During April, we saw the dramatic emergence of the European Super League (ESL), and its dismantling in a 48 hour period. This article looks at the reasons why the new league failed to gain traction by looking at its environmental, social and governance (ESG) credentials. 

    The league was to consist of 15 founding members, 12 of which were announced on the 18th of April 2021; Liverpool, Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham from England; Barcelona, Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid from Spain; and Juventus, Inter Milan and AC Milan from Italy. These members would be a permanent feature, without the threat of relegation traditionally associated with competitive European sport.

    A further five teams were to be invited to participate, on a rotational basis, and earning the right through exceptional performance in their respective domestic leagues. Underwritten by US financial giant, JP Morgan Chase, unprecedented financial incentives were on offer for the clubs involved. A sum of between £2.7bn and £3.5bn [1] was to be distributed amongst the founding members, with further riches promised, based on a broadcasting deal being reached.

    Cracks started to appear the moment the announcement was made that the teams planned to breakaway, with universal outrage amongst the footballing community and beyond. Following a tumultuous 48 hours, which drew pressure from people across the continent, ranging from fans to the UK prime minister [2], clubs started crumble under the pressure and one by one started to withdraw, tails between their legs.

    Were the so called ‘dirty dozen’ being judged on their ESG credentials, it’s my opinion that they left a lot to be desired. As sound responsible investing and stewardship practices are key considerations for IMX when evaluating managers, I thought it interesting to explore where parallels can be drawn between the ESL and ESG.

    One of the cornerstones of the social aspect of ESG is customer responsibility [3]. As a company is nothing without its customers, a football club is nothing without its fans. The ESL is a prime example of what can happen when an organisation fails to consider its customers or, in this case, completely disregards them, with supporters being disrespectfully branded ‘legacy fans’. [4]

    Football is a traditionally blue-collar sport, and the idea of the ESL clubs franchising out into Europe, would put the ability to attend a majority of the games out of reach for these ‘legacy fans’. The average season ticket, across all six clubs, already costs an average of £960 [5] (4% of the average fans’ post-tax salary [6,7]). This is before considering merchandise, travel to/from games and any other costs.  With Sky Sports pundit, and ex Manchester United player, Gary Neville going as far as to describe the league as a “criminal act against the fans” [8] it’s clear that fans weren’t at the forefront of the clubs’ thinking (well, maybe one, with the initials JPM).  

    With Liverpool fan group, Spion Kop 1906, stating on Twitter “We feel we can no longer give our support to a club which puts financial greed above [the] integrity of the game” [9], fans made it clear that integrity matters. With the removal of competitive integrity, the ESL would cut off their respective domestic pyramids, and in turn domestic grass roots.

    Eleven of the 12 founders are in the top 14 ranked clubs by revenue, according to Deloitte. [10] Due to the overwhelming size of the clubs involved in founding the ESL, the loss to their respective league systems could have proven catastrophic, given the current flow of money down the pyramid. As detailed in figure 1, these clubs generate a disproportionate amount of revenue in comparison with their domestic leagues. [10,11]

    Figure 1: Source: Deloitte 2019 football money league

    A league, or industry displaying revenue disparity across its members doesn’t necessarily constitute grounds for poor social responsibility. Where issues can arise is when the monied member(s) utilise that disparity to unfairly create a monopolistic, or oligopolistic environment, effectively strangling competition.

    By completely discarding the threat of relegation for the founding clubs, the ESL would have created an exclusionary monopoly over elite level European football. From a competitive standpoint alone, the lack of financial accountability on performance levels would surely have seen the standard of play associated with current elite football, e.g. the UEFA Champions League, slip.

    From an ESG perspective, monopolies can breed poor social and governance practices. With the removal of the threat of competition – in this case in the form of a fixed league of elite clubs – organisations can control prices, limit accessibility, implement poorer working conditions and have less incentive to innovate.

    It’s not just conjecture to associate the ESL with poor ESG. One sustainability rating agency, Standard Ethics, downgraded the ESL’s financial backer, JP Morgan from an ‘adequate’ rating to ‘non-compliant’, stating ‘Standard Ethics judges both the orientations shown by the football clubs involved in the project and those of the US bank to be contrary to sustainability best practices’. [12]

    So, when a club, or company, displays poor environmental, social or governance traits, what can the various stakeholders do? With respect to the ESL, the impact of stakeholder activism has been abundantly apparent. The fact that fan pressure fundamentally shut down a multi-billion-pound enterprise (for the time being), within a matter of hours, should evidence our belief that good stewardship can have a profound effect when dealing with issues related to ESG. In a ‘real world’ example, the recent investor pressure on British supermarket giant, Tesco to extend their commitment to ensuring healthy food is a priority pays homage to this fact. [13]

    Although football may seem a world away from the investment industry at times, two of the 12 clubs – Manchester United and Juventus – are publicly listed companies, with Nick Train’s Lindsell Train UK Equity Fund being a shareholder of both. In fact the fund is the second largest shareholder of both clubs. In an example of shareholders engaging with companies who have displayed poor ESG credentials, and in light of the two clubs’ decision to join the ESL, Train held meetings with both clubs, stating ‘At these meetings we expressed our disappointment about the reputational damage Juventus and Manchester United have inflicted on themselves’ [14].

    In a hopeful development, some of the clubs have acknowledged their wrongdoings and expressed a desire for change. In order to ensure supporter sentiment is considered as part of the club’s decision-making process, Chelsea have appointed three supporter advisors, granting them access to future board meetings. [15] Liverpool are also in similar discussions with their fan groups. [16] One can only hope this is the first step toward mending the bridge of trust between the clubs and their supporters, and that future clubs, or businesses take notice of, and appreciate the power of stakeholder activism.

    References:

    1. The money behind the European Super League: JPMorgan (yahoo.com) (converted from USD)
    2. Boris Johnson threatens to use ‘legislative bomb’ to stop European Super League | European Super League | The Guardian
    3. https://www.ftserussell.com/data/sustainability-and-esg-data/esg-ratings
    4. https://twitter.com/danroan/status/1384062591450771465?s=20      
    5. Ranking the Average Prices of Premier League Club's Season Tickets Ahead of 2019/20 Season - Sports Illustrated
    6. Premier League's highest earning fans revealed - and gap is wide between Manchester United and City supporters - Mirror Online
    7. The Salary Calculator - Take-Home tax calculator
    8. Gary Neville 'disgusted' by Premier League clubs involved in breakaway European Super League | Football News | Sky Sports
    9. Spion Kop 1906 on Twitter: "We, along with other groups involved in flags, will be removing our flags from The Kop. We feel we can no longer give our support to a club which puts financial greed above integrity of the game." / Twitter
    10. Deloitte Football Money League 2020
    11. Record revenues reported for 2018/19 for English and European football clubs ahead of the financial impact of COVID-19 | Deloitte UK
    12. JPMorgan's European Super League Debacle Is About Stakeholders - Bloomberg
    13. Tesco Group PLC extends healthy food commitment after pressure from shareholders (proactiveinvestors.co.uk)
    14. Train slams Man Utd and Juventus over Super League - Citywire
    15. Chelsea introduces supporter presence at board meetings | Official Site | Chelsea Football Club (chelseafc.com)
    16. Liverpool supporters’ group Spirit of Shankly reveal positive meeting with club hierarchy | The Independent