One Reason Why the Super League Failed

It didn't understand the first thing about being simply content.

The television version of Watchmen, just like the comic, is set in an alternate version of our world. A key difference is that in the fictional world, New York suffered an awful terrorist attack in 1985 that killed millions. One of our protagonists, Wade, survived the incident but suffers from PTSD to this day. His entire sense of self is built around this trauma. The accepted facts about the event are a cornerstone of who he is.

Then, one day, he finds out the truth: the whole attack was an inside job engineered for the very purpose of building international solidarity. Everything he understood as true and important to him, who he was, had been built on a lie. None of it mattered. It was all fake. His whole identity just didn’t matter at all.

Supporting one of the sides involved in the Super League felt a little bit like that after the announcement. And that’s the exact opposite of the feeling they’re supposed to be selling.

The Super League, with its ever so imaginative name, has thankfully collapsed. The threat of a closed shop isn’t gone for good, but we’ve seen it off for now. But this wouldn’t have been the first time, at least in England, that such a breakaway was on the cards.

In the good old days, English football’s television rights were negotiated by all 92 clubs in the Football League, with the revenues split equally, no matter what division you were in. As TV was seen as the future of the business, at least in the eyes of club executives wowed by the comparative revenues of American sports, this infuriated the clubs at the top of the first division. They wanted the ability to negotiate deals without the archaic lower league clubs squabbling and, yes, to keep the revenues to themselves. And so the nuclear option was taken: the top-flight clubs would break away, form the pretty tacky sounding “Premier League”, and make as much money as they can. All in the name of greed and nothing more.

It attracted strong criticism. Sir Alex Ferguson, the very figure who would come to define the new league, called it “a piece of nonsense” that “has done the reputation of clubs no good, and has in fact alienated a great many supporters”. He was speaking for the majority of fans here. This was sheer greed aimed at destroying the traditions of English football, turning it into a product to be consumed. So yeah, we’ve been here before.

Nonetheless, the Premier League was a success far beyond anyone involved’s wildest dreams, while the Super League is dead before it began. So what gives?

To start, the Premier League clubs had at least institutional support within the game. The FA never saw eye to eye with the football league and viewed the Premier League as the perfect (if doomed) opportunity to improve its standing, believing promises of the potential to improve the quality of the England national team. Perhaps more importantly, it had a narrative to sell. Football in the 1980s had been described in a national newspaper as a “slum sport played in slum stadiums increasingly watched by slum people”, such was the state of the ancient stadiums and rife hooliganism. The Premier League promised to be part of a wave to clean up and modernise English football. In practice, this mostly just meant gentrification, but it was a narrative the public could buy into.

But you ask any football fan in England old enough to remember what changed the game forever, for good or ill, and they’ll give you a simple three-letter word: Sky. Putting football behind a satellite subscription was never exactly a fan-friendly move, but those poorer supporters were a negative in wider public perception anyway. The coverage itself was revolutionary compared to the dated attempts from the BBC and ITV, all provided through cutting edge satellites beamed from space. It was new, it was cutting edge, it was more middle class. It was everything the post-Thatcherite zeitgeist in 1992 wanted. The initial promotion, in its definitely not at all homoerotic way, communicated this exact idea: “a whole new ball game”. The slum game was dead, long live gentrified football.

The Super League never crafted any such narrative. While the primary problems of football back then were perceived as hooliganism and the “slum game”, we can all isolate the biggest gripes today: inequality, corporatisation, and the same teams winning every year. How did the Super League look to address those problems? It didn’t. It fairly nakedly wanted to make them all worse. There isn’t a single problem people have with football that the Super League would look to solve. The Premier League was about greed, yes, but it also had a reason to exist beyond this. The Super League never bothered to tell us why this would be in any of our interests.

Modern “superclubs” have three main sources of revenue: gate receipts, TV rights and commercial revenue. The Super League did a great job pissing everyone off who spends on that first one, and regardless, it’s capped by physical capacity anyway. So the Super League and its clubs have essentially two jobs: sign big TV deals and agree to lots of sponsorships. Let’s start with the second one.

If you were listing important commercial partners to top European clubs, you’d put Nike pretty high on the list, right? Right. Nike are pretty damn important to the football industry.

Take a look at how Nike’s big splashy ad of the past year, titled “You Can’t Stop Us”.

Let’s read that monologue, delivered by Megan Rapinoe, in full:

“We’re never alone. And that is our strength. Because when we’re doubted, we’ll play as one. When we’re held back, we’ll go farther. And harder. If we’re not taken seriously, we’ll prove that wrong. And if we don’t fit the sport, we’ll change the sport. We know things won’t always go our way. But whatever it is, we’ll find a way. And when things aren’t fair, we’ll come together for change.

We have a responsibility to make this world a better place.

And no matter how bad it gets, we will always come back stronger. Because nothing can stop what we do together.”

Among the images included are athletes kneeling and wearing Black Lives Matter T-shirts. Among them includes a certain Colin Kaepernick, with whom Nike have a close relationship. The message is very obvious: “We are a caring company that shares your values. So buy our shit.” Nike are one example, but almost every corporation seems to be following this same trend. To state the obvious, corporations don’t actually care about anything other than profits. They’re just trying to appeal to the public who, tired of a lifetime of individualism, want to feel like their lives have more purpose. While we might have been happy with it in the 90s, modern audiences do not want to feel like consumers. We want to feel like we’re part of something greater, and that we’re doing good in the world. There’s a reason why Marcus Rashford is more famous in England than any other footballer right now.

If a corporation decides to put itself front and centre on a sponsorship deal with the Super League, what brand values is it communicating? Not the values they all seem to want to go for. It’s the brand values of the early 90s and the Premier League. It’s that of greed and wealth. It’s exactly what they don’t want to be associated with. Don’t get me wrong, the Super League could’ve signed some sponsorships, but the value is lessened by all of this.

The story is the same with broadcasting.

In the UK, there are currently three companies who have what we might call “top tier” football rights: Sky Sports, BT Sport and Amazon Prime Video. If the Super League wants to print money, it should be expecting a bidding war between these three parties and more. Let’s look at how they all responded.

Sky Sports ran blanket coverage condemning the proposals on both its live Premier League coverage and Sky Sports News. The tone was an extremely hostile one, with a clear subtext: “football fans, we’re with you on this”. The Super League might call them “legacy fans”, but not those good custodians of the traditions of the game at Sky! Talk about a role reversal. If this news broke 20 years ago, one can imagine Sky desperate to be at the forefront, talking up the possibility of a whole new ball game once more. But now, in the modern era, they want to signal their brand values of solidarity with ordinary football fans.

Over on BT Sport? “This is, for me, a war on football”, said lead pundit Rio Ferdinand on the channel. “It’s a disgrace, it’s embarrassing, and it goes against everything that football’s about. It’s a closed shop for these bigwigs, and it’s completely and utterly only about one thing: money. The rich getting richer, and the others not even being considered. There’s no consideration for the history, for the people, for different parts of the pyramid below the top teams that they’re trying to separate with. It’s a disgrace”.

It would be quite the climb down for either of these channels to later buy the Super League rights and heavily promote the product.

Amazon haven’t been broadcasting football over the past week, but their statement also looked to distance themselves. If any company cares about projecting good corporate values to hide shady business practices, it’s Amazon.

Again, I’m sure the Super League could have found some broadcasters. But they shouldn’t have to look this hard. If this is the best teams every week, broadcasters should be breaking the door down to secure the rights. They’re so concerned about looking to have the right values that they’re reluctant to touch this.

When the English clubs pulled out of the project, they had a clear message to the fans: “we heard you”. I’m sure they did. But those protests were much more important to a secondary audience. The brands heard them. And I don’t mean the Everton sporting director. Opposing the Super League became the new black squares on Instagram. It was the easiest possible way to signal you have the right corporate values.

The vision of the Super League was football as nothing more than content, with teams little more than brands. It’s quite astonishing, then, that they didn’t have the first clue about how to brand themselves. It told no story about how it fit in with football or how it spoke to what we want to hear right now. It made no attempt to understand the desires of the fan of tomorrow it courted so desperately. It had nothing except an obvious attempt by a handful of rich men to turn football into a cartel.

You can’t become a global megabrand without telling a story. The Super League thought itself above even trying, and got exactly what it deserved for it.