe’s top domestic leagues can win the right to play in one of UEFA’s competitions, the most prestigious being the Champions League. They do so by finishing at the top or near the top of their domestic tables, depending on the league. While sporting glory is up for grabs, so too is a lot of money: in the 2019/2020 Champions League, for example, all teams were set to get a piece of about 2.5 Billion USD, which came from broadcasting rights, commercial rights, and gate sales.
For many fans, the beauty of this structure is that to secure their piece of the pie, domestic clubs can never take a night off, each match is of importance. In leagues where there is increasing parity on the pitch, like England’s Premier League, a team near the bottom can beat one of the league’s top clubs on any given night (for example, Aston Villa crushing the defending league champions Liverpool 7-2). This is exciting stuff for fans, but not for the top clubs, where revenue is king.
Enter the Super League. The brainchild of Real Madrid’s president Florentino Perez, it offered the biggest clubs and brands easy money: nearly 500 million US dollars per year for each team with no qualification necessary. This was a closed shop, and for England’s Big Six, who have an eye-watering combined value of over 20 Billon USD, it was just too tempting to pass up. But this league, where the rich would get richer, provoked the ire of England’s football fans. Rather than just chalking this up to jealousy over the financial might of the few, we asked why; the answer: proper competition
The Meaning of Proper Competition
Long before the announcement to form the Super League, leading voices in the UK were worried about the state of football there; they witnessed the financial disparities affecting the game, which favor the big clubs, and called for regulations. For the fans, the sentiment was the same: the financial gap between the Big Six, their big-money owners – especially the American contingent of the Glazers, Fenway Sports Group, and Stan Kroenke -, and the rest was problematic. Of the 20 teams that form England’s top flight competition, these clubs consumed nearly 60% of the revenue, and their financial muscle has translated on the pitch. No club outside of these six, except Leicester in 2016, has finished in the top 4 spots (qualifying for UEFA’s Champions League) in the last decade.
Nevertheless, the Premier League still offered tough competition. Take the most recent season, finished after the Super League debacle: Arsenal failed to qualify for a European competition for the first time in 25 years. Instead, West Ham United grabbed a coveted spot in UEFA’s second tier competition (the Europa League) in only its second time finishing in the top 6 spots in those same 25 years! It was this possibility, a team like West Ham ousting Arsenal from a top spot, that got fans’ blood pumping. For them, it was what the Premier League was all about.
So when the Super League was only still a whisper, fans were already asking: what was it going to do to the quality of the game? To them, it would turn meaningful games into drab affairs where the results didn’t matter and the big clubs might rest their best players, saving them for the games that tied to the largest financial returns. The idea of a league that offered the Big Six automatic qualification which didn’t rely on sporting merit, well this was anathema. To keep the integrity of the game, these fans talked about the need for a proper competition, not one that would squeeze out smaller clubs, lining the pockets of the richest clubs even when they didn’t win a thing.
After applying an anthro-lens to evaluate the meanings associated with the culture of fairness among the UK’s football fans, an obvious fact emerged: even before April 18th fans strongly believed that a super league not grounded on the principles of fair competition would destroy their game. By mapping and quantifying these meanings, we could even make a few predictions: we saw that this belief was relevant to 25.2M consumers in the UK and growing. More than this, there was established consensus among fans that a super league was about buying success and would undermine any notion of fair competition.
And while meaning in a culture can change and be re-shaped, once those meanings become established there is little to be done outside of ensuring compliance with consumer needs. Organizations need to build solutions that respond to and address the cultural requirements laid out by the consumer. So, joining a super league when your fans are vehemently opposed? Well, that’s just bad business. Had the top brass of England’s biggest clubs considered taking an anthropological approach to studying their fan base, they would’ve potentially saved themselves from a PR embarrassment and certainly from losing millions of pounds.