ESL and the ‘fans of the future’

So the proposed European Super League has caused quite a stir. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a proposal be met with such universal disapproval from fans, media, NGBs, federations and governments.

Putting aside the general debate on whether this is good for the game as a whole (I don’t think it is), does the strategy of these big clubs make any sense?

The core proposition from the likes of Man Utd, Real Madrid etc…is that they have a much bigger global fan base than most of the teams they have to play on a regular basis, and they don’t feel that they are being rewarded for that as well as they should be. This is exacerbated by the fact that some of those big clubs are in quite big financial trouble and/or highly leveraged. 

A Tweet from BBC’s Dan Roan caught my eye this morning. I found this is interesting because it signals a deliberate shift away from “legacy” fans (presumably the older, more traditional fan who physically goes to a lot of games) and towards a much younger, global, digital/social fan. 

It is undeniable that these super clubs have a much bigger global fan base than the rest. Around 515m people have at least some interest in Real Madrid, 491m for Barcelona and 440m for Manchester United. 

These figures are from GWI which covers 47 of the most developed countries and people aged 16-64, so the true figures will be higher. In 2019 Kantar estimated that Man Utd has 1.1bn fans, consisting of 467m ‘fans’ and 635m ‘followers’. 

It tails off pretty quickly once you get beyond the top 11, with Spurs (inexplicably an ESL founding member) lagging behind the likes of Everton, Leicester, Celtic and Monaco. 

If we exclude people who just “have an interest in” these clubs and actually consider themselves to be fans (either as their main or second team), the order doesn’t change much, but the numbers drop by 30-35%. 

So there is clearly a large but “follower but not fan” audience that these clubs want to tap into and find a better way of getting value from. It might not also surprise you to know that the vast majority of these fans/followers are not based in the club’s home country.

% Home% Global
Atletico Madrid4.3%95.7%
Inter Milan2.9%97.1%
Real Madrid2.4%97.6%
AC Milan2.0%98.0%
Man Utd1.4%98.6%
Man City1.0%99.0%

If Man Utd really do have 1bn followers, their revenues of around $700m and market cap of $2.6bn looks pretty paltry, compared with, say, TikTok (689m active users and a valuation of upwards of $60bn). It’s the active users bit that makes the difference. These clubs have no direct relationship with (or income from) a huge proportion of the people who follow them – the interaction mostly takes place via broadcast partners or on social media platforms. 

The big clubs have been trying to address this with platforms like Dugout, but they have clearly become frustrated at having to share the media rights money with all those other little clubs, and this is at the heart of the ESL project.  

The charts below show how this casual fan interest is more prevalent among the younger age groups, and this is what the big clubs are focused on – in the belief that young audiences are less wedded to the traditional league formats, more focused on individual stars, have shorter attention spans and so on. There is some evidence to support that here.

Support as main or second club

Have an interest in

From a purely commercial perspective for these clubs, the ESL idea makes sense and is a natural evolution of the Premier League and Champions League projects. This works if you view football clubs simply as normal businesses, entertainment brands or content producers. But they’re not – they are sports businesses operating within an ecosystem that derives a lot of its value from the essential drama and unpredictability that comes with the chance that a small team could work its way up and eventually win the Premier League, or make it to the Champions League. Or the chance of a big club suffering the odd relegation. It may be increasingly unlikely, but Leicester have shown the way recently. Even fans of the big clubs recognise the value of this.  

The other big factor I think being overlooked is just how reliant football is on having “proper” fans (including away fans) buying tickets and turning up the grounds to create an atmosphere. We’ve seen in the last 12 months just how much is lost from the football “product” when those fans aren’t there. The ESL risks alienating the fans who turn up to create that value, and I’m not at all convinced that the young “future fans” (mostly living far away from the stadium) are going to replace them.

Maybe the future fan is different and really doesn’t care about any of that, but if that’s the case then football at all levels has a big job on its hands to turn this casual following into proper fandom, including a willingness to physically show up to games.

We may end up with a compromise that sees the ESL replace the Champions League, and the teams continue to play in their domestic league, but that can only work if there’s a realistic chance of other teams qualifying for the ESL each season. Or it might all just turn out to be a power play to get UEFA to give up more ground within the existing Champions League. It will be fascinating to see how it plays out over the next few days and weeks.

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