Super league fiasco: a financial parable for our times

The European Super League will go down as one of the best examples of the worst financial proposals in sporting history.

Motivated by the prospect of increased revenues, a cabal of the world’s most powerful clubs plotted a new breakaway tournament aimed at ousting the Champions League.

Just two days later their plans were in ruins: the backlash had destroyed the careers and reputations of club executives, unleashed a wave of revolt among fans and players, and set off what could become a new wave of investigations and regulation across the sport.

There are parallels in the world of investment, with lessons for both shareholders and business.

Lesson 1: ignore key stakeholders at your peril

Club owners were focused on rebuilding profits, but appeared to give no thought to how plans would be received by their stakeholders: the fans, the players and the communities that support the game.

The proponents of the scheme appeared to underestimate entirely the power of collective action.

Marcus Rashford’s tweet on 20 April, quoting Matt Busby’s words that “football is nothing without fans”, was retweeted 104,000 times and attracted half a million likes.

This was just one example of a storm of social media response from players, fans, commentators and politicians.

Investing parallels are clear. Businesses that fail to consider the wider impact of their operations – on the environment or their staff, for example – can expect a backlash. These are the “E” and “S” factors in ESG investing, which aim to consider the environmental and social risks a company faces in order to deliver positive returns for all its stakeholders, including shareholders.

Ignoring these issues (think for example about pay conditions for workers in gig-economy industries) isn’t just harmful for the people it impacts: it poses financial risk for shareholders.

Interestingly, those clubs that were more in touch with their stakeholders, or perhaps had less of a pure financial motivation, were either not involved in the original plans or were the first to retreat from them.

Lesson 2: popular movements can change policy, impacting all

When the groundswell of fans started to show their anger, politicians and figureheads quickly mooted action.

On the day the scheme emerged, Boris Johnson damned it as “damaging” in a tweet which drew 40,000 likes.

That was just the start. He has since talked about dropping a “legislative bomb” on the sport, indicating that regulation could be ushered in to shut off attempts by “cartel” to set up breakaway forms of competition. Governments elsewhere have made similar noises.

The Duke of Cambridge’s later tweet that “the united voice of football fans has been heard and listened to” attracted 23,000 likes.

There are parallels here with climate change and other urgent issues of our times.

Not all shareholders place equal priority on, for example, the efforts of businesses in which they invest to cut their carbon footprint. But if social movements force legislative change – as has happened in the sphere of climate change, where it is likely to gather pace – then all investors are involved.

Lesson 3: tune in to the message of the times

If there’s one broader message from this mishap it’s that the Super League backers were entirely deaf to the themes of our age. Anything-goes capitalism has been under fire since the fallout of the financial crisis more than a decade ago.

The outcomes have been manifest in political, financial and social trends ever since.

Investors, by owning businesses and hence touching the lives of customers, employees and wider society, are tied in to the imperatives of the age.

In his recent book Value(s), Mark Carney outlines the three “lies” of finance used repeatedly to justify excessive risk-taking and greed. They are: “this time is different”; “the market is always right” and “markets are moral”.

The idea that the Super League was created to save football for young people who were bored of the current league format proved to be untrue: this time wasn’t “different”. Meanwhile, the assumption that fans would eventually accept the changes was also unfounded – the market is not “always right”. And finally it became increasingly evident that the proposal was aimed at maximising shareholder welfare over stakeholder welfare – namely that of the fans, playing and coaching staff, and community surrounding the sport.

The failure to incorporate moral and responsible considerations in the plan was arguably the greatest reason for its downfall.

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