This week, football has dominated the front pages as twelve European clubs, including six from the UK’s Premier League, declared their intention to form a breakaway Super League. While this latest attempt at football elitism looks to have been scuppered, the move raises some serious questions for the beautiful game, not least from a media pov. We sat down with FourFourTwo Editor, James Andrew, to find out more about football ‘content’, distribution rights, and the latest battle for creative control of one of the biggest premium plays in global media.
Late on Sunday night in the UK, by which time we understand former player-turned-pundit Gary Neville had already gone to bed, all hell broke loose in the football world when it was announced that twelve European clubs, including the Premier League’s Man Utd, Man City, Chelsea, Arsenal, Tottenham, and Liverpool had signed a letter of intent to leave traditional European competition (and arguably also inevitably by default domestic competition too) in favour of a European Super League.
The move marked the beginning of a tumultuous few days for the sport, which saw some of the managers of the afore-mentioned clubs come out in direct opposition to the proposed changes and Executive Vice Chairman of Manchester United, Ed Woodward, announce his impending departure from the club. There were even reports that the Manchester United Captain, Harry Maguire, had ‘confronted’ Woodward at an emergency meeting with the players.
But just as mysteriously as the announcement exploded into the headlines, it was quickly taken away again when on Tuesday, Chelsea and Manchester City became the first two clubs to withdraw from the proposals.
Crisis averted – at least on this occasion. Because the idea of a big brand breakaway from the traditional football structure has longsince been touted, and in many ways has never really gone away from the background of European football, as fixtures like Liverpool vs Real Madrid, and Manchester United vs Juventus, draw increasingly large viewing figures around the world.
So just what could media mean to a set of breakaway clubs looking to assert more control over their own content and distribution rights? We asked FourFourTwo Editor, James Andrew, and as the captain of one of media’s biggest football magazines and member of the Future Plc team, began by asking him to give us a brief introduction to the publication…
“We are a monthly football magazine. We come out 13 times a year. We are owned by Future Publishing, who have over 200 brands, of which FourFourTwo is one. The magazine itself has been going for around 27 years, having been launched by Haymarket I believe in 1994. Lots of other monthly football magazines have come and gone, while FourFourTwo has managed to stay, and is still going and still going strong!”
“Obviously over the years we have branched out, so we’ve got a website now where we can do lots more up-to-date features, rather than things that are tied into magazine print deadlines. And also social media channels, which we use to do a lot of interacting with our audience on. So I think on Twitter we’ve got something like half a million followers, which is good although we would obviously prefer half a million readers!”
“As for me, I’ve been the editor for 18 months or so. I’ve been in the industry for about 15 years and previously worked for a variety of different places including local media, national media, and agencies as well. So I’ve worked in all different sorts of guises in this wonderful and crazy industry!”
James is a great person to offer perspective on what football can bring to media and vice versa, as the editor of a magazine that obviously focusses on the game. So pleasantries aside, and for the football uninitiated, we asked him to provide a brief overview of the situation that has unfolded this past week.
“This story I think initially broke – or was leaked – in 2018. That was when it kindof first emerged that there was this breakaway plot by six of the biggest (self-appointed) clubs in England, and twelve in Europe. The idea was that they were going to form their own Super League, and then other teams would be invited to join as well, and that this would essentially be a replacement to the Champions League. But in all essence, this was going to be a league of 20 teams that played midweek matches. Now it doesn’t take a genius to guess that if you’re playing games in midweek fixtures and are still part of the Premier League where you’re also part of a 20 team league, 38 games + 38 games is just not going to happen, so eventually they were looking to breakaway from the Premier League as well.”
“My hunch is that they wanted to be thrown out, rather than leave, to show that they weren’t the bad guys. And they wanted to be part of this closed shop Super League, where I guess they start again as twelve and then essentially 20 European clubs. Although I should stress that while it would start off as Europe, the branding was just ‘Super League’, so it would have ended up being a global league. You would have ended up having a North London derby being played in New York. And so I think it was to show like look, we’re the biggest clubs in Europe/the world, we’ve got this new product, and it was to basically start again and create and sell their own media rights.”
Which brings us to the crux of the matter, and why this story is almost even more about media than it is about sport. On the same Monday Night Football programme linked to above, Steve Parish, the Chairman of non-breakaway Premier League football team Crystal Palace, had this to say:
“The Premier League is the jewel in the crown, in many ways, of England and Great Britain. It’s a fantastic, outwardly looking, piece of soft power that we have around the world. I just don’t think the British Government, or other European governments, are gonna allow these things to happen.”
And that really, very quickly, became a key issue. Like a sort of macro-level version of WWE playing itself out in the global media, huge institutional players immediately waded into the debate, each with their own unique roles to play. The much maligned Sky and Premier League instantly turned face, while the management tag-team of Klopp and Guardiola roamed the stadiums looking for a corporate heel to powerbomb through a table. Almost as quickly as the affray began, the glass shattered, and Stone Cold Boris Johnson entered the ring:
“Plans for a European Super League would be very damaging for football and we support football authorities in taking action. The clubs involved must answer to their fans and the wider footballing community before taking any further steps,” tweeted the Prime Minister.
That level of reaction in itself shows the huge stakes that have been at play this week. The ‘soft power’ mentioned by Steve Parish is an increasingly popular term in media these days, because it describes a modern digital sector that is growing in importance not only from the pov of creating tangible economic growth and employment opportunities on the ground, but also as a means by which wider organisations and industries, as well as populations, can be influenced. The battle for the soul of football is also a battle for the role of media.
There’s been much talk by football journalists in recent years for example, about the difficulties they now have in extracting truthful accounts from behind the scenes. Clubs would, perhaps understandably, rather control their own narrative when it comes to the stories emanating from the dressing room as well as on the pitch, and so we have seen an increasing shift from press participation to content creation.
“As a magazine editor, it definitely gets harder and harder with certain clubs to get interviews with players. If you go back to when FourFourTwo first started in 1994 and you think that that’s a kindof pre-internet age, where newspapers and magazines were probably king and if a club was looking to get their message out, they’d be doing it through traditional media. Now fast forward on 27 years, we’ve obviously got rolling sports news, websites all over the place – dedicated football websites and club websites.”
“The traditional media is less necessary and so stuff can be packaged up, and they’re in complete control of it. So if for example you want an exclusive interview with England Captain, Harry Kane, that might be available via Tottenham’s website or the England website. But there certainly won’t be anything particularly juicy in there I wouldn’t expect, because it’s not within anyone’s interest to provide any kind of – not even controversial – just anything interesting.”
“I think we’ve seen particularly in the last year that games without fans is just not the same. For it to be a decent TV product, you need fans in the ground.”
It’s also worth remembering that amidst all this talk of streaming rights and pay per view deals, the heart of this content is a sport – and a live event – and that core offering is still in there. So is football now just another form of high-value content to be kicked around the socio-media landscape? Or does the game intrinsically lose some of that value when matters of athletic competition and community participation are relegated to footnotes within the wider debate?
“It’s a difficult question. As someone who’s grown up going football for the last 25 – 30 years or so, I love going to football. And I think we’ve seen particularly in the last year that games without fans is just not the same. For it to be a decent TV product, you need fans in the ground.”
“Now there could be an argument – and it’s an argument that I’d be interested in – that if you get more money for the TV can you therefore bring the ticket prices down and make it accessible for more people? Because that’s the other thing is that the ticket prices are very high, and for what is essentially a working class sport a typical working class family are essentially priced out of it. And I think that’s wrong. So if more money is coming in, then I’d like to see ticket prices reduced.”
Ultimately as James alludes to, a lot – if not all – of the fallout of the last few days comes down to money. And we’re back to premium content. Like it or love controlling the creation, and distribution, of your own content can yield huge returns. So just how big could this deal have been? And with such high stakes at play will the core issue ever really go away, until at least the clubs feel that they are maximising their earning potential?
“I think it would have been huge. I mean obviously it launched and then it died within 48hrs and we never really got as far as the TV deal, but TV would be the big thing. I mean it was mentioned again by Gary Neville I think on Monday Night Football: Manchester United have 150 million fans across social media platforms. If they were to sell their games themselves for even £1 a game, then the Sky Sports and the BT Sports deals are big, but they’re certainly not £150m per game for each club. And that’s if it really was just £1 a game… you’d have to assume it’d be more like £20.”
“And I do think it’s a little too early to celebrate yet. The owners of these twelve clubs have been given a message, by not just the fans but the governing bodies, governments, broadcasters and all, that they essentially had no support. So they will have to go away and rethink their strategies, but I just don’t think it’s dead – I could see it raising its head again in a slightly more palatable form. A ‘Premflix’ type model for example where clubs end up cutting out the broadcasters and selling their own TV rights. How that would work I don’t know, because the TV rights are done domestically and internationally at different times. Things will change on the back of this, but I also don’t expect it to go away.”