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Under-serving fans is one thing. Ignoring them altogether is another

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Kevin Kennedy shares his thoughts on the European Super League and why there’s a clear disconnect between the higher-ups and the ‘ordinary’ fans.

UEFA Euro 2016 : Fans At the Marseille Stadium
Supporters attend the Euro 2016 group F football match between Iceland and Hungary at Stade Velodrome on June 18, 2016 in Marseille, France.
(Mahoudeau/IP3/Getty)

TORONTO, Canada—We’ve always suspected owners of major professional sports teams didn’t really care about fans. And now, for the very first time, they’re not even trying to hide it.

With the announcement of a breakaway European Super League (ESL) sending shockwaves around the sporting world, the ownership of the ‘big twelve’ European clubs have shown their true colours.

And it’s not the colour of the jerseys. It’s not the colour of time honoured tradition and history. It’s not the colour of the crests that fans wear over their hearts in the stands.

If the ESL goes ahead, then the likes of Manchester United, Barcelona and Juventus may as well play in the same colour next season: green.

Because this is a move about money and the worst excesses of greed, and it’s a graphic confirmation of what I’ve been describing for some time as a crisis in fandom.

There’s always a gap between decision makers and supporters. But when owners operate in a bubble, it can easily lead to flawed thinking, circular logic and the reinforcement of myopic points of view.

In Canada for example, those charged with the development of both men and women’s football have continually stymied its development.

The country has an emerging global superstar in Alphonso Davies, and the highest scoring international footballer of all time in Christine Sinclair. But the media infrastructure around football in Canada is laughable compared to other nations.

Women’s football fans in particular are repeatedly told there isn’t an ‘audience’ to justify serious coverage of their sport—proof that adequately funding women’s football is seen, unlike the men’s game, as a risk rather than a necessary investment.

Fans being under-served by the corporations that run sports is nothing new. I launched Homestand Sports back in 2014 for precisely this reason. Our Talks brands put together panels of the best and most trusted sport’s personalities and athletes in North America and kept fans of all allegiances engaged, informed and inspired.

But fans being under-served can easily morph into fans being ignored all together. And when that happens, the consequences are even more far reaching.

Many owners were already out of touch, but the pandemic introduced a new, literal kind of echo chamber. Professional sports stadiums devoid of actual fans brought the disconnect between decision makers and supporters to brand new levels.

Those thousands of empty seats might have created the sense that clubs were a blank page—giving some owners a feeling that they could wipe away time-honored traditions and start all over again.

Reports from the BBC suggest that those involved in the ESL view traditional supporters as ‘legacy fans’, and that their new venture is aimed towards the ‘fans of the future’.

These are fans with no actual ties to the club; with no geographical, historical or emotional connection to the team at all. The ‘fans of future’ care only about superstars—whether that be ‘franchise teams’ who could never be relegated or ‘galactico’ players who transcend the club they represent.

But those behind the ESL may have woken up to a shock this morning. Because it turns out that those disposable ‘legacy fans’ actually represent the sum total of football fans in general. No one beyond those twelve ownership groups is celebrating today, because the ‘fans of the future’ don’t even exist beyond those closed boardroom discussions.

And that’s because professional sports isn’t just a multi-billion dollar industry, it also something that plays a central role in the emotional lives of millions of ordinary people.

Fans—‘legacy’ or otherwise—invest not just their time and money, but also their wellbeing and personal/collective identity. Sporting narratives mirror the challenges of real life, and in turn meet our deep psychological needs for connection and belonging.

If you don’t understand that—you don’t understand what sport is really about. And if you don’t know why fans really open their hearts to sport, you’ll never understand what fandom really means.

So the ill-fated and poorly conceived ESL may prove as a useful cautionary tale for sports ownership and media in general. Sports fandom is a way of life. It connects us and unites, even in competition. It’s in our blood, our sweat and our tears. Fans deserve so much more, and it’s time for owners and sports media to listen.