The European Super League isn’t the worst thing about the future of football

“Today’s match is a derby between Manchester United Tokyo and Manchester United Kyoto… and it’s live!”

I’m neither for nor against the likely introduction of the proposed European Super League; I simply recognise commercial realities and I don’t make the false distinction between a football club (or any sports franchise) and any other commercial organisation.

Change is endemic in football, and is always decried as the end of football. Whether its the end of the amateur game and the introduction of professional players, the end of the maximum wage for footballers, the introduction of European football, live football on TV, the Bosman rule, the forming of the premier league, financial fair play, VAR… change, and especially now change in pursuit of profit, is inevitable.

Once the ESL has reached a growth plateau, the game will change again to a new model that provides bubble growth, because football is just a business. There’s no promotion and relegation in top level US sports and they have the most valuable sports franchises in the world, so it’s hardly a surprise that football tries to copy that idea, and it won’t be a surprise when they move to the next thing.

International football will probably be the next thing to go, unless the clubs figure out how to make a lot more money than the national FAs out of it. It won’t be hard to convince players to agree not to play for their countries in exchange for even bigger contracts given that even more money is flowing into ESL clubs. A male England international only makes £2,000 per appearance and that’s usually donated to charity. Offer a professional another £50K, £100K per week to not appear at a tournament that has already been devalued by other top players deciding not to appear, and how many are going to take “national pride” (whatever that is) over an extra £2,500,000 a year?

There are fashion brands that don’t exist except as brands. The designs are licensed out to manufacturers, their stores are run by franchise holders… basically the only employees they have are in brand and marketing. It’s an almost perfect business model (as long as the designs are right) because you have almost no operating costs; you simply rake in licence fees at an exorbitant rate from franchisees. The pandemic has proved that we don’t even need a bricks and mortar head office any more, just the address of a lawyer’s office where the articles of incorporation are held.

We may think that there’s something sacred about a football team (or any sports franchise) but we’re moving to a point where they only exist to sell merchandising and advertising space. The returns from sporting achievements and gate receipts pale by comparison to commerical returns from kit deals and advertising.

In our lifetime, sports franchises will go the same way as the fashion industry. We’re already moving in that direction, with the Red Bull and Manchester City operations.

Imagine a world where Manchester City simply exists as a brand. The sports operations are run by local franchise operators within brand guidelines set by head office, nothing more. There are Manchester City franchises operating in every league in the world, just like there’s a Subway or a Starbucks in every town. There may even be competing Manchester City franchises within the same league structure, just like you get two Starbucks on the same street. The Etihad won’t be the club’s home stadium, it will simply be the closest stadium owned by a Manchester City franchise operator.

It won’t have to use Sky or BT to show games, it will show them all on its own website and save the costs. In the morning you’ll watch Manchester City Tokyo, in the afternoon you’ll watch Manchester City Milan, and in the even Manchester City Buenos Aires. Football from 25 countries on one channel, with a Manchester City, United, Barcelona and Juventus in every profitable league in the world.

If there’s an operating model where you can get Paul Pogba in a Manchester United shirt, and sell Paul Pogba merchandising, but not have to pay Paul Pogba’s wages or deal with Paul Pogba’s agent, why would a business choose any other route?

I’m not passing an opinion as to whether any of this is good or bad. I’m simply making an observation about how the football industry is likely to follow in the footsteps of other industries, and adopt a model that minimises costs and maximises profits because football is just a business now. If you have beef with that, then your beef is with capitalism, not sport.

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