What does the failed Super League say about merit and markets?

Relegate.

Relegation. The idea that if your team is near the bottom of a league it could be demoted to a lower league. For sports fans in the United States, this is a bizarre concept. No matter how long the Timberwolves dwell in the cellar of the NBA they will not be demoted to the g-league. For fans, cheap tickets to see all the hottest teams can be had, and the teams are profitable. In the world of soccer, if your team is legitimately bad, it moves down to a lower league and some other teams move up. This churn keeps things interesting, even if because of market concentration there tends to be little churn at the top. The annual top professional team is found through the champions league, where the top teams in each national league compete.

The benefits of such a system should be clear: more teams get more access to big time games, more total cities and towns get to have sporting events. Fandoms for football clubs are far more intense than those for professional sports in the United States because they are far more local, they aren’t really an expression of a national brand control cartel.

Last week an ill-fated proposal to form a “Super League” was floated by twelve soccer teams, six in England, three in Spain, and three in Italy. There was no involvement from France or Germany. The proposal abruptly collapsed for a number of good reasons.

Alex Shepard argues, we shouldn’t romanticize soccer as it is, extreme inequality has already rendered the Champions league boring. The new Super League would just formalize the dominance of the richest. It is worth noting that several of the teams in the “founding” group are not particularly strong. Eric Betts makes a compelling case that the owners of the richest club are so far culturally divorced from soccer that they have no idea what their fans actually want. From a business school perspective the Super League should be obvious, eliminate all competitive dynamics from the market and maximize yields. The thing about the case study model in business courses is that they are almost always examples of the Texas Sharpshooters fallacy: they romanticize a narrow explanation that is applied retroactively to the facts. Ken Early (cited by Betts) offers the strongest reading of the finances and the culture. The current soccer model has lead to runaway spending, some of the “founding teams” are at real risk of collapse and need to be saved with a cash infusion from market concentration. It also makes sense that the owners group of this new league would want a salary cap, after all none of this is about the quality of soccer games or local cultural service, but seeing to it that those who might get large rewards get them as quickly as possible.

Why is that about merit?

Soccer when working well is about winning games and moving up and down between wins based on actual on the field performance. Why would a middling English team be given control on that basis? The “founders” group never even completed their roster. Notice the internal dynamics as well, once the powerful group has eliminated mobility, they then constrain competitive dynamics. Even with a small relegation pool, the founders would allow five other clubs to join and leave their league to prove their quality, no meaningful information would be transmitted across the system.

And that is your introduction to the critique of merit, it isn’t the idea that talent isn’t real, but that the rhetoric of merit is used by powerful people to mask their grabs for dominance. This is a good starting point because the melodrama is so clear and the scheme so transparent. For those of you just getting started with these ideas you should be looking for times where powerful people in an institution are claiming permanent elevated status or times when mechanisms for change are shut down. In the American context, people in the powerful group will try to point out another group attempting to change status to both draw your attention but also to enforce the idea that they had deserved privileges in the first place.

More generally, the sporting market is failing. Ratings are falling, attendance is falling, the brands are too controlled and too clean. To use Burke’s term they are “rotten with perfection.” Of course this delivers windfalls to the current owners. At the end of the day, sports make money because we watch them. There is nothing intrinsic to dribbling a ball that fills a tummy or teaches you math. Sports are visceral, an important dimension of their appeal is that they are where speed and wits and will mean something, but all of that is conditioned on access to resources, training, and time. Sports, like everything else, are embedded in webs of social reproduction, they exist not because they crown the champion, but because of the worlds they produce. There is no merit in a billionaire flexing their fortune.

Associate Professor of Social Media, Oregon State: These are my opinions, not theirs. Read my book: Selling Social Media (Bloomsbury Academic), 2018.

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