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National Review

Why Europe’s ‘Super League’ Crashed and Burned

In one of the opening chapters of Thomas Carlyle’s History of the French Revolution, we find an extended meditation on the psychological potency of symbolism. “Of man’s whole terrestrial possessions and attainments,” he writes, “unspeakably the noblest are his Symbols, divine or divine-seeming; under which he marches and fights, with victorious assurance, in this life-battle; what we call his Realised Ideals.” By “Symbols” or “Realised Ideals,” Carlyle means particulars that incarnate or represent universals. The most obvious examples of symbols in this sense are flags. Even though, in particular terms, they’re just sheets of fabric with colored designs, they nevertheless represent whole hosts of associated affections, loyalties, and ideals for which human beings have proven themselves on countless occasions quite willing to kill and die. Sports teams have a similarly symbolic, if lower-stakes, hold on the human imagination, especially in the modern world. Apart from politics, professional sports is the only sphere of life in the West today in which it is still considered socially acceptable for men and women to invest otherwise quotidian and granular events with almost unfathomable meaning. The sight of a man in a pinstriped shirt hitting a ball very far with a big stick is regularly the cause of bacchanal hysteria among millions of men, women, and children in the United States of America. The same kind of Elysian joy and Stygian despair is summoned at weekly intervals in the rest of the world by the sight of 22 men kicking a ball up and down a patch of grass. In the absence of sex, war, or a particularly contentious election, nothing evokes primal emotional responses in modern man more effectively than professional sports. This is because sports teams are among the few institutions left in modern society that retain their symbolic power. Like other organizations, they’re composed of owners, managers, and staff, with human-resources and public-relations departments, etc., and they have a particular task to perform in order to satisfy their customer base and generate revenue. But unlike the big businesses with which they might be compared, professional sports teams are felt and thought by many to represent something larger and more important than ordinary market interests. This is what makes them “Realised Ideals” in the sense that Carlyle describes. The successful functioning of these organizations doesn’t merely result in profit generated by supplying a commodity to consumers at an aggregable price. It results in an aura of prestige and a spirit of collective celebration infusing the local community that the team represents. It’s a cause of intergenerational solidarity among families and friends. For New York Yankees fans, for instance, the team’s success, its ethos and traditions, says something important about New York City, and thus about themselves as New Yorkers. The success of Walmart, by way of contrast, doesn’t have the same kind of symbolic or emotional ripple effects among even its most devoted patrons. Unless we grasp that symbolism is a fundamental aspect of professional sports teams — compared with most other for-profit organizations, where such symbolism is absent — we will not understand the economic significance of the crazy, vertigo-inducing chain of events that has engulfed the world of European soccer over the last several days. On Sunday night, the owners of twelve of Europe’s richest and most famous soccer teams released a joint statement announcing their intention to form a European Super League among themselves. The league was to be composed of 15 permanent founding members: Manchester United, Manchester City, Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur, Real Madrid, Barcelona, Atlético Madrid, Juventus, A.C. Milan, Inter Milan, and three more unnamed teams. Five more slots were to be allocated annually to qualifying teams. None of this is likely to sound problematic to American readers, which is unsurprising given the nature of the enterprise. Many of these teams, like Manchester United, Liverpool, and Arsenal, are owned by American businessmen who have harbored the intention for some time to create a European soccer equivalent of the NFL or the NBA. The structure of these American leagues, however, is fundamentally anathema to the way in which soccer has functioned in Europe for the last hundred years. In each European country, there exists a tier-based pyramid system for soccer teams. The top tier — e.g., the Premier League in England, La Liga in Spain — is where the best players and the glitziest teams play. There are usually about 20 teams in this top division. At the end of each season, the top four or so teams in each of Europe’s top divisions qualify for the next season’s pan-continental showcase competition, the UEFA Champions League, in which the highest level of soccer in the world is played. The teams that finish in the three bottom places of the top division are relegated to the second division, while the three teams that finish at the top of the second division are promoted to the top division. This pattern is replicated down through all of the men’s leagues in each country. In England there are about 20 tiers of soccer. If you wanted to, you could form your own semi-professional team with friends, start at the very bottom of the pyramid, and work your way up. Just recently, for instance, a Manchester United fan channel on YouTube called Stretford Paddock decided to start their own team from scratch and are currently in the 14th tier of English soccer. Theoretically, it’s possible for them to make it all the way to the Premier League. This strictly meritocratic pyramid is treasured by European soccer fans. It’s a huge part of the romance of the sport. It’s also a finely balanced economic ecosystem. The vast majority of revenue in terms of television broadcast rights and gate receipts is generated by the five or six most famous teams in each country. Teams like Manchester United and Real Madrid, for instance, have hundreds of millions of fans around the world. Smaller teams rely on the revenue generated by the games they play against these big teams in order to meet costs and stay competitive. Because of the way profits are shared out across the leagues, Burnley F.C. or Brighton and Hove Albion get a huge economic boon from playing Manchester United because the latter’s multinational legions of fans are tuning in to the game. In this way, the money generated by the top teams trickles down the entire domestic soccer pyramid in each country, keeping the smaller teams afloat. The owners of Europe’s top teams, especially the American owners, have always looked askance at this model. John Henry, the venture capitalist who owns the Boston Red Sox, bought Liverpool F.C. as a financial investment, and likewise the Glazer family, owners of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, when they bought Manchester United in 2005. Their teams generate the most profit, after all, and they didn’t see the logic of having to share this profit with smaller, “freeloading” teams down through the league and the divisions. What’s more, for these owners, the fact that their teams were required to finish in the top four every season in order to participate in the most financially lucrative competition the sport has to offer was offensive. Manchester United has repeatedly failed to qualify for the Champions League since 2013, when they lost Sir Alex Ferguson, the greatest coach in the history of professional sports, to retirement. As a result, the Glazer family, having purchased the world’s second-most lucrative sports team, after the New York Yankees, have lost out on millions of dollars as their club has been serially out-competed by smaller teams. The solution, from ownership’s perspective, was obvious: Abscond from the various domestic, freeloading pyramids and form a league in which the top revenue-generating teams play one another every week. This was the move that was announced on Sunday evening. The Super League was to be a closed shop, like the top American sports leagues, with no promotion or relegation. It would be wholly owned by the owners of the 15 founding clubs so that they could dispense with having to deal with league authorities — a luxury not even afforded to NFL or NBA team owners. The new league was also to have an agreed-upon salary cap, so that the offensive and ungodly amount of money it would generate would accrue mostly to the owners rather than the players. Never has there been a more grasping and grotesque vindication of Adam Smith’s claim that “people of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public.” Still, as brazen as the Super League plans may have been, they were totally in line with the globalizing trajectory of the world economy. The systematic replacement of local, regional, and national businesses with huge multinational conglomerates has been proceeding apace for some time. Local bookshops and regional chains unnumbered have fallen before the Bezos blitzkrieg of Amazon packages, landing on doorsteps around the globe with unmatched speed, efficiency, and affordability; countless diners and mom-and-pop restaurants have been laid low by the newest Panera or Applebee’s franchise; and thousands of local newspapers have foundered on the rocks of the digital age, leaving only the national titans like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal unscathed. As consumers, we seem to be fine with all of this. No one forced us to forsake our local bookseller, the café on the corner, the morning paper in the driveway. We’ve been happy to sacrifice our old allegiances. Fascinatingly, public reaction to the Super League has bucked this trend spectacularly. Uniform and deafening fury has been rained down upon the heads of the league’s organizers with the kind of pan-continental, cross-political, venomous disgust I cannot recall ever witnessing, having lived in Europe for most of my life. What would have been a relatively predictable if sordid and unseemly act of corporate consolidation in any other industry has been treated like an act of war on an entire civilization. Fans, public broadcasters, players, heads of government, and even the future King of England have stridently opposed the formation of the Super League in a chorus of righteous indignation. The president of UEFA, the organization that runs the reigning merit-based European Champions League, described the owners involved as “snakes and liars,” while Gary Neville, the former Manchester United captain and currently the most popular sports pundit in the U.K., excoriated the Super League live on television: On Tuesday, only two days after the Super League was announced, it began to crumble. One by one, the teams involved began to announce their withdrawal from the league. As I write, nine of the original twelve have pulled out, and the eventual announcement of the tournament’s dissolution is now a formality. The significance of what this reveals about the nature of the global economy can’t be overstated. This was not merely an idea floated by the owners and then rejected. It was a project that had already been set in motion. The site for the tournament had already been launched. A $3.5 billion loan from JPMorgan Chase had already been secured by the league’s organizers. A 23-year contract of participation had been signed by every club involved. And yet, 48 hours after its announcement, the Super League is dead, guillotined by the unbridled bottom-up anger of grassroots soccer fans. Is this the first significant extra-governmental blow struck against the forces of economic globalization by civil society? If it is, then why? The answer is to be found in the symbolism of sports teams, the potent transcendental, representative forces that separate sports from the prosaic computations of most other for-profit enterprises. Manchester United, for example, was founded in 1878 by the Carriage and Wagon department of the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway depot at Newton Heath. It represented the working-class people of the city in which it was located and from which it took its name. Over the near century and a half of its existence it has accrued traditions, honors, and an ethos that have captured the hearts of its fans. These transcendent values are contained within the particular company, Manchester United PLC, which is traded on the New York Stock Exchange. Because of the symbolic freight of the club, it simply can’t be treated as any other business obeying global economic trends. In this way, sports teams are, once again, like countries. America, too, has a history, traditions, heroes, and values that are not quantifiable in any material way. The idea of assessing the greatness of America on the basis of its GDP, or of making political decisions exclusively on the basis of what would increase GDP, would stir up anger in the heart of any patriot. Thus, when those in power tried to manipulate the particulars of symbolic institutions in a way that ignored the values that those particulars are supposed to instantiate, they courted catastrophe. This should teach us a lot about the way that globalization works. Many of a localist or nationalist anti-globalization bent want to use state power to arrest the deracinating effects of the modern economy. But if the Super League saga teaches us anything, it’s that we are quite able to turn the tide of economic globalization whenever we please without any assistance from the government. That we choose not to is a testament to the fact that most businesses we patronize have no symbolic value for us. They simply meet our particular needs, and we’re happy to patronize others if they meet our needs more effectively. Globalization might lead to job losses for certain individuals in certain sectors, but unless a company or an industry is widely thought to represent some universal quality for good or for ill, we can be certain that there’ll be no public groundswell for change. In this sense, all of our political and economic arguments are over symbols — over which particulars instantiate and represent which universals. If we are indeed destined for a future of globalized anarcho-capitalist anomie in which everyone knows the price of everything and the value of nothing, it won’t be because of any ineluctable material factors, but because we no longer have symbols powerful enough to turn the particular circumstances of material existence into vessels of the transcendent. The satisfaction of granular appetites will have been made the whole business of life. But if our symbolic institutions are powerful and numerous enough, then the spiritual enervation of capitalism will be healthily balanced not by government power but by mankind’s natural orientation toward the transcendent. Sports teams meet innate, non-material needs in a limited but profound way. That’s why the Super League was felled in such short and spectacular order. It would be great to have more institutions of similar symbolic value in our communities, but since this kind of value can’t be generated on demand, the best we can do is to look after the ones we have.