The European Super League: What can be learned from cricket’s experiences of change?
The announcement of the European Super League in football caused outrage and despair in equal measures and seemed to unite the football community in opposition.
Gary Neville’s seething, live on Sky, indicated the level of hostility. So, 12 Clubs (6 from England, 3 from Italy and 3 from Spain) were prepared to break with UEFA and form their own midweek competition with enticingly huge up front cash incentives and no relegation. Social media duly scoffed at the claims of Arsenal and Tottenham to be part of a European elite.
Threats of player bans and expulsion from competitions raised the tempo and the Government threatened to intervene to protect the national game. Supporters erected banners outside grounds and wanted their own fan banners removed from inside the stadia. What was perhaps the most surprising was that this multi billion euro competition was launched almost secretly, no televised event and slick presentation but a rather mundane statement. Within 2 days it was seemingly all over with the English Clubs beating a hasty withdrawal in the face of almost universal criticism.
The outpourings of betrayal rather overlooked the fact that the Premier League was born out of a split away from the Football League in 1992. The League took unsuccessful legal action to protect their position, but the Premier League prevailed, and the top clubs duly profited.
Further back in history Football and Rugby divided and Rugby further split into the amateur Union game and the professionalised League. This bitter dispute was to last some 100 years. Other sports such as Snooker and Darts have witnessed acrimonious divisions as entrepreneurs have spotted new opportunities to exploit sport normally linked to broadcasting and media companies.
It is perhaps surprisingly cricket that offers some pertinent examples of how serious divisions can be managed and the game protected and developed. Cricket managed at the outset to accommodate professional players even if their names were recorded differently on the score card and originally had separate changing facilities and entrances onto the field.
The division was highlighted by the Gentlemen v Players fixture and although there were clearly class distinctions between the two groups there was no outright prohibition. The ever dominant MCC had formally ceded sole control over the County game, to the TCCB in 1968, in order that cricket could be in receipt of public funding. There were undoubted controversies most notably the D’Olivera affair in 1968 and South Africa was a running sore for a considerable time.
Kerry Packer and the World Cricket Series
However, nothing prepared the administrators for the chasm produced by Kerry Packer’s brash intervention into cricket in 1977. Almost inevitably the dispute was driven by the increasingly important broadcasting rights held by the Governing Bodies. The refusal of the Australian Cricket Board (ACB) to countenance Packer’s bid but rather maintain their relationship with the traditional state broadcaster, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), paved the way for the conflict.
Rather than walk away Packer set out to create his own rival competition, World Series Cricket, a dauting feat given WSC had no players nor access to any grounds. With the aid of Tony Greig, the then England captain, he recruited the top players to his new version of the game.
The authorities chose to stand and fight, banning players and seeking to exert whatever restrictions they could muster. In England the ban was humiliating overturned by the High Court leaving the cricket authorities in a state of disorganisation. WSC took place and offered innovations (or gimmicks depending on your viewpoint) such as coloured clothing and day/night matches.
Inevitably in the face of financial pressures, opposing competitions were not sustainable, the ACB negotiated, and Packer got his broadcasting rights. The innovations were duly incorporated and the game prospered.
The Indian Premier League (IPL) was also born out of conflict with the original unsanctioned Indian Cricket League (ICL). As with the Sony Betamax and the JVC video recorder it’s not always profitable to be the first innovator.
The BCCI manged to stifle and then strangle the ICL through a combination of players bans and restrictions and crucially incentives. The development of the IPL then offered the lucrative alternative that had attracted the players much as WSC had done. This model has now been replicated throughout the cricket world.
The latest development is the Abu Dhabi T10 league though it remains to be seen if this can prosper alongside the longer version although a number of factors seem in its favour.
Even though the ESL project quickly crumbled (Real Madrid President Florento Perez insists it is still alive) history shows that once identified new opportunities can be eagerly grasped once the circumstances permit. In this case a global broadcasting market that is deemed under exploited. Perhaps the ESL’s major mistake was ringfencing the competition which made it an easy target to attack, yet there are other sports without relegation.
The timing in the midst of a COVID pandemic was hardly likely to attract much sympathy even if the big clubs have incurred heavy losses. WSC and the IPL both show that realistic innovation needs to be embraced and adapted if conflict is to be sidestepped and compromise reached.
Going back further in time the Rothmans International Cavaliers pioneered the 40 over game long before the authorities took over the bandwagon with the John Player’s County League in 1969. Expelling the Big 6 clubs from the Premier League would have had a catastrophic impact on the finances of the remaining clubs who are over dependent on broadcasting revenue.
The razmataz, excitement and most importantly the success of the IPL clearly demonstrates that new audiences can be engaged if the format is right. It will be interesting to see if The Hundred is similarly embraced and what the implications might then be for the domestic T20 competition and the lurking 10 over version.
Dr Steve Greenfield
Professor of Sports Law and Practice
Westminster Law School
Editor: Entertainment and Sports Law Journal
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