Follow the money.
That advice works as well for sport as it does for business and politics.
The latest development in football — the announcement that 12 rich European clubs have formed a breakaway European Super League (ESL) — is a heady mix of all of the above: big business and powerful politics wrestling with the heart and soul of the globe’s biggest game.
It has been described by various stakeholders as disgusting, greedy and cynical.
The Super League website promises to transform competition by offering tantalising payments to those clubs on the outer who may be able to fill one of five qualifying spots each year to join the foundation clubs.
“Solidarity payments will grow in line with league revenues and are expected to be in excess of 10 billion euros ($15.46 billion) during the course of the initial commitment period of the founders,” the website read.
“These solidarity payments will follow a new model with full transparency and regular public reporting.”
Transparency in sport is a long-held dream. There is nothing to suggest this latest competition — if it goes ahead — can turn it into a reality.
There are two models that define sports governance globally — the European ‘open model’ and the US ‘closed model’.
In North America, the major leagues consist of privately owned teams that are members of a single competitive league, with athletes recognised as league partners through strong collective bargaining arrangements.
The European model is a pyramid model with promotion and relegation, an existing relationship between grassroots and professional clubs, with professional athletes viewed as employees.
The proposed European Super League mirrors the North American model but with the intention of remaining inside the European structure.
It is not the first time there has been such a challenge to the existing structures of sport — think the Indian Premier League in cricket, think rugby league’s Super League War, think world swimming and the International Swimming League.
All of them threatened to upturn the existing model, all of them came to a negotiated agreement.
Given the history of similar challenges, it is not unreasonable to think the same will happen in this case.
‘A privileged caste system’
The European Parliament Sports Group has rejected the breakaway competition, suggesting it is a threat to the “unity and solidarity” of sport.
European Parliament Sports Group spokesman Emmanuel Foulon said smaller, less powerful clubs would wither under the proposed ESL.
“If you create a closed league it shuts off access to the money … the big clubs become richer,” Foulon said.
“The ESL would form a privileged caste system with the only intention to make a profit.
A European Parliament Sports Group statement said it had joined with “national associations, national leagues, UEFA and domestic player unions in condemning the proposed idea”.
“At a time when sport is undergoing such uncertainty, the European Parliament Sports Group stands committed to protect and strengthen the established framework of the European sports model … for the benefit for all and the promotion of the European values,” the statement read.
It was always going to come to this as rich and powerful businessmen moved into controlling positions at the world’s most recognised football clubs.
While the amateur roots of the sport and the committed club fans can marvel at the upwards growth and professionalisation of the game there would come a point where those investing their own money want to see a greater slice of the returns.
While they claim to be fans of the game too, they are businessmen first with sustainability and profit powerful driving forces.
ESL chairman and president of Real Madrid FC, Florentino Perez, said it was a “responsibility” to move in this direction.
“We will help football at every level and take it to its rightful place in the world,” he said.
“Football is the only global sport in the world with more than 4 billion fans and our responsibility as big clubs is to respond to their desires.”
Meanwhile, Manchester United co-chairman and an ESL vice-chairman, Joel Glazer, goes further.
“By bringing together the world’s greatest clubs and players to play each other throughout the season, the Super League will open a new chapter for European football, ensuring world-class competition and facilities and increased financial support for the wider football pyramid,” he said.
Nowhere do they explain how that will happen.
Melbourne Law School’s director of sports law studies, Jack Anderson, said the organisers of the new league would face “a huge amount of challenges”.
“It sounds like a commercial juggernaut at first and it seems as though the money being touted that will come in behind the structure — such as television rights and commercialisation – will swamp everything else,” Professor Anderson said.
“But they will face many regulatory legal challenges and of course a great deal of public concern.”
Retired England international Gary Neville summed up the overwhelming opinion of many football fans on the UK’s Sky Sports.
“I’m a Manchester United fan and have been for 40 years of my life but I’m disgusted, absolutely disgusted,” Neville said.
“I’m disgusted with Manchester United and Liverpool most.
“Liverpool, they pretend ‘you’ll never walk alone’, the people’s club, the fan’s club.
“Manchester United — born out of 100 workers around here and they’re breaking away into a league without competition? That they can’t be relegated from? It’s an absolute disgrace.”
UEFA released a statement in conjunction with the English, Spanish and Italian football federations saying they would “consider all measures available” to prevent the Super League from going ahead.
“If this were to happen, we wish to reiterate that we – UEFA, the English FA, RFEF (Royal Spanish Football Federation), FIGC (Italian Football Federation), the Premier League, LaLiga, Lega Serie A, but also FIFA and all our member associations — will remain united in our efforts to stop this cynical project, a project that is founded on the self-interest of a few clubs at a time when society needs solidarity more than ever,” the statement read.
One thing is certain, the breakaway clubs already have a PR disaster on their doorstep.
Presumably, they have in their top draw the best crisis management plan money can buy.