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2021’s Top Ten: #9

The Super League drama, or a lesson in mass vs premium in sport – Episode 1: How did football become a mass product?

There is no other way to look at it, and for businesspeople, it has been absolutely clear since the 2008 Great Recession that there must be a “mass” and a “premium” product or service in every market. And then you can immediately refute this idea, because you can certainly find an area—and I can’t think of any sector or situation where I can’t point to both sooner or later—where this statement is not true. Perhaps one of the most fascinating questions in the sporting world in 2021 will be whether football is one of these exceptions, or whether it is no exception from all the other areas of our lives and the economy as a whole.

Nobody lost their marbles.

The announcement of the Super League’s genesis was not only a sensational sports story, but a story that went far beyond sport. But who really cares if a few football clubs decided to form a separate league? Well, if those few clubs are those clubs with the most fans and prestige, then everyone cares, it seems. Many people are trying to figure out what is behind it and why UEFA reacted the way it did. Obviously, we would like to believe that it is really the fans who are at the centre of it all, and that there are “good” and “bad” actors in this situation; of course, the uber-wealthy are always the baddies, so it is not difficult to turn public opinion against them. A lot of questions have been raised by this wave about club ownership and the responsibilities that comes with it. Then there were opinions about the protection of property, about the owner’s autonomy and right to make their own decisions, although these opinions were much quieter than those on the other side. Once this was all out in the open, it was, in fact, the “people’s” verdict that we saw and heard, which always distracts from the real reasons and motivations. That is always the danger. Moreover, if we speak the language of the people, we must always find goals for everyone that are clear, known, and objective. So, money, power, the abuse of it, etc. At this point, we forget that the owners are just “people”, and as such, they have intrinsic motivations that go beyond money. In fact, the ultrarich people are almost never motivated by money, and we need to take a much more complex approach to understand their motivations. For the moment, the whole initiative has been slammed, as almost everyone has come out strongly against the founders of the league. But do we really think that there was no basis for all this? Do we really think that a few rich people have “lost their marbles”, and in their power frenzy, have run out of things to do? That’s not how it works. We were talking about a concrete concept and, as a strategist, I can say with confidence that such ideas do not come about in two days, even in the field of sport. However, since no one really wanted to get to the bottom of it, we can say unequivocally that the situation has not been resolved. And if there is no solution, this concept will come back, ever stronger and more conscious, from someone, somewhere.

Eligibility test

Sport is big business, and for this reason, it must be examined as such. Obviously, for many supporters, it is one of the greatest sources of pleasure in their lives, but it has to be financed by somebody. In some countries, this is done on a pure market economy basis, and the owner runs it as a business. There are others where the state is in control of the main policies and often control some or all of the property. There are also combinations of the two. However, if we are talking about a club that is not state-owned, the owner is bound to think in business terms sooner or later, no matter how much they love the sport. And if I look at football from a business point of view, which means I have to put it in one of the “mass” or “premium” business categories, there is no question that it will be in the mass category. Business decisionmakers know full well that this does not refer to quality, but to the “product structure” itself, the condition of the product, and, most importantly, the raw size of the target group to which it belongs. Although there are different interpretations of “premium” in business, the first condition for a strategically accepted “true premium” is that it should not be available to everyone; only a small but well-defined group of customers or users should have access to the product. If we look back over the years, football has gone in the exact opposite direction. The sport is becoming more and more familiar and popular all over the world. To mention just a few milestones: the inclusion of the African continent in world football, the emergence and acceptance of the traditional sports of the USA, but also the significant increase in the number of teams participating in the World Cup or even the European Championship. The standard of the game is rising, there are bigger stars, and a higher level of skill is required to be successful. But one thing is certain: from a business-strategic point of view, football has clearly become a “mass product”.

To be continued…