In the course of a few days, the European football scene has been turned on its head. It appears that, for the moment, the domestic leagues, the national governments, the supporters and even the players themselves have quashed what can only be described as a cynical power grab by the sport’s largest clubs in the attempted formation of the Super League.
This entire episode has caused me to reflect on the last time sports I cared about experienced a similar cataclysm. For the readers, especially non-American ones, who don’t follow American college sports, the beginning of the last decade was marked by the upending of the traditional order of the world of college football, and by extension virtually every other facet of major college athletics.
The circumstances aren’t entirely different from what transpired in the formation of the Super League. The Big Ten, driven like Tolkien-esque dwarves to plunder ever deeper and more greedily, set off a chain reaction of movements within the college football world. The end result was a shattered world for many fans, including myself.
Part of what has made college football special has always been the magic of rivalry and the traditions they bring with them. Beating a team you hated just meant more. For me, a West Virginia University alumnus and fan, our money-driven move to the Big XII Conference has just sapped that magic. Like sure, I want to win and enjoy winning but there’s just something rather antiseptic about beating Iowa State instead of Pitt.
I grew up hating Pitt with the burning fury of a thousand stars exploding at once. The Backyard Brawl meant something. Even if you had a losing season, beating Pitt made it all worthwhile. Hell, Pitt’s biggest accomplishment in the last twenty years was denying WVU a shot at the national title. In our new conference, I can barely work up an annoyance with the hubris of Texas.
The move has also had some material effects for the actual product on the field. From 1993 until our exit in 2012, WVU won seven conference titles and secured a BCS (or equivalent) bowl bid four times. Only Miami equaled or exceeded either of those marks. In the near decade since, WVU has never finished higher than third in the Big XII or sniffed a major bowl. As a Spurs supporter, it’s hard not to think about that.
There’s also the fact that, for the most part, our fans are no longer able to travel to road games with any frequency. This has hit especially hard for the large number of “expatriated” WVU fans and alumni. In the Big East, there were any number of easy, driveable road games. In our new home, our closest conference away game is alternatively either Kansas or Iowa State, over a 12 hour drive in either direction.
Though I am still rather new-ish to the world of European soccer fandom, I have found a lot of kinship with the supporters. Possibly because, outside of college football, you would be hard pressed to find another major sport that is so deeply invested in tradition and nostalgia. The supporters and their passion for the game are at the heart of what makes the sport so unique and alluring. The prospect of losing much of that due to the Super League, I think more than anything else, is what has led me to my current reflective state.
I think this all resonates too because my teams then and now had little choice but to compete in the arms race. I know that will be a controversial opinion, but in my opinion I feel it to be entirely correct. Daniel Levy, much like Oliver Luck at WVU, had little choice but to go along with the Super League. It’s unfortunate, but again, college realignment offers a frightening parallel.
WVU could have, like Tottenham, chosen to remain behind when our peers left the Big East for greener passages. We would have been a foundational member of the new American Athletic Conference, and would have almost certainly remained the biggest fish in that pond. Cincinnati, not by choice, did exactly that. They even earned a BCS bid this season, but they would leave the AAC behind in a hot minute. Why? Because this is all driven by money. As a member of the Big XII, WVU earns over 20m a year from the ESPN/Fox TV deal. In the AAC, Cincinnati made less than half of that last year and were left out of the College Football Playoff (another cynical money grab), despite being undefeated.
To be clear, I don’t want to give Levy a huge pass here. He does have some agency and I doubt he was merely passive in the SL creation — if history is any guide, but getting left behind is also not an option in our position. So, once again, I am just along for the ride. We’re all along for the ride. And that is why this hurts even more.
Even if the Super League fails, as now seems inevitable, European football has been hijacked in the name of greed. They will try again. The clubs will say that this was about making the product better. The product they put out in the ESL would have almost certainly led to some amazing, watchable soccer for neutrals. A league where you see a match day with mid-table battles of the likes of Atletico Madrid vs Arsenal and Spurs vs AC Milan instead of Fulham vs Palace will absolutely get more eyes, but it would be absolutely soulless.
Yes, we’ll still have the North London Derby, but what about the other London clubs? What about goofy FA Cup draws that send you to an eighth tier club as a big six member? That’s all part of the magic. If and when the clubs succeed in sucking the soul out of soccer on the altar of greed — just like college football has been for me for the last decade — that magic will be gone.
Soccer has dodged a bullet for now, but the threat of what the Super League represents remains. It sucks and I hate it.