There was a time when British cricket authorities described Australian media mogul Kerry Packer as the brash leader of a sporting circus.
That was because under their noses he devised, signed, sealed and delivered a rebel competition called World Series Cricket that revolutionised the game.
He had hit on something that has grown in value every year since – a sporting contest designed for television audiences.
Twenty years later, war was proclaimed in rugby league.
Packer’s rival, Rupert Murdoch, bankrolled a rebel competition called the Super League, designed to attract subscribers to his Fox pay-TV network.
It was in opposition to the established competition backed by Packer and Optus Vision.
The two sides faced off in drawn-out court battles that ended lifelong friendships.
The negotiated peace was the highly successful NRL competition that has been in existence since.
The outcry was loud and predictable
This past week, 12 of the most successful and powerful football clubs in Europe announced they had formed a made-for-television competition called the European Super League (ESL).
The outcry was loud, swift, and effective. It was also predictable.
People, generally, do not like change – sports fans especially.
If the ESL went ahead, said fans and other critics, it would signal the “death of football”. They claimed it was akin to “a declaration of war”, and the game was being “stolen by the rich”, led by a group of “liars and snakes”.
It was emotional stuff providing the type of fertile ground politicians crave, allowing them to be painted as a man or woman of the people.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson seized the moment.
The new competition, he said, offended “the basic principles of competition” and he would take “whatever action necessary” to prevent it from taking place.
“These clubs, these names, originate from famous towns and cities in our country,” he said.
“I don’t think that it is right that they should be somehow dislocated from their home towns, home cities, taken and turned into international brands and commodities that just circulate the planet, propelled by the billions of banks, without any reference to fans and to those who have loved them all their lives.”
Could this be just another power play?
The cheering was so loud it was difficult to find a pause long enough to consider what had actually been said.
The English Premier League clubs the British PM was referring to were Manchester City, Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham — half of the 12 teams named as “foundation members” of the ESL.
All of them, with the exception of Tottenham, have been owned by foreigners for years.
The clubs have been “international brands and commodities” for some time owned by Americans, a Russian and an Emirati, who have injected millions of dollars into making them the most successful teams in the world’s number one domestic football competition.
They have fans and supporter groups right around the world.
The ESL had made no mention of ripping the teams away from their loyal fans.
“Our 12 founder clubs represent billions of fans across the globe and 99 European trophies,” a statement read, adding the plan was to create “a regular flow of headline fixtures”.
It said little else, leaving many close observers to wonder whether this was just another power play on the twisting road of football politics designed to eke out a greater share of the next broadcast deal being negotiated by the European governing body, UEFA.
Away from the headlines, a different story was unfolding
What was at stake, if the new league actually went ahead, was the certain relegation of the top-tier English Premier League — itself created from top teams breaking away from the Football League as they chased a more lucrative television deal.
Fans, convinced their teams were being hijacked by billionaires in private jets tearing them from the clubs they’d been reared to support, became the public face of the latest in a history of so-called rebel leagues.
They have since been congratulated widely for the collapse of ESL only hours after it was floated.
Privately, away from the media headlines, a different story was unfolding.
The full facts might never be known, such is the multi-billion-dollar reality of opaque sports governance where conflicts of interest are the norm rather than the exception.
While the UK Prime Minister was at one with the fans during the week, some of his staff and trusted advisors were busy behind the scenes.
According to The Times, Mr Johnson’s most trusted aide and envoy to the Gulf, Lord Udny-Lister, told officials in the United Arab Emirates that participation in the ESL would damage bi-lateral relations.
The Emiratis were quick to respond.
Almost immediately, Manchester City, owned by the UAE’s Sheikh Mansour, announced it was withdrawing from the ESL.
Rumours began circulating that European Super League signatories would not be welcome at certain grounds, that security and policing at games would not be provided, and visas for international players would be difficult to obtain.
One by one, each of the Premier League teams that had signed up, withdrew.
It won’t be ‘the last chapter’
Dr Katarina Pijetlovic, author of EU Sports Law and Break Away Leagues in Football, believes anybody involved in the formation of the ESL “would have instantly foreseen practical, legal and political risk”.
She told The Ticket it was “partly, at least, a hoax”.
“This wasn’t a serious or genuine attempt because any serious breakaway league or alternative league of any kind, particularly the Super League where the money involved – we’re talking billions and we’re talking powerful investors such as JP Morgan behind them – everybody would do their due diligence,” she said.
“[This] hasn’t happened, not even the basics were covered.
“I can’t see that this was a genuine attempt … if this was a serious project then it was extremely badly planned, organised, executed, communicated … and so on every level it has not been thought through.”
Dr Pijetlovic said that while it would not be the “last chapter we are going to see”, it was unlikely the ESL would go ahead “in the form that it was proposed”.
Now, a government review into English football might consider restricting foreign ownership of teams and hand some of the power to fans, as is the norm in Germany where clubs operate under what is known as the “50+1 rule”.
Put simply, investors can buy into German teams, but more than 50 per cent of the shares must always be held by the club’s members.
The Law in Sport knowledge hub, with more than 21,000 members globally, held a two-hour webinar midweek discussing the European Super League with experts from commercial law, employment law, broadcast deals and more.
Almost without dissent, the panellists agreed the ESL proposition was not dead and there was more to come.
Asked whether he could dispel the idea that the ESL announcement was a stunt designed to wrestle power from the controlling body UEFA, Law in Sport CEO Sean Cottrell said: “I’m not sure you can”.
“I wouldn’t dispel anything at the moment,” he said.
“One of the problems in all of this, for me, has been the lack of transparency across the board.
“Most of the analysis … is based on a lot of assumptions … as we see who does or does not take [legal] action on either side we will have a much clearer idea of what’s actually happened.
“I do think there’s real tensions between ownership, between clubs in the ECA (European Clubs Association) structure, the ECA’s power and influence in UEFA, and power and influence in world football. I think that’s part of the story.”
Household names in Australia
Until this week, the Chairman of the ECA had been Andrea Agnelli, the president of Italian club Juventus, recognised as the driving force behind the ESL cartel.
At the same time he was representing the collective of European clubs in negotiations with UEFA, he was plotting with 11 others to announce the European Super League.
His position being untenable, he resigned.
The void was filled by Qatari Nasser Al-Khelaifi, the president of French powerhouse club Paris St Germain, fanning geo-political flames further.
Khelaifi is the chairman of beIN Media, with a large portfolio of global football rights, including the UEFA Champions League.
He is the chairman of Qatar Sports Investments, the Qatar Tennis Federation and is a member of the organising committee for the Club World Cup.
His country will host the FIFA Men’s World Cup in 2022 but it is also at the centre of a diplomatic crisis and blockade with other Gulf States, notably the UAE – owners of Manchester City.
Gulf entities have become household names in Australia, too, through sports investments and sponsorships.
It’s not unusual to see the logos of Qatar Airways, Emirates and Etihad Airways on team uniforms and sponsors boards at Australian sports grounds.
But it’s not only the Gulf region making inroads.
Sport is ‘low-hanging fruit’
China has stated its intention not only to host a future edition of the FIFA Men’s World Cup, but to win it.
The chairman of Chinese conglomerate Suning, Steven Zhang, owns Inter Milan – another one of the clubs that signed up to the ESL.
China is waiting on the sidelines, according to Professor of International Security Studies at the USAF Air War College in Alabama, Dr Amit Gupta.
He says the amount of money China plans to spend will dwarf anything else in sport.
“If you’re talking money, [President] Xi Jinping has laid out a sports plan for China,” he said.
“He said, ‘we want to set up an 850-billion-dollar sports industry’.”
That is double the size of the current worth of the global sports industry.
China is strategically going about its World Cup plans, Dr Gupta says.
“They have gone to Portugal, which is a country that punches above its weight in European football, and they’ve told the second division ‘take two Chinese players into each team, and three coaches, so that we can raise our standards’,” he said.
“They are pumping money in there just as they are pumping money into Portuguese telecommunications and ports and so on.”
According to Gupta, sport is “low-hanging fruit”.
“These things can be picked up quite easily and I know the Chinese are looking for sports, the Qataris are looking, Dubai and Abu Dhabi are looking because this is part of soft power and brand imaging,” he said.
Clubs are global commodities
Gone are the days when players belonged to a local club for life. Now, they are bought and sold as global commodities and supporters essentially follow the club shirt, more than those who wear it.
Back in the 1970s when Kerry Packer was looking for made-for-TV sport and hit on World Series Cricket, he went about shoring up three things – the players, the venues and, crucially, the support of influential politicians.
Former Australian player Bruce Francis was part of the inner sanctum at the time working for Packer.
“The difference between the government and the ESL, and Kerry Packer, is that Kerry Packer had [Prime Minister] Malcolm Fraser in his pocket and he had [NSW Premier] Neville Wran in his pocket, so he knew there wasn’t going to be interference,” he said.
“One time I was sitting in the office with Kerry, and I asked how the visas were going with players coming into Australia and he said, ‘Look I don’t know, I’ll make the phone call’.
“He phoned and asked to speak to Malcolm Fraser who was tied up. I think Phillip Lynch was the deputy PM at the time and he wanted to speak to him, but he wasn’t available either.
“Then he got onto someone and said, ‘I’ve tried to speak to Fraser and Lynch and now I’m stuck with you. If the visas aren’t on my desk by Friday, I will take my team to South Africa’.”
At the time, South Africa was banned from international sport because of its apartheid regime.
Francis says the voice at the end of the line was then foreign affairs minister Andrew Peacock.
The concept is far from dead
While much has changed in global sport since then, some truths remain the same.
In his 1979 book, A Pitch in Both Camps, author Alan Lee recalled what Packer had told him about the value of a television audience.
“The crowds at the ground are of secondary importance,” he said.
“Certainly it’s great when they come, but it’s television that counts.”
It’s an observation that has been given new life as sport emerges from the global COVID pandemic playing in mostly empty stadiums.
UK broadcaster of the English Premier League, Sky, reported increased interest in “big games”.
The proposed ESL was all about the “big games”.
While the proposal has been put on ice, for now, the concept is far from dead.