Why did the European Super League fail? More lessons in idolatry

It has been fascinating to see the way that the European Super League proposal collapsed as quickly as it was revealed. So, what caused this to happen?  Well various explanations have been given as to what made the difference including:

  • Fan power and an example of collectivist communitarianism. The fans stood up to big business and capital and won.
  • It was the threat of government intervention, the fear of legislation coming in to reform club ownership in the UK with the possibility of a German style system where the fans had an automatic majority on the board.
  • It was free market economics doing its job.
  • It was all about Brexit really
  • I’m sure some people will want to believe that it was their personal intervention or that of someone else. I mean, yesterday morning I wrote an article here and things quickly unravelled after that!

Well, this feels like one of those situations where everyone can take what they want out of it. Though actually none of those arguments seems to really stand up. After all, wasn’t it still financially viable for the clubs to go ahead with their project even if that alienated local support.  That appears to rule out the role of the market but it also rules out the role of the fans too.  The Government did talk big this week but would there have really been both the political willpower and the time to see reforms through.  There would have needed to have been primary legislation and no doubt this would have been slowed down by backbench opposition, concerns from party donors and potential legal action too.  I’m not sure that Boris Johnson could do much more than posture and bluster here, unless there were threats to start poking around in other aspects of the owners’ business dealings.

Oddly, the suggestion that has been most immediately dismissed probably has the most going for it.  Students of Free Market economics will argue that properly understood, the market behaved exactly as it was expected to.  Whilst the supporters individually and collectively might have had very little consumer buying power, the market functions in a little more complex kind of way. There are three aspects to this.

First of all, whilst advocates for free market economics argue against government intervention, they do not assume that the market operates in a vacuum.  Rather, it is affected by circumstances such as geography, that’s why goods are cheaper to sell in markets that don’t require extended transport networks.  So, the market does adjust to outside factors, it’s just that advocates argue that governments should not be one of them, that even if they think they are responding to correct some of those outside factors, they may do more harm than good.

 Secondly, markets are interconnected, so why would sponsors get cold feet if the supporters not just of the clubs involved but of all the other clubs in the Premier and Football League start making their feelings known? Well, it is because those supporters have buying power in regards to the sponsor’s own products and also the ability to influence others who may not care about football but do care about how their husband, wife, dad, son, daughter, grandson, granddaughter feel. 

Thirdly, free markets also need products, services and brands to sell. Supporters are not just customers but are part of the product and so too are the players and the managers. What makes football attractive as a televised sport is that you aren’t just watching the game itself but from your living room you are joining in the atmosphere of the event. The pre-match build up for the cup final, seeing the stadium fill, hearing the chants, joining in with Abide with Me is all part of the package.  Football stripped of its noisy crowds loses something as a TV product. Furthermore, it wasn’t just the fans that were making noise but the managers and players were too, some out of fear of losing national team call ups, others concerned at the loss of the challenge of genuine competition.  Once clubs were going to lose access to other competitions too, I think it became clear that the ESL no longer had a truly attractive product to offer. That’s when the wheels really came off.

Now, I’m saying this not to particularly defend free market economics here. That’s not my interest but rather to do two things.  First of all because I think we can be so caught up in describing what “ought to be the case” that we become blind to what “is the case.” We cannot even acknowledge what “is” the case because we are so captivated by empiricism that we think acknowledging the reality somehow justifies it.

But it does not. I’ve explained how Free-market economics stopped EFL not to show that we can depend upon them but to show that we cannot. Free market economics meant that a badly thought out plan didn’t get off the ground. However, they did not provide us with a means to assess the  moral rights and wrongs of the proposed Super League. Nor, did they deal with the underlying issues. Those six clubs still are run by wealthy businessmen with no connection to the local communities or the history of the clubs. The 12 clubs still hold significant power and influence in the international game, tickets are still going to be excessively expensive and smaller clubs lower down the league will continue to struggle and go out of business. And if football is just about business, about making money then you might argue “so what.”

However football is not just a business affair. It is about communities, it is about a shared pastime. It is about the opportunity for people to do things together, whether that’s playing the game or watching the game.

So what am I asking us to take away from this? It’s my same point about idolatry but from a different angle. Even many staunch free marketeers would argue that whilst the Free Market is a good model for buying and selling goods and services, it is not the be all and end all.  There are things that are nothing to do with buying and selling.  Some of us would argue strongly that football should be one of them along with other examples of sport and recreation.   Indeed, the fact that 15-16000 fans will turn up to watch Bradford City languishing in League Two kind of proves the point. Football is not about consumers picking and choosing who to pay to watch. 

So, just as we should not make idols out of the sport itself or out of the government, nor should we make idols out of the Free Market. And that’s important because at times I think we allow the church to function under those rules. We treat churches as consumers and pick and choose. This means that some churches will grow large and others close. It means that there probably will be enough churches around to serve the needs of those who want to avail themselves of their services. The market will function. It will “do its job.” However, that does not mean that the right things will happen. It doesn’t mean that God’s people will be rightly fed on his word and it doesn’t mean that the Gospel will go out to those who need to hear it.

If we shouldn’t have our personal idols, we definitely should not bring them into the church!

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